As he debuts Bugatti Eyewear in Milan, optical legend Larry Sands proves that innovation, creativity and confidence get exponentially better with age.
Eyewear legend Larry Sands
At 84 years old, Larry Sands shows no signs of slowing down. In fact, the man who many call “The Legend”—due to his pivotal role igniting the luxury eyewear industry, among other things—is racing full speed ahead with the launch of Bugatti Eyewear.
It should come as no surprise, as Sands was motivated to go far from the start. After attending college, the Orange County resident opened a few optical shops close to where he grew up in southern Missouri, and eventually achieved incredible success with his band, Bartok’s Mountain. “It was a fun career,” he says. “We opened for a lot of major bands [like] Vanilla Fudge; we were on the road with Sly and the Family Stone, and we opened for Led Zeppelin.”
After about eight years of touring, Sands decided to take a break from music and focus on building his optical business. “It was 1969 and I’d had a lot of years of rock ’n’ roll,” he explains. “Some of my better, closer friends were advising me that I should get out while I was still alive and pretty sober—and almost drug-free. Somebody suggested that a good place to get right with the world again would be this little town in the mountains called Aspen. It was kind of a secret back then.”
It was there where Sands opened Optical Shop of Aspen. “To my knowledge, it was one of the first optical boutiques in the world,” he says. Sands created custom frames with unique shapes and luxurious materials for many notable clients, including Don Henley, Hunter S. Thompson and John Denver, who wore what Sands calls “hippie glasses” but made from solid gold frames. “There was such a demand for unique eyewear and really nobody was making any,” he shares. “Since I couldn’t buy it, I decided to make it.”
Sands credits his talent in custom eyewear to his innate creativity (previously singing and songwriting) needing a new, fresh outlet. “What I did at first, I didn't even realize it was design,” he shares. “I was just taking frames and changing the shape, making them more flattering for certain people’s faces.” Before he knew it he had a huge following. “I blinked my eyes a couple of times and had made over 1,000 pairs of glasses for Elton John.” That put Sands on the map and led to icons like Karl Lagerfeld discovering his work. Lagerfeld eventually became a friend and client of Sands, who made custom eyewear for him for many years. “As far as I’m concerned, it’s the most important thing I ever did,” Sands says. “But it was only because it was Karl. He really loved my glasses.”
Handcrafted with sterling silver hardware and embossed leather temples, Bugatti Eyewear style 7 is available in four colorways.
Optical Shop of Aspen eventually expanded to 25 stores in major resort cities like Miami, Santa Fe, Scottsdale, East Hampton and more. “People spend more money when they’re on vacation,” explains Sands of why he chose particular locations. From there, he created a wholesale division of his company, acquiring licenses for brands including Chrome Hearts, Matsuda, Kieselstein-Cord, Shamballa Eyewear and others. “I think Chrome Hearts changed the optical industry, internationally, forever,” he says. “First of all, it made the industry realize that people will spend $2,000 for a pair of glasses if they look that good and if they’re that cool. Secondly, it told an otherwise stodgy business that you can have a lot of fun in the optical space. My first collection for Chrome Hearts had frames [with an expletive] on both sides in big letters,” he adds, noting that those styles sold out first. “That really made a statement. Then all of a sudden we saw prices go up and frames becoming better quality.”
Sands believes that same thing will happen with Bugatti. The uber-exclusive brand uses designs and high-tech materials unique to the auto industry, a tenet incorporated in the limited-edition frames. “[Bugatti] made 100 cars last year and sold all of them,” Sands says. “They sold between $5 million and $9 million for each car. There were hundreds of people who couldn't get one. So the name is very important to luxury.”
Demi-blonde tortoise with antique 18K rolled gold plate is just one of four available finishes for style 10.
Speaking of luxury, it’s an important connecting thread uniting Bugatti eyewear and cars. “One of the major definitions and ingredients of luxury is that there has to be exotic materials involved,” says Sands, who incorporated Macassar ebony wood, 0.925 sterling silver, 18K gold, Grade 5 titanium and carbon fiber into the frames. In addition, all finishing is done with physical vapor deposition (PVD). “The eyewear has all the qualities of jewelry,” he explains. “Another definition of luxury is that it can’t be too readily available. I’m not making that many pieces.” Some of the 10 styles in the debut collection—priced at $1,200 to $18,000 per pair—will be limited to 100 pairs per color, while others will be capped at 150.
While many of his contemporaries are relaxing on the golf course, Sands is continuing to generate new ideas, and is still regarded as the top dog in his industry. “I think at 84, to take on a project like Bugatti is formidable,” shares the innovator, who also owns eyewear boutique Eurocollective at Fashion Island. “It will be the biggest brand I’ve ever done and the most expensive brand I’ve ever done.” Since he started the Bugatti project—which took two years to come to life—he’s received calls from other major brands asking him to collaborate—not a surprise given his status. “Whether I like it or not, people actually call me ‘The Legend,’” he says. “And it does kind of take somebody really old. But I accept it. I don’t think anybody’s ever done what I’ve done in the optical business before, and I’m continuing to do it with the greatest of ease.”
Photography by: PHOTO COURTESY OF BUGATTI EYEWEAR