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Sunshades Eyewear – taking it to the eyewear heavyweights

Sunshades Eyewear was established 52 years ago by pregnant Bondi woman Betty Lasse who was small in stature but with a formidable personality. Today, her son runs the $50 million Australian business that is going toe-to-toe with the global eyewear giants.

Twenty-six years ago, when Sunshades Eyewear CEO Mr Rodney Grunseit joined the business his pharmacist mother started many years earlier, he developed the philosophy: “Anyone who retails eyewear in Australia, we are here to do business with you.”

It’s a mantra that’s reflected in the company’s expansive product portfolio today, spanning from entry level sunglasses through to $20,000 Cartier diamond-encrusted eyewear. As a result, it caters to a vast and versatile range of eyewear retailers, encompassing major department stores, sunglass outlets, and optometry corporates and independents.

The private Australian-owned company now generates around $50 million annually by providing the full suite of services comprising in-house design, marketing, manufacturing and distribution. These include headline licenses such as Oroton, Le Specs, Karen Walker and Cancer Council. It also has the Australian and New Zealand distribution rights for the luxury Kering Eyewear portfolio, including Gucci, Cartier, Saint Laurent, Chloe and Bottega Veneta.

The late Betty Lasse (left) with her son Rodney Grunseit who now runs the company.

“Very early on in my tenure I said that Sunshades will supply anyone who retails eyewear at all in Australia. Our strength lies in our experience with all facets of the industry, from global boutique fashion brands to mass market and private label brands,” Grunseit says.

“Although we do supply corporates like Luxottica with OPSM and Sunglass Hut, we offer such a large selection of product that businesses like independent optometry practices can easily select eyewear that differentiates them and matches their demographic. For example, if they want to be boutique, they might order Balenciaga, Bottega Veneta or Cartier, or if they are seeking eyewear with high turnover that sells like crazy, they might order Oroton and Le Specs.”

Based in Sydney with more than 100 staff, Grunseit has no hesitation saying Sunshades is the nation’s largest locally-owned eyewear company. It’s a remarkable feat for a firm that his mother, the late Ms Betty Lasse, established 52 years ago. She began importing unbranded sunglasses as a side business, while operating her Ramsgate Avenue pharmacy in Bondi.

Lasse was considered a woman before her time. She started the business in her 40s while pregnant with Grunseit. It boomed – and at one point she became the largest importer of sunglasses into Australia in terms of units. By the mid-1970s she relinquished her pharmaceutical career to focus on the eyewear business, buoyed by the establishment of a direct supply chain with three sunglass manufacturers in Taiwan, one of which the business still works with today.

Growing up, Grunseit gleaned a strong work ethic from his mother, who would rather be on the road for business than perform domestic duties like many of her contemporaries.

“My mother was 5ft 2; she was delicate with a bit of scoliosis, but she had the personality and vivaciousness of a giant,” Grunseit says.

“Everyone loved her because she was such a loving, beautiful human being, and she created a culture of complete respect and honesty, alongside her ‘D.B.S.’ – don’t be scared – motto for the business. That means we embrace anything whether it’s at an entry price point, unbranded or branded. Because of my mother, the company has always had a very strong female essence; she was very maternal and that has flowed down to myself. I like to emulate her raison d’etre. Over 20% of our staff have been in the company over 10 years, it’s a really lovely place to work and that shows in everything we do and create.”

Entering the optical market

After completing university, Grunseit joined Sunshades in 1995. Within the first few years he helped secure supply agreements with major fast fashion chains helping to propel the business.

Soon the company was approached by Disney to make children’s sunglasses. Back then, Lasse wasn’t familiar with the world of eyewear licensing, but told her son she would support him if he wanted to pursue it.

“We worked with our factories, choosing the right styles, printing on the frames, packaging them beautifully, making beautiful display stands, and all of a sudden from selling cheap sunglasses in the marketplace, we were dealing with David Jones, Myer, OPSM, Sunglass Hut, all the big eyewear guys – and that really changed the nature of who we were from then until now,” Grunseit recalls.

Oroton is one of Australia’s only true luxury homegrown brands and remains the hero of the Sunshades Eyewear optical business.

“Other brands gravitated to us because they saw what we were doing. We were offered Fiorelli, which then led to our relationship with Oroton 20 years ago.”

The Oroton licence marked Sunshades’ first foray into optical. Grunseit says it remains one of Australia’s only true luxury homegrown brands and continues to be the hero of the Sunshades optical business.

