Why It Matters: Oakley’s Revolutionary Rise to the Pinnacle of Global Sports Culture
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Originally reserved for surfers and motocross riders, Oakley’s performance sunglasses have surpassed the extreme sports world that birthed them to become a ubiquitous staple in fashion. Today you’re just as likely to see celebrities like Pharrell and Kim Kardashian wearing a pair as you are pro athletes like motorcycle racer Valentino Rossi or olympic snowboarder Sage Kotsenburg. Of course, it hasn’t always been this way. To find out how Oakley went from a niche action sports company, to being featured on the faces of the most famous athletes and celebrities on the planet, we take in in-depth look at key eras of the American sports brand and reveal how founder Jim Jannard managed to turn Oakley from a garage project to a global phenomenon.
Getting to Grips With the Brand
Although Oakley is best known for its sunglasses and goggles, the brand initially started out as a company selling handlebar grips at motocross events. In 1975, founder Jim Jannard kickstarted the company out of his garage with an initial investment of $300. It started with a single idea: To create the world's first motocross handgrip with a unique orbicular design, engineered to fit a competitor's closed hand.
At the time, motocross handles were produced from plastic which became slippery, especially when wet or muddy. Looking to solve this problem, Jannard, aka “The Mad Scientist”, developed a unique rubber material he coined Unobtainium. Using Unobtanium, Jim patented the “The Oakley Grip”, a revolutionary motocross grip which featured a cam shaped design and octopus tread pattern. This technology and subsequent designs of the Oakley Grip II, F1 Grip System and B-1B Guidance System have now set the blueprint for the motocross and cycling handles we have today.
It’s this pioneering spirit and fierce devotion to innovation that set the standard for Oakley Inc. from the jump. Not content with being just another sportswear provider, Jannard founded Oakley on the mission that it could “seek out problems, create solutions, and wrap those solutions in art.”
Looking to the Future
By the late-70s, Jannard wanted to expand Oakley’s vision further, landing on eyewear, a field he would ultimately revolutionize. As the first foray into eyewear, he leveraged the market his grips had built by developing The Oakley Goggle for dirt biking and motocross riders. Limited to only a few colorways, the goggles were made of high-impact plastic that was lighter and stronger than the glass goggles then in use. While Jannard's goggles were more innovative than his competitors, the design was flawed by the lack of anti-fog technology available at the time.
“They were actually kind of bad,” explained Mike Bell, former supercross champion and former Oakley brand ambassador toMel Mag. “The internal volume of the goggle wasn’t right, and the lens was too close to your face, which in theory is a good idea, but in practicality, it’s a bad idea because goggles have to have enough area to vent between your face and the lens, otherwise you have fogging issues.”
Undeterred, Jannard bypassed the design hurdle by recalibrating his focus on the BMX industry. With the help of a young sales team, Jannard began distributing the Oakley goggles to the best BMX riders in the world. Rather than wearing the goggles, the riders would simply have them resting atop their helmets on the visors.
This genius marketing move made Oakley’s goggles the must-have item for aspiring riders across the world. “Every kid that had a BMX bike wanted to mimic BMX pros like R.L Osborne and Stu Thomsen, so they bought the goggles, but they never actually put them on their face,” says Bell. “I always thought it was genius that Jim was like, “Okay, the goggles don’t work technically. But they look cool on a helmet.”
Shortly after in 1983, Oakley made the logical step into Ski and snowboard Goggles with the O Frame. Leveraging similar designs from the motocross lines, this was Oakley’s first expansion beyond motocross.
From Goggles to Sunglasses
Jannard’s problem solving approach to design would inspire a bridge from the goggle market to sunglasses during a trip along the pacific coast highway. The epiphany behind the Factory Pilot Eyeshade — Oakley’s first ever pair of sunglasses — happened in a car journey up from San Diego where he had an idea of augmenting Oakley’s snow goggle lens to fit on a sunglass frame.
“Jim actually went back to his shop, took a goggle, cut out a smaller shape from the goggles and put some coat hangers on the sides,” Bill told Mel Magazine. “The Eyeshade was born, and the sport eyewear market was born. Nothing like that had been done before! When you look at the original Eyeshade, it literally looks like a goggle as sunglasses.”
