Like father, like son?

Jérémy Tarian and Garrett Leight are two young designers, whose rookie labels struck a nerve with the international eyewear scene almost instantly. But here’s another thing the Frenchman and American have in common: both are the sons of iconic eyewear designers. Tarian’s dad is no other than Alain Mikli and Larry Leight’s company goes by the illustrious name of Oliver Peoples. For this issue’s Crossfire, we sat the two upstarts down to discuss the intricacies of their father and son relationships.

In the late 1960s, decades before status updates, Tweets and digital Hangouts, a social psychologist named Stanley Milgram proved that the world is merely a global village with his “small world” experiments. According to Milgram’s theory, every person in the world is connected to every random other person by a maximum of six degrees of separation. In recent years, this has been raised to almost seven degrees during a scientific evaluation of Instant Messenger accounts. But still – what a small world! Looking at Jérémy Tarian and Garrett Leight – two designers and founders of world-renowned eyewear labels – we find only two degrees of separation to their next common points of acquaintance; their fathers. A surprising number, especially keeping in mind that one of them hails from the Parisian avant-garde scene, the other from laid-back Venice Beach, California. But the reason for their close connectedness is obvious: Both of their fathers have been staples of the eyewear industry for many decades. And both have been successful to a degree where they counted Elton John among their loyal customers as early as the late 1980s. Two sons, two fathers, one Elton – two degrees of separation. It really is a small world after all…

But here’s an important question that can hardly be waved away: How can these sons carve out their own position in the business with such famous fathers? By breaking loose, storming out, starting a rebellion and staking their own claim? Or simply by walking in the progenitor’s footsteps, leveraging existing contacts, taking over the business and flying the family flag for the next 30, maybe 40 years?

The question is especially loaded in the celebrity arena – because that’s where Larry Leight and Alain Mikli operate. Both are regarded as pioneers in eyewear design, trailblazers that have been setting trends for over one quarter of a decade: For instance, Alain Mikli’s designs have sold more than half a million times around the world and he invented the “shutter shades” popularized by rapper Kanye West. Meanwhile Mr. Leight teamed up in the 1990s with Paul Smith and Prada for iconic eyewear styles regarded as favorites by celebrities such as Madonna and Jack Nicholson. This puts them in the league of families like the Sutherlands, the Sheens or the Osbournes, or people like Mr. Iglesias or Douglas: Oedipus complex vs. career kick start with extra momentum, rivalry vs. mutual pats on the shoulder – or is there maybe some sort of middle ground in between? Much like Nicholas Cage, who dropped the Coppola family name to reduce the burdens of expectations, Jérémy Tarian has gotten rid of a relevant part of his family name: His passport still reads “Miklitarian,” but by dropping the “Mikli,” Tarian has made a significant cut. A cut stating that his designs should stand for themselves, without the distractions of the “Mikli” moniker that has defined eyewear trends for decades.

Accordingly, Jérémy’s career did not receive a significant boost from having a celebrity father: He just happened to be in Berlin at the age of 20, studying economics and looking to polish up his German, when he found a job at ic! berlin and quickly moved from the sales team into the design department. His father provided a contact at ic! berlin, but that was it. Since then, things have grown by leaps and bounds for the Frenchman with the wild curls: He released his first signature JéréMy Collection #1 for ic! berlin in 2008, soon after received the Silmo d’Or Award for his “Urban” model and in Fall 2010 launched his own label based on hand-crafted production in France. So far, he has managed a delicate balance between classic lines and extravagant cutting edge features – the kind of balance that has already become his calling card. And naturally, he is not paying attention to his father’s collections when looking for new ideas for eyewear frames, which “say more about a person than any other kind of design,” as he puts it. He draws inspiration from an entirely different sources – from unconventional facial contours, or sometimes even the street scenes of foreign cities.

Recently, Jérémy Tarian even gave himself a triple-A rating (short for: „avantgarde, arrogant, absolutely fabulous“). And it’s this kind of tongue-in-cheek attitude – although sometimes hidden behind one of his extravagant sunglasses design – he has in common with his California-based colleague Garrett Leight.

