Vancouver-based optician Sue Randhawa lets her eyes do the talking with adventurous frames from both the past and the present.
By Odessa Paloma Parker
Perhaps it was fate that Sue Randhawa was born in the late 1960s. Not only is the decade known for bringing eclectic fashion design to the forefront; it’s also the era when eyewear became a status symbol and made icons out of the already famous. “In the early ‘60s, stars in Hollywood started to wear sunglasses and eyewear,” notes Randhawa. “All of a sudden, it became a thing.”
The “thing” Randhawa is talking about is the eyewear we’re familiar with today - whether adventurous or classic, it’s a focal point of a person’s fashion sense. Picture Audrey Hepburn without her outsized cat-eye sunnies or Steve McQueen sans his Persols - they are awesome, sure, but they lack the sense of covetable coolness that a pair of sunglasses affords. (Ditto Michael Caine’s sensible yet chic Oliver Goldsmith glasses or Buddy Holly’s notable “nerdy” square frames.)“You know how you hear music or smell a certain smell and it takes you right back to a moment? Eyewear does that,” Randhawa says of why we have become so attached to specs of all sorts. Our endearment to eyewear (and her devotion to it) stems from what it evokes, from high-fashion glamour to understated aloofness.
When the style fanatic entered the optical industry in the early 1990s at age 22, she was coming from a less design-focused foundation. “I really liked the science component of it,” says Randhawa, noting that because of her conservative background, she wasn’t encouraged to pursue an artistic career. But a short while into her new vocation, her eyes were opened.
“I started to feel my way around the industry, and I realized very quickly that there’s a whole fashion side to it,” recalls Randhawa. “I thought, ‘Wait a minute, I can totally merge the two and it doesn’t have to be all health and science and seriousness.’”
Today, Randhawa - who owns Vancouver’s The Optical Boutique, which opened in 1979 - serves an ardent clientele who know her affection for eyewear. “I like to delve in a little bit and look at who they are on the inside,” Randhawa says about her approach to fitting people for glasses. “I like to bring a little bit of that out, and I do that with eyewear.”You might not think it to look at her - because she favours the audacious styles of designers including local creatives like Evan Clayton and Alex S. Yu - but Randhawa says she’s an introvert at heart. “My clothes give me an opportunity to express myself without speaking,” she notes.
The same goes for her eyewear choices, which run the gamut from the Karen Walker frames she has worn for the better part of 15 years to “show-stopping” glasses from Gucci’s recent collections, which she dons for special events.
“In my daily collection, I have about 20 to 30 pieces,” she says, referring to the cabinet where she keeps her go-to frames. Easy accessibility means Randhawa can alter her look depending on what she’s doing or which customers she’s seeing. “I often change my eyewear throughout the day,” she says. “It’s really fun to do that.”Occasionally these switch-ups complicate things for Randhawa, given her unique and trusted eye. “People sometimes want to buy from my personal collection,” she says. “I can choose not to show them, which would be sad, but if I do….It’s so hard to make that decision. My biggest problem is when I have something and someone is interested in it. That’s why the size of my collection changes all the time.”
The reason why Randhawa - who adores Peggy Guggenheim’s artful eyewear and is a fan of Iris Apfel’s larger-than-life accessories - has become increasingly precious about her pieces is a family matter “I’m more serious about them because as I get older, I know there are certain pieces that I’m never going to see again and I want to keep them close to me and give them to my children,” she explains.Randhawa’s kids have travelled with her on business trips, and her son, Liam - a fashion plate in his own right - has particularly strong opinions about what she should purchase for both personal and professional use. In fact, Liam’s affinity for outré designer Jeremy Scott informed her acquisition of frames from Scott’s collaboration with famed eyewear designer Linda Farrow.What primarily drives Randhawa’s interest in the pieces she picks up is their specialness and attention to detail, like the hand-hewn craftsmanship behind her first pair of glasses, made by a line called Silhouette. “I want big, I want bold, I want certain colours, I want certain angles,” she says of her preferred types of frames. Randhawa ventures to places like Japan and Italy to seek these pieces out and also makes time for road trips around Canada, her motivation coming from the “thrill of the find.”
Always on the lookout for original eyewear by brands like Claude Montana and Alain Mikli - “Their designs were big, bold, and a little bit obnoxious” - Randhawa is constantly set on finding pieces that speak to a sense of individuality. “Your frames don’t have to match your clothes; it’s more interesting when they don’t,” she says of how she views the process of eyewear selection. “We can break all those rules.” As Randhawa has shown, all you need to do is have a vision.