GLCO: Like Father, Like Son
Larry and Garrett Leight – a California eyewear dynasty
Interview: Stefan Dongus | Photos: Marie Schmidt | Stills: Raphael Schmitz
Father and son relationships can be difficult. Just take the story of Laius and Oedipus, or for a more contemporary example, Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker, all bloody messes in their own right. Things can get especially heated when father and son are working in the same trade. “Never mix family and business,” is an old saying – for a good reason – conveniently thrown to the wind by Garrett and Larry Leight. Because earlier this year, the two Californian eyewear designers decided to join forces and work together under the same banner. What makes the Leight’s father-and-son dynamic even more special is that both men are rather strong-willed characters. Each has built a successful business by doing things his own way, which now opens up an enormous amount of freedom and creative potential in their work at GARRETT LEIGHT CALIFORNIA OPTICAL, or in short, GLCO. At this point in time, the Leights range among the preeminent dynasties within the eyewear business. Larry Leight created the formula for the quintessentially cool California eyewear label with Oliver Peoples.
He cultivated a unique style and also earned the spoils as a businessman. At a rather young age, Garret created also his own eyewear label, GLCO, embraced by over 800 partner opticians worldwide, and counting. Now the two have crossed paths again, with the father joining the son’s business. The eyewear business is watching as the founder of Oliver Peoples lends his design chops to GLCO. And as if that wasn’t enough, the two are already setting goals beyond the brand platform. With their new label MR. LEIGHT, Garrett and Larry will pursue their creative visions with products positioned in the premium price range. For the when, why, and how, SPECTR dropped by the Venice Beach offices of GLCO to talk to Mr. Leight – both junior and senior. Welcome to the Big Leagues.
1. THE WAY OF THE SON
With GLCO, Garrett went from the bottom to the top of the charts practically over night. The cool California indy label was only founded in 2011, but has already become a mainstay among celebrities and avant-garde opticians.
Garrett, what was your initial motivation to start your own eyewear label?
Garrett Leight: I was just very passionate about having my own company. I wanted to prove to myself and others that I have good ideas and I could be a leader and create something that I could call my own. After working for Oliver Peoples for two years, I felt I had learned enough and I saw an opportunity to create something special within the eyewear industry. So I went for it.
Then things happened rather quickly. GLCO became an internationally renowned brand in the blink of an eye. What contributed to this success?
GL: First and foremost, we focused on creating high quality product and original designs for a great price. We focused on every detail of the frames from custom hinges to custom core wires, laser engraving, glass lenses, and even some custom acetate. The history of Oliver Peoples and its excellence in quality and style not only taught me but forced me to live up to it. Then we paired that with our true Venice Beach DNA and aspirational lifestyle into our marketing and people could visualize what it meant to be a part of our brand.
Can you break GLCO’s philosophy down to five keywords?
GL: Quality, Style, Value, Service, California.
How come so many celebrities wear your frames? Are you well–connected in the show business or do they just drop by the store?
GL: Celebrities are no different from any human except that more people know them. At the root, they want to look good and they’d like for people to notice them. I believe they genuinely like the designs we make and word of mouth is the strongest form of advertising. And in Los Angeles, at this point, it’s safe to say it’s cool to have a pair of GLCO glasses.
You did not start out completely from scratch. What kind of support did you get from your father, Larry Leight, while building GLCO?
GL: I’m lucky enough to not have to grow up like my father did with nothing. My parents worked their ass off and created a successful company. I was lucky enough that my parents had given me shares in Oliver Peoples when I was 5 years old, and when Oliver Peoples sold in 2005, that put money in my bank account. I invested all of that money in my company. I am so fortunate that my parents did that for me. Outside of that, my father didn’t contribute to the building of GLCO. Other than being a supportive dad who encouraged me and inspired me through his journey.
Professional Education and career: Journalism Degree from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo; CEO and Founder of Garrett Leight, LLC
Personal interests / passion: Sports, family, and business
Professional Education and career: Bachelor of Arts in Ophthalmic Dispensing from Los Angeles City College; Co-Founder and Creative Director of Oliver Peoples 1986-2015; Designer and Board Member at Garrett Leight, LLC
Personal interests / passion: Surfing, family and eyewear
Garrett Leight California Optical
Founded in: 2011
Located: Los Angeles
Number of opticians worldwide: 800
Number of own stores / located: Four / Venice, San Francisco, Hollywood, New York
2. THE WAY OF THE FATHER
Young Garrett could hardly have chosen a better role model. His father, the grand seigneur behind Oliver Peoples, is one of the luminaries of the eyewear business. Even after selling the label he founded in 1986 to Luxottica, Larry still kept the reigns as the head designer until the very end.