As opposed to Tarian, Mr. Leight Junior did learn the ropes in his father’s workshop: Fresh out of college, he took on a job as Assistant Designer for Oliver Peoples. But after opening his own eyewear concept store A. Kinney Court in Venice Beach – also selling select literature, music, footwear and apparel – it was only a matter of time before he took the next step after running his own shop: He released his own collection Garrett Leight California Optical – short: GLCO – to a select circle of retailers including the Colette concept store. Today, his brand is available in 23 countries around the world. While Garrett is never afraid to draw inspiration from the most unconventional sources – his first collection was inspired by authors such as Hunter S. Thompson and Arthur Miller – his overall style can be characterized as classical and timeless, just like the look of time-proven L.A.-icons, timeless like the view of the Pacific from his workbench.

We brought the two sons of famous designers together to discuss the many aspects of “family business” for this issue’s Crossfire.

Let’s start with your own labels: Did you always plan to launch your own eyewear collection at some point?
Garrett Leight: I really had no other choice, because although music means a lot to me, I’m quite useless as a songwriter and even the desire to shine in front of a movie camera did not amount to much, since the people in Hollywood had some reservations about my looks. So I thought, “Well then – eyewear!” I bet that Jérémy had a similar experience, right?
Jérémy Tarian: Sure, exactly the same. No, just kidding! I also accidentally happened across the whole thing. I was 20 years old when I moved to Germany to continue my economics degree. Initially, I had planned to spend four months in Berlin for an internship, but ended up staying for two years. At first I didn’t know anyone in the city, but then my dad supplied some contacts. And one of the addresses was a certain Ralph, a giant of a man, who hired me on the spot. I have no clue why he would have wanted me on his team. Maybe because of my curly hair, which he was clearly lacking. And it couldn’t have been my German skills – which were just catastrophic!
GL: Do you mean Ralph Anderl at ic! berlin? What exactly was your job?
JT: Just basic business stuff at first, until he moved me over into the design team, because he thought I wouldn’t be making as many mistakes. This opportunity got my foot in the door, and two years later I decided to start my own label.
GL: So your father only supplied the contact, nothing more?
JT: Exactly. Basically, I’ve always worn glasses myself, even as a small boy. And because of my father, I had the opportunity to create my own prototypes for myself in his Paris studio at an early age – so I was doing this ten years ago. If I had to wear glasses, I just wanted them to be my own designs. So just by giving me room to experiment within his company’s workshop, my father provided somewhat of a boost. But he never encouraged me to take specific steps to get situated in the business. Instead, I’ve always enjoyed my freedom – I could do whatever I wanted. And I also highly enjoy the chance to operate under my own name, not under “Mikli” to tell you the truth. Did your father ever “push” you in a certain direction?
GL: Absolutely not. In my case, I was more than other kids in that I spent a long time planning not to follow in my parent’s footsteps. I wanted to step out of their shadow and do something completely different with my life. I spent years looking for this “something different,” but then ended up in the business. Eyewear seems to suit me somehow…
JT: What about support from your father?
GL: It did happen. He is very proud of me and offers support, whenever he can.
JT: Interesting. For me it’s very important to draw a straight line. Jérémy Tarian is my label, and I make all the decisions as the manager. My father has nothing to do with it, although I will occasionally listen to his anecdotes and advice to see how he has handled certain situations. Maybe his design team was even more influential than he himself, because as we know, the little studio in Paris was where it all started, where I was free to experiment. After my time in Berlin, I went to New York for two years, where among other things I worked behind the counter at the Alain Mikli Shop – which gave me an important perspective, that of a retailer. On that note, my collection recently became available at his stores in New York and Paris. So there are intersections at certain points.

