Sunglasses beside the Seine, sunglasses on a terrasse, sunglasses for a Parisian nuit blanche (all-nighter). Whatever your taste, Paris is a perfect place to feel great sporting shades. However, they may not be something you ever thought of shopping for here. If so, set aside your Holly Golightly Wayfarers and let David Benhaïm show you sunglasses, Paris style.
A few months ago, Benhaïm opened a Paris first: Optique Durable, an optical boutique of vintage French eyewear. Its stock is so amazing that word has quickly spread. Even celebrities are starting to discover Benhaïm’s more than 2,000 pairs of retro eyeglass frames—each restored to a perfect state. From cult French brands to serious couture classics, his shop shows off half a century of style.
Fashion historians could have a field day perusing the frames, which are known in French as les montures. Benhaïm stocks everything from the pantos (pantoscopics) popular with French artists and writers of the ’40s to the papillons (butterfly wings) that became a craze among Gallic starlets during the ’50s and ’60s. There is also the gamut of oversize, space-age and “moon girl” frames of the ’70s, designed by the likes of André Courrèges, Pierre Cardin and Paco Rabanne.
You won’t find a more unique and stylish souvenir—nor one that is more completely French. Almost all Benhaïm’s frames were fabricated in the Jura region of the country, where artisans have specialized in metalwork since the 16th century. According to Typhaine Le Foll, conservatrice at the national Musée de la lunette, fine eyewear has come from the Jura since the 1820s. “From 1900, the area’s quality and creativity made them the capital of our eyewear industry. Since World War II, a majority of its focus has shifted into fashion.”
A practicing optician for over two decades, Benhaïm has spent years tracking down his stock. It includes some fascinating rarities. Modern designers, he feels, don’t do justice to the sunglasses that bear their names. “There seems to be less and less actual creation. With mass production and globalization, you start seeing the same things over and over. The market had become so repetitive I got bored, so I started to focus on genuine classics. To me, the choice of glasses has to be a special moment.”
At Optique Durable, choice is just one of the strong points. The stylish Parisienne’s favorite adjective at the moment is “vintage,” but this fashion mecca also boasts some bargains. Some of Benhaïm’s finds are only 49 euros and many vintage couture sunglasses are under 150 euros. Boys can try on the trademark glasses worn by Yves Saint-Laurent, girls the shades Brigitte Bardot chose at Cannes. For men, I loved the square black 1990 Squadras and, for women, the ivory 1980 Courrèges—each of which cost 149 euros. My absolute favorite was a pair by Michele Lamy, in pale turquoise sprinkled with small gold stars. (These were also 149 euros.) There is Paris style at perfect prices, including gems by Chloé, YSL, Courrèges and Jean-Louis Scherrer.
The shop itself has clean retro lines and houses an open workspace for its resident artisan-opticien. (Any eyeglass models on show can be adapted into sunglasses or the other way round.) If “real” glasses are what you need, however, you can always take the route preferred by local stylists. Find your vintage frames here—then take them to your local optician.
The hours Benhaïm devotes to haunting flea markets, brocantes and French eyeglass factories are also reflected in the detail of his decor. Most of his furnishings came from an old lunetterie in southwestern France, with lighting and accessory touches found in the caves and puces of Paris. “It’s all 100 percent vintage,” says the owner proudly. “All completely recycled, 100 percent.” There is, however, a touch of the trendy Bastille neighborhood; its metal cabinets are engraved by the artist Laurent Godard (famous for his creation Flateurville).
Altogether, it’s one of the most surprising and fascinating of Paris style secrets.
Among Paris fashion lovers, retro sunglasses can mean one name: Emmanuelle Khanh. Here, during the ’60s and ’70s, when youth culture was futuristic fashions in vinyl and plastics, the big female names were Khanh, Christiane Bailly, Michèle Rosier, Chantal Thomass and Sonia Rykiel. Onetime Balenciaga model Khanh was at the heart of the action. Unlike plastic jewelry or go-go boots, her EK sunglasses became enduring classics. All made by hand, they are still coveted and the special purse that protects them has become a sort of fetish item. The line remains available at select opticians as well as the label’s online boutique. However, a 1980s pair of “1000s” (worn by hip-hop duo Run-DMC) is a treasure—as is one of the EK rarities with frames in crocodile, shark or ostrich skin.
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Tags: André Courrèges, couture, Cynthia Rose, David Benhaïm, EK sunglasses, Emmanuelle Khanh, fashion, Flateurville, France, Laurent Godard, Optique Durable, Paco Rabanne, pantos, Paris, Pierre Cardin, Shopping, Squadras, Style, sunglasses, travel