Mr. Leight, your son’s rather young eyewear label represents ultra-cool California style. Does that take you back to your own beginnings with OLIVER PEOPLES?
Larry Leight: We were so excited about our ideas and our strategy it gave us chills throughout our bodies everyday. We knew that consumers who care about their appearance and their style would really be drawn to our creations. We still went into with no expectations of sales but only focused on building our dream and effecting people’s life with our eyewear. We believed in ourselves like Mohammed Ali believed he was the greatest.
That must have been a turbulent time. With all the passion you invested into the brand, why did you decide to sell it?
LL: Because that’s the American Dream. Coming from nothing, I never imagined that I would be in a position to sell my company. There was such a high level of interest, it just made a lot of sense and felt like the ultimate accomplishment at that time.
After selling OLIVER PEOPLES you also made the switch to Luxottica. What were your responsibilities?
LL: I was the Designer and Creative Director of Oliver Peoples, Paul Smith, Stella McCartney, and Mosley Tribes.
More than ten years have passed. How do you feel about the decision today?
LL: I could have made a different decision. One of the most rewarding feelings coming from the beginnings of OP up until we sold the company was how much enjoyment and excitement the employees had each day. They never watched the clock, it was as if they owned it. And when I started for GLCO, this is the biggest thing I noticed. The company is so inviting and has a similar feeling and experience that OLIVER PEOPLES had all those years ago. So in the end, I don’t really regret selling the company. I am right where I am supposed to be, with that same feeling, in the best company.
After your contract ended this year in January you could have easily retired and enjoyed life, right?
LL: I enjoy designing eyewear and being in the industry. It makes me happy and I feel I have a lot to contribute and I’m just not ready to retire. In fact, I feel much more inspired today working at GLCO than I have in a while.
3. FATHER AND SON – ON THE SAME PATH
2016 – Larry joins his son Garrett’s company. Experience meets youthful exploration – a meeting between the best of old and new. “The son’s the boss, but dad’s the expert.”
Whose idea was it to bring Larry to GLCO?
GL: I know my dad so well. I understand his talent and his experience, but I can also see that he isn’t done. I think some of his best years are still ahead of him. He is so passionate and feels confident in his design skills in eyewear. So I had to find a way for him to work with us.
Larry, what was your initial response to your son’s proposal?
LL: It was so exciting but I just had so many thoughts. It didn’t happen in one day. It was a few months of conversations about how it might work. There is no single company that exists that makes eyewear, regardless of Garrett being my son, that I would rather work with.
What kind of reservations came into play?
GL: I had my doubts at first that my dad would want to do a lot more than just design. But in just a short six months he’s been really incredible. Really respectful of my young team. He is here to mentor our Head Designer Elena Doukas for as long as he can so we can carry on the tradition. He’s happy in that role, and so far it has been an excellent decision.
LL: At this stage in my life this is my dream job. I get to give back to an industry and a product that I love so much. And the fact that I’m passing on what I know to my son’s company is almost unbelievable and surreal.
But what about the common saying to never mix family and business?
GL: We do different things and have the ultimate respect for each other. There is no ego here and we know what we know – and what we don’t know we leave to the other. And it’s not just one or two people that make a company. We have many talented people that contribute to the success of this company.
In what ways are father and son alike – and where are your differences?
LL: I think we might be the same person but at different stages of our lives.
Really? Which are the shared character trades between the two Mr. Leights?
LL: I don’t think either of us pays too much attention to ourselves. We’re too focused on what we are trying to achieve. But this may be a question for someone who watches us every day.
How do you split the jobs between father and son at GLCO?
GL: The easiest way to explain it is, I run the company as CEO. I make the decisions as to where and how we spend our money. My dad and Head Designer Elena Doukas do the day to day design work and ultimately when they feel strongly about something, I listen to them. The design department has a lot of power here because I have always put an emphasis on the collection leading the way.
GLCO is a rather young and modern label. In how far does Larry as a veteran of the business fit into the picture?
LL: I would use Karl Lagerfeld as an example. Is his age a hinderance to his success at Chanel? In age I may be older, but my heart and mind feel 50 years younger. Inspired by this incredible company with great energy, it makes my job even easier.