So it’s still “family business?” Or does it feel like a fight, a rivalry at some points?
GL: The only fight I need to win is the fight against myself: Will I be able to realize my vision down to the last detail, reach all my goals completely? I enjoy the challenge, and fortunately I’ve found a team that’s just as passionate about the job as I am.
JT: I’m certainly familiar with the fight, but in my case there is automatically a certain level of “family business” involved. Fortunately, my father and I aren’t playing in the same league, so I can approach the whole thing in a relaxed manner while trying to find new ways of eyewear design without precedents. Luckily there all these niches in our business, so the whole competitive thing is not necessary: We tend to pat each other on the back, and when it comes to measuring success, I wouldn’t really gauge it in terms of sales numbers. To me, success is all about maintaining the largest possible degree of creative freedom for yourself.
GL: Our family also has a different definition of success: My father and I are both happily married, we are both healthy and both have many good friends. That’s success. And it’s true: Drawing a comparison is hard because we both have very different approaches. Both of us will sometimes work with acetate or with metal – but that’s already it for the similarities.
JT: Well, there are more things in common between the two of us, I’d say. Maybe it’s a family resemblance, but it’s not that significant, since my father and I both cater to entirely different market segments. I’m personally convinced that any design that’s truly from the heart will always be based on your own lifestyle, on the certain way in which you perceive things.

Would you say that someone who is interested in your designs would also be captivated by a window display at your fathers’ stores?
JT: I wouldn’t rule it out. Although I’m aware that my typical customers are between 30 and 45 years old. But still, hard to find a definite answer. How about you?
GL: I would rather say that there are very few intersections. Of course we both cater to people with inhibited eyesight, or to people who highly value a beautiful pair of sunglasses. But I’d maintain that my customers tend to have more facial hair and be better surfers than my dad’s and may even pen their own diary entries on a daily basis.
JT: It’s funny that you mention hair: In our case, I’ve definitely been able to move out of my father’s shadow because of my hairstyle – my shadow is just so much bigger because of it! But in the end, we both have the same huge noses that give away our father and son relationship instantly. But honestly: I normally try to avoid the entire subject of my family by simply not mentioning at all. Ultimately, I want my designs to speak for themselves, regardless of family background.
GL: Luckily, the people I surround myself with – meaning my friends – don’t care about this at all. Why would they?! In the end, my father’s name stands for Oliver Peoples, and not for Microsoft. I just think it’s important that my parents are cool people, both my mom Cindy Leight as well as Larry Leight. But I also notice that expectations tend to be much higher whenever people find out about my family background. But in most cases, these expectations also coincide with an advance offer of confidence.
JT: People do tend to be more curious, that’s true. And this curiosity actually goes hand-in-hand very, very high expectations. But I see that as an opportunity: It motivates me every day, to work harder than the day before.
At the same time it’s incredible how often I need to explain the differences between my own work and my father’s. That’s an especially touchy subject whenever someone has made an unpleasant experience with Mikli and draws some rushed conclusions about me. Then it’s up to me to deal with this heritage and show people that my name stands for something else entirely.
GL: My father really embarrassed me one time, although at a much younger age: I must have been around 12 years old and was the first pitcher on my baseball team. At some point during the game, my father had to leave the stands for continuing to insult the referee. I had to watch as he walked back to the car while all the other parents were shaking their heads at his behavior. Not exactly the brightest moment – for either one of us.

This does not sound like a competitive relationship at all. But how about the positive aspects of your fathers’ work. Admiration – what does that bring to mind?
GL: My father really is some kind of genius; he is really obsessed with glasses and eyewear design. His creative process works like a drug rush – watching him at work is incredible. What he has been able to create, building a brand like Oliver Peoples completely from the ground up and being able to set new trends since the 1980s is extremely impressive. Especially keeping in mind that he pursues other passions as well, although with hardly any notable success: Larry Leight loves great food, but he’s the worst cook I’ve ever met. But my own culinary skills are hardly any better.
JT: I hardly have any criticism to offer when it comes to my father, except that he did set the bar incredibly high. Aside from the passion he puts into his work, I really like that his drive was never based on the wish to be the most famous designer in his profession. Instead, he is all about the work itself.

Then let’s turn the question around: Do you think that your work has, in turn, inspired your father?
GL: There is one thing I’ve been able to rekindle his fondness for: Venice Beach. This is where I have my store and my company headquarters, and back in the day Venice was the most beautiful place in the world for my dad – but like I said, “back in the day.” He always brings out his anecdotes from “Venice back then” and at one point he said that my store and its vibe reminded him of this Venice of the past. So I might have been able to reawaken his passion for Venice in a way. And how about you?
JT: Well, I started at ic! berlin four years ago and we will once again show a joint collection at the upcoming Silmo tradeshow in Paris. I will have my own collection at the same time, and there will be a capsule collection for Mikli. So I’m certain that in a distinct way, my designs will have an impact on the upcoming Mikli line. But here’s a different thought: Regardless of our fathers, what’s stopping the two of us from working together on something?