Designed specifically for high-speed sports, the Eyeshade leveraged large visor-like lenses and full frame design that offered the same coverage as goggles but on a reduced scale. Additional details like Unobtainium on the ear sock and nose grip were designed with the intended effect of reducing bounce and keeping the glasses still during sports activities.
Setting a new era for ultra-functional, performance eyewear, Oakley’s Eyeshades reached worldwide fame after Greg LeMond won the 1985 Tour de France sporting a pair. Not only was it a historic victory for a non-European, but also for innovation.
Taking a Bite Out of Apple’s Book
By the mid-80s, Oakley had firmly made its presence in the world of sport by providing top tier equipment for world class athletes. From cycling and speed skating, to skiing and triathlons, Oakley’s products were designed specifically for sports at high speeds. Fashion and lifestyle was considered neither at that point. But that was all about to change.
On January 22, 1984, Jannard’s whole perspective on product marketing would be transformed when he watched Apple’s one minute advertisement introducing the Apple Macintosh computer during a break in the third quarter of the telecast of Super Bowl XVIII. Inspired by the commercial, Jannard reached out to creators Chiat/Day and managed to negotiate a side deal with some of the creatives to work on Oakley’s early advertisements.
“When you look at the original Oakley ads from 1985 and 1986, it’s a white background with Garamond type. The look is very Apple — the way they laid out copy,” says Brian Takumi, creative director of special projects and surface graphics at Oakley. “It brought a whole new level to the action sports industry based on this design aesthetic.”
In 1985, Oakley took its business in an entirely new direction with the release of the Frogskin, their first lifestyle frame on the market. A competitor to the already popular Ray-Ban Wayfarer, they combined the performance of Plutonium lens technology with a more traditional glasses frame. But where brands like Ray-Ban offered throwbacks to mid-century classic style icons or wirey aviator options championed by heroes like Tom Cruise in ‘Top Gun’, Oakley’s designs were far from retrospective.
Instead Oakley’s shiny, futuristic styles tapped into the decade’s neon dripped aesthetic and a growing desire for over-performing gear. The ’80s aerobics explosion brought to the fore the importance of health and fitness. Naturally, consumers were demanding more performance from their everyday wear and Oakley answered with its patented lenses that exceeded government guidelines on UV protection, while delivering unparalleled visual clarity throughout the curve of the lens.
Jannard together with the Oakley promotions team would coin the term “sportsmarketing” and blaze a new trail with big endorsement deals with the hottest stars in surfing, snowboarding and other action sports popular in the era. It was these talents and larger-than-life personalities that helped push Oakley’s new eyewear like the Razor Blades (1985) which featured interchangeable wraparound lenses that slipped into a simple carbon-fibre frame, as well as 1989’s Mumbo, which would eventually become known as the M Frame.
Jumpman Takes Oakley Mainstream
In 1992, Jannard revolutionized Oakley’s design approach when he purchased a 3D digital printer. Alongside NASA, Oakley was the only sportswear brand to invest in the technology. The machine not only helped streamline manufacturing but it also enabled Jannard to develop a new sci-fi style for his eyewear. The Eye Jacket was the first pair of sunglasses ever designed with CAD and on a 3D printer. Moving away from the angled lines of the ’80s, the now-iconic Eye Jacket embodied a more sculpted, rounded form that was more align with the new decade’s affinity for “techno fashion”.
“That was the difference between Oakley and designers at most other sunglasses companies that were either buying their designs off the shelf or it was an eyewear designer doing sunglasses,” explains Takumi. “Our design team has consistently been made up of transportation designers — they look at eyeglasses or sunglasses as the side of a car or the headlights, or the grill.”
The release of the Eye Jacket in 1994, saw Oakley explode from a purist action sports brand to the must-have sunglasses of the era. It was Jannard’s move to enlist Michael Jordan as the face of the The Eye Jacket campaign that sent the brand mainstream. Shot by Jannard himself, the campaigns shifted away from the text heavy looks of Chiat/Day and introduced very sleek, product orientated images that highlighted the oval contours that had never been seen before.
Later in the ’90s,Tom Cruise wore the Oakley Romeo from the X-Metal line in ‘Mission: Impossible 2’, Wesley Snipes wore a pair of Fours in the marvel vampire classic, ‘Blade’, and Brad Pitt donned the Mars in the 1999 smash, ‘Fight Club’. Professional basketball player and style icon, Dennis Rodman was also responsible for cementing Oakley as a key zeitgeist style through his appearances on film and courtside wearing famous frames like the Trenchcoat and custom Zero 0.3. It was the futuristic style of his film ‘Double Team’ that echoed the rave-inspired looks happening across Europe at the time with Oakley’s sunglasses covering the eyes of pilled-up ravers.