Let’s ask the son… Are Larry’s skills too “old school” for GLCO?
GL: I don’t really see it that way. Designs are timeless, trends come and go and then come back again. He started in this industry over forty years ago, so he has seen a lot of things come and go. And also in his defense, my dad is really current. He is completely adept at using all of today’s platforms.
Speaking of timeless designs, what has remained unchanged in the design segment over the past 20 years?
LL: The goal has not changed. It has always been to effectively impress the most influential people that are your target audience. There is no one singular trend or style that is the same as twenty years ago. The library of designs I’ve accumulated over the past forty years just helps me to decide what to apply to make my new designs current and have the same impact.
4. INTRODUCING… MR. LEIGHT
The cross-generational creative storm between father and son is already unleashing energies well beyond the label GLCO. With their new capsule collection MR. LEIGHT, the two are realizing their own creative visions within the eyewear business.
While we’re on the subject of designs, what’s the story behind MR. LEIGHT?
GL: In order to build the company that I want, we need to be all things to all people. We cannot do that by simply having one collection of GLCO. MR. LEIGHT the collection will be a high-end luxury limited edition assortment of special handmade designs. MR. LEIGHT, by definition, is the collaborative skill set and vision of me and my father.
Who had the initial idea for MR. LEIGHT?
GL: It was created like any father and son moment might be created. Together and evenly. Each of us has inspired each other to make it what it’s going to be. And we are still working on many things.
Before the interview you briefly mentioned that you approach new projects as curators. How does that materialize in practice?
GL: I see us having a variety of collections that cover many different things that we believe in. Bringing those to market essentially is a curating project that my father and I work on together. So far we’ve been approached by some incredible companies with values that we have alignment with.
What are your criteria for choosing collaboration partners? And who exactly are you in talks with?
GL: Unfortunately, it will be a few years before the projects we are working on come to life and I cannot mention who they are at this time. But the criteria are based on things that we genuinely believe in. I want to bring manufacturing back to America. And not basic manufacturing. I want to help build factories that can develop the same quality that we see in Japan, China, Italy, and other places. That’s one example of something both my dad and I believe in. And there are people out there that believe it as well.
Do you already have an idea of the price segment covered by MR. LEIGHT?
GL: It’s undetermined as we are still in a prototyping phase. One can expect luxury prices above $600.
And who is your target group?
LL: People who appreciate technology and art and style. People who look at products as an experience and see the value in something special. Stylish people that want to be part of a story that inspires them. Something real, something authentic.
How many collections will you be releasing per year?
GL: It will not be released in a typical collection format. We are releasing frames in small series throughout the year that will be categorized by certain details, whether that’s design-oriented or engineering. Each series will be different.
So it’s safe to say you’ve already defined your sales targets?
GL: Yes, to sell every unit within one day like Kanye West. At this time we do not have any expectations on this. We will monitor the demand and act accordingly. If we can’t deliver because demand is too high, then we’ve achieved our goal. Our only target right now is to impress our target audience with design.
What kind of opticians will you be working with?
GL: Opticians are responsible for building both my father’s business and mine. We are only as strong as the retail partners we have had over the last 30 years. We respect them and certainly owe a lot to them – and ultimately we want to make all of them happy. We plan on working with the opticians that understand us and our goals the most.
How does MR. LEIGHT stand out in terms of manufacturing and materials?
LL: We are just developing a way of experiencing a frame that we have never thought of before. I discovered many new ideas that are simple but functional and wearable and add value to the end user.
That sounds exciting. When will MR. LEIGHT arrive in retail?
GL: When it’s perfect. We are hoping for summer ’17. But a first collection takes a very long time. We started in March, and in my experience, it’s about 18 months for a first collection. We are trying to do it in about 14 months.
We’re excited. And finally, what is your long-term vision of GLCO and MR.LEIGHT?
GL: Always, the vision is personal happiness for myself and the ones that I love, above everything else. But as a competitor and passionate business man, I want people to acknowledge our family as one of, if not the most important family in eyewear history. If we ranked eyewear designers like basketball players, then my dad and I want to be Jordan and Kobe. But we can only do that by creating something truly special. Not just a couple eyewear collections like OLIVER PEOPLES and GLCO, it’s not enough. We want to make a bigger difference in the industry then just being acknowledged for designs.
LL: I’m very inspired. I can’t remember a time where I felt this motivated.