Our conclusion: Here are two sons with their eyes firmly fixed on the future, moving ahead on their own paths – although they end up running rather closely to the footsteps of their “Big Daddies.” But it may be due to the diverse and multi-facetted nature of the eyewear industry that there is no sense of competition or hostile differentiation to their fathers. Both seem to foster family relationships based on mutual encouragement and respect, although with clearly delineated boundaries. Garrett and Jérémy are passionately pursuing their own individual paths – clearly inspired, by independent all the same. But after all, family feuds, ruthless competition and Oedipus complexes would have been far too unstylish for their refined tastes. After all, between the four of these gentlemen, there are ever so many degrees of style and good taste to go around.

crossfire_1_garrett

Garrett Leight

Education?
I have earned my journalism degree from California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo.

Industries outside of eyewear design you have worked in?
Pizza delivery, journalism and the music business.

How did you get your start as an eyewear designer and what led to creating your own company?
I worked at Oliver Peoples for four years and learned a lot about eyewear design during this time. In 2009 I opened my own store. And of course I witnessed the beginnings of Oliver Peoples as a youth and saw it become successful and continue to grow as a brand.

How many eyewear models have you designed up until today?
31.

crossfire_3_GL

Which celebrities are rocking your styles?
I recently went to the Hollywood Wax Museum and used this opportunity to see how my glasses look on all the different celebrities – I tried everyone from Charlie Chaplin to Marilyn Monroe, from Johnny Depp to Brad Pitt. But they did look the best on Justin Bieber and Kermit the Frog. I’ve always been a great Jim Henson fan.

Your favorite eyewear label?
Warby Parker.

Your most important personal and professional influences?
Jimi Hendrix and Steve Jobs.

Name of your bestselling model?
Hampton.

What’s the special characteristic of your label GLCO?
Most of all the people working for our company. All of them are young, passionate people who give their all for the company, and who genuinely care about concepts such as customer service, quality and beauty.

And what makes Garrett Leight so special?
Being able to reach the tip of my nose with my tongue.

Would you say your father is proud of you and your work?
Of course – I love him and he loves me!

crossfire_2_jeremy

Jérémy Tarian

Education?
I earned my Masters in International Finance at the European Business School in Paris. And I took graphic design glasses at Parsons School in New York.

Industries outside of eyewear design you have worked in?
I worked some small jobs in the fashion business and gathered some retail experience, for example at L’éclaireur. As a student I worked on the side at La Cigale in Paris.

How did you get your start as an eyewear designer and what led to creating your own company?
The Jérémy Tarian brand was launched in September 2010.

How many eyewear models have you designed up until today?
About 100 pieces for my own label, with a total of 18 styles in the current collection. And I’ve created countless additional models for my personal use.

crossfire_4_JTJérémy Tarian & Garrett Leight

Which celebrities are rocking your styles?
The biggest celebrity and my biggest fan: my mom.

Your favorite eyewear label?
I love all things with perfect craftsmanship – whether it’s vintage or new. At MIDO in Milan I introduced a French co-branding project, a new thing with Mygalo.

The most important personal and professional influences?
Other people. Meeting people and exchanging ideas is my biggest influence. There’s so much to learn about every person.

Name of your bestselling model?
“Mainstage“ as sunglasses and prescription style. The characteristic thing about these frames is their slightly elevated center. Although my personal favorite is the “Discovery,” my very first design created at the age of 14. The model in my current collection looks exactly like the first draft from back then.

What’s the special characteristic of your label Jérémy Tarian?
They are always classic and timeless designs, broken up by some small detail – sometimes it’s color, sometimes it’s the shape – and all models are produced at limited edition quantities.

And what makes Jeremy Tarian so special?
It’s okay to refuse an answer, right?

Would you say your father is proud of you and your work?
You’d best have to call him and ask him yourself. But I do really hope that one day I will manage to even make him a tad bit jealous!

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