By the time the ’00s had rolled around, extreme sports had already reached peak popularity and were on the decline. The turn of the new millennium saw Jannard lean further into the future with progressive designs that would disrupt the eyewear market and demonstrate the bizarre possibilities of what could be achieved.
Perhaps one of Oakley’s most defining sporting moments in the early-00s was the unveiling of the spectacular OVERTHETOP sunglasses at the 2000 Sydney Summer Olympics. Trinidad and Tobago Sprinter Ato Boldon — known for his bold eyewear on the track — rocked the OVERTHETOP in the Men’s 100 Meter Sprint. The eccentric eyewear became a viral sensation thanks to its unusual ergonomic design, which featured a frame that sculpted over the dome of the head as opposed to traditional arms that sit on the ears. It totally reimagined what sports sunglasses could look like in 2000, and remains a cornerstone in eyewear design today.
“When creating new products, our goal is to find a solution to a problem our athletes are facing,” explained Takumi. “The OVERTHETOP was born with the purpose of minimizing pressure points and reducing bounce created by force, specifically for our track-and-field athletes. We knew the design was very unique, but we ever expected all the attention we received from around the world — the product truly created a global moment.”
The sunglasses were further immortalized in films like ‘Spy Kids 3’ (2003) as well as appearing on the heads of other influential figures like rapper Flavor Flav and Swedish golfer Jarmo Sandelin at a competition in Denmark in 2018. They weren’t the only unconventional shades Oakley released that decade. But while the OTT focused on performance, a new breed of eyewear emerged out of Oakley’s experimental wings.
The Medusa is one of the most insane designs Oakley has made in its 40+ year history. Introduced in 2002, it consists of two distinct pieces — a helmet and goggles. Just like the Greek mythological figure it was named after, the leather skull cap came complete with tie down leather dreadlocks and rivets to attach the matching goggles. Oakley were well aware of the “shock” this new avant-garde style could cause, but wanted to use the release to promote their more experimental edge. It soon became a cult classic and struck a particular interest in Burning Man festival regulars.
Brazil Goes Bonkers for Oakley
With Oakley a household name in the 2000s, much of the allure around the brand dissipated as it hit saturation, most notably after Italian eyewear company Luxottica purchased Oakley in a cash deal worth $2.1 billion. In America and Europe, Oakley had become associated with “dads” and “bro culture”, but in South America, the brand had found an unexpected niche in Brazil’s Baile Funk scene.
Worn in particular by chavoso, a slang term used to describe "moleques chave" (key boys) style in the suburbs of São Paulo, the term also implies some common visual codes in the Baile funk scene, such as Juliet sunglasses, caps, golden chains, shirts and shorts from Oakley. Famous MCs from the Baile funk scene like@mcdede, who’s video “Passei de Oakley (KondZilla)” is a homage to Oakley, while platforms like Poppin.br have showcased the culture and love for Oakely through specially curated editorials.
In 2021, nostalgia has become one of the main sources of inspiration for youth culture to draw upon. Given Oakley’s place in the definitive cultural moments of the ’90s and ’00s, it has made the brand more relevant and appealing than ever. Capturing this obsession with nostalgia in fashion, Oakley has rolled out a slew of collaborations with fashion labels. Whether its streetwear names like Palace reviving retro icons like the Mambo, or it runway brands like Vetements giving a high end spin to classics like the 200s, Oakley is suddenly back in the spotlight and poised to continue.
Today, Oakley continues to reinvent the concept of eyewear with the introduction of new technology like Prizm lenses that have changed sports optics forever. These lenses are designed to enhance contrast with tuned versions of lenses offered for numerous sports. Over the last few years, Oakley has now pushed Prizm lenses from sports to everyday life with the technology featured on almost every new lifestyle frame like the Savitar, Syla, Kato and Flight Jacket.
While many brands continue to imitate Oakley’s signature silhouettes and performance features, they will never be able to replicate the 40+ years of innovation, authenticity and drive to stay at the forefront of performance and design. It’s these factors plus the brand's timeless designs that continue to make Oakley the OG sunglasses brand to invest in.
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