“In-store, our products often find themselves in one of the top three positions against massive brands – we only have to look at Oroton, which I don’t hesitate to say it is in the top three brands in optical in Australia,” he says.

“At one point I would have said Oroton would have found itself in 90% of all optical stores. That has probably changed since Specsavers, Bailey Nelson and Oscar Wylee have come along. I wouldn’t use numbers like that now, but I would say Oroton sits in all good optometrists, around 70%, and there are some independents who like to have a completely different boutique mix but might carry Oroton in their drawer because they know there is demand for it.”

When Sunshades entered the optical sphere, Grunseit recalls the often sterile and male-dominated nature of optometry businesses. He says Sunshades arrived with a different view – and predominantly female workforce – asking practices to continue providing the technical knowledge, while referring to the experts for eyewear design and craftsmanship.

The company was soon incorporating fashion into function with its designs. The Oroton licence, in particular, was among the first Australian eyewear brands that spoke loudly about its DNA as a fashion business.

“When you look at what works successfully today, our Gucci numbers have gone through the roof – that’s because people are looking for design, fashion, energy and lifestyle, instead of something that blends into their face, even though that still makes up a good chunk of the business,” Grunseit explains.

“We were lucky to be involved with Karen Walker helping her design, manufacture and distribute her eyewear, which was number one in the world for a period in terms of its positioning. What we created with Karen was considered avant-garde, and it was catching the attention of consumers worldwide. But then we started seeing major brands emulate that, which we were incredibly proud of, taking on the big designer brands of the world.”

Design, production and sustainability

Being a full-scope eyewear company, Sunshades Eyewear has many departments that include warehouse and logistics and merchandise planning, through to six teams of account managers and merchandisers (sales) servicing multi door retailers, optometry, sunglass specialty, surf/youth, fashion and pharmacy, covering more than 4,000 Australasian stores.

It also employs IT and planning experts that help to interpret volumes of eyewear sales data, which can be filtered to incredibly granular levels. (Sunshades claims to be the Australian eyewear leaders in electronic data interchange).

“We can tell you the size, shape, colour and lens colours that sell in every postcode around Australia,” Grunseit says. “Because we design, manufacture and distribute most of our products, we can use the data to ensure we are getting the best-selling shapes and designs to the right businesses.”

Mr Hamish Tame is creative director of Sunshades, as well as designer of the Le Specs collection. He has been with the company for more than 18 years and says having access to such detailed data ensures his designers can factor top-selling trends into new eyewear models to ensure they sell through the retailer.

Tame’s four-strong design team comprises varying personalities who like to design their eyewear with different methods, whether that be sketches or sculpting existing frames with files, drills and plaster. Prior to COVID-19, they travelled up to three months of the year, visiting major optical fairs such as MIDO in Milan and Silmo Paris or vintage stores in Stockholm to draw inspiration.

“Because design sits at the heart of the business there is a fearlessness of having to present our work before the sales and planning teams. People get behind new concepts and like to give new things a go; it’s often those moments that have propelled us into a new phase of growth,” Tame explains.

Global expeditions often include trips to some of Sunshades’s eight factory partners in Taiwan and China. Here, they’re able to examine new sustainability-focus materials and the latest manufacturing processes.

Grunseit says the emergence of innovative materials are vital to Sunshades Eyewear as consumers and retailers demand products with a smaller ecological footprint. This extends to factory operations and supply chains too.

The Oroton, Le Specs and Karen Walker brands all have a significant focus on sustainability.

“We work with the biggest retailers in the world and many of them insist the factories are audited for not only quality, but social, ethical and environmental standards,” Grunseit, who has taken Chinese lessons to help communicate with factory owners, explains.

“Plus the size of business places us in the handful top 10% of eyewear companies in the world, so we are able to meet factories’ minimums and therefore have the freedom to choose who we work with.”

Locally, Sunshades has implemented a comprehensive sustainability strategy as well.

Le Specs has been the incubator – with the Le Sustain collection – where they have created zero waste and use 100% recycled packaging, in line with its commitments under the Australian Packaging Covenant. It also hopes to launch two new materials each year, with Le Specs already launching frames made from meadow grass, rice husk, coffee grounds and post-consumer recycled plastic. Oroton has started transitioning to a bioacetate and Cancer Council eyewear comprises recycled acrylics and demonstration lenses.

“The more exciting part is around how we start to influence and create meaningful change by using our platform as a sustainable business model across multiple brands,” Tame says.

“That is the rewarding piece of it. There is a lot of time and investment in getting this up and running, but we believe it’ll have a snowball effect very soon.”

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