Without glasses, my world is Monet. Ever since I was five, eyeglasses reminded me of that fun time I spent bawling my eyes out in front of an optician’s shopfront after my father’s uncharacteristic blurt of: “You have the worst eyes in the whole family.” Me. It was my dumb eyes that caused the family unheeded expense. These weren’t eyeglasses really. They were just ugly buggers that sat on my face.
I went straight from grad school to being on TV and how I looked suddenly mattered
My stigma of astigmatism stopped with Marie Wilkinson at Cutler and Gross in Knightsbridge. Her glossy dark bob shimmering under the shop’s lights, she studied me, then the wall of frames, plucking at it like a harpist. Out flew glasses in shapes and colours I hadn’t clocked. Marie took my face and styled my future. How I needed it. Ignorant of fashion and not owning a mirror, I had one jacket to my name and only bought another when somebody squealed, “get another f––king outfit because I’m sick of looking at you.” I went straight from grad school to being on TV and how I looked suddenly mattered. Je ne l’ai pas vu arriver.
“It’s not necessarily about money, it’s about time,” explains Marie. “It’s about finding someone who’s going to really help you chose the right pair. I think we’re really good at it, because we love doing it. They should fit as beautifully as a black dress, and suit you like a beautiful brooch. They should fit like a glove, you know? Touch you in the right places. Glasses should make you feel amazing.”
After my teenage years being cursed with please-don’t-date-me eyewear, I knew glasses said things to other people. But I never thought they could say whole sentences I could find useful like, “You’re beautiful but shut up.”
“This is a feminine butch Aviator,” Marie says, showing me a pair that really are both butch and feminine
“Our team wants to know who you are, what do you do, how do you live,” says Marie. “What matters to you? How do you need to look? Do you need lots of different looks, or are you as you are? They’re curious to know what you’re going to be doing in these glasses. What’s going to happen in these glasses? Then, you can start tailoring them, they’ll make a little edit, and they’ll show you the glasses,” she says. “You hone in on the one you have a connection with. It’s sort of like dating, you know? You’ve got possibilities. It’s like that, finding things out.”
Marie should know. After joining the company as an optician/designer, her first successful number was a leather Aviator. “We took away the rim, because, you know, aviators make you go down. I’m not an actual Aviator wearer, so I made it rimless, and in graduated tints. It was all about the eyebrows, all about opening up the face, so it’s really feminine as well.”
“I love Aviators, they make me feel so butch,” I say, because they do. “This is a feminine butch Aviator,” Marie says, showing me a pair that really are both butch and feminine.
“Sometimes,” she says, “There’s another shape, another accident, a different detail that we could do, I could do, to make the perfect pair of glasses.”
They’re addictive. “Lots of people only wear Cutler and Gross,” Marie says. “It’s not just us introducing the brand to people. People are telling me about the brand. It’s their experience. It’s like a rite of passage. When you’re 18, you will go to Savile Row and have a bespoke suit made, and you will go to Cutler and Gross to have your glasses made. It’s there you learn how to order glasses.”
I know how not to order glasses. Earlier this year I purchased several pairs of the wrong thing. “They actually look nice,” I say to Marie, “But when you touch them, and it’s like, ‘Ew!’ I’m immediately transported to a very poor part of Essex.”
“Careful, I’m from Essex,” she says with a smile.
“That’s okay,” I counter, throwing my joke into reverse. “A lot of very creative people are from Essex.”
I’m not brand-loyal, nor easily bewitched. I’m careless and profligate. I’ve smashed and lost a lot of eyewear. Yet only in hindsight do I see that I’ve ridden, hunted, played polo, skied, partied hard, cried, fought, had sex and slept in the frames Marie chose for me – and they remain solid-chic. Cutler and Gross’s frames are British-designed and handmade in the “eyewear valley” of Italy so precisely that “I could give you all the names of all the people who work on them,” says Marie. They aren’t inexpensive, but (and this is my inner American Bible Belt person speaking) they’re fantastic value if you buy things to last. Like all good design, Cutler and Gross frames are sustainable to the core.
If the brand’s quality doesn’t alter, it is change that keeps it alive. This is why Cutler and Gross separate their designs. The collection in the main shop is very contemporary – it’s what people are thinking about, people want to wear now. In the vintage shop (a new one just opened in London’s design-y Lisson Grove at 6 Church Street, NW8), it’s heritage: “how things used to be worn”. The brand and Marie’s Instagram accounts take in new designs as well as potted histories of older frames. “Mr Gross fitted a pair of blue mirror sunglass lenses into a rolled gold frame with cable curled temples and made by Algha Works for the Metropolitan Police as their standard issue protective eyewear. This led to Cutler And Gross handmaking their own model 0328 in the early 1990’s, this time with hockey end temples.” A few pairs from the original Italian production are still available at the vintage shop.
Marie knows optical history. “Originally [eyeglasses] didn’t have arms on them, they were held on by ribbons. Glasses haven’t always been worn on our faces. There were eye glasses that you’d hold,” she says, just grazing the top of her encyclopedic knowledge. “I like the fact that I know about the history of glasses, how people would have done things – different shaped bridges, coronet bridges, keyhole bridges. I can reference all of these things from way, way back. These aren’t modern inventions but they’re still relevant. They’re still current. So we still use them.”
At a party the night before, I was told my glasses were “amazing”. “Marie Wilkinson picked them out,” I said with total smugness. Now, of course, I want a pair of glasses I can tie on with a ribbon. In two years’ time, you’ll want a pair too. C