Roberi & Fraud is one of the most recognized eyewear brands in fashion today. Ali Mehrdad, a young Dubai-based entrepreneur, is behind the “sunnies” that became an instant hit with celebrities like Gigi Hadid, Kendall Jenner and Rihanna. With designs inspired by the micro sunglasses of the 1990s, there was something very fresh on this brand’s take on eyewear. Sunglasses being one of the most driven categories in fashion, it’s vital to remain ahead of the curve when starting an eyewear brand.
Mehrdad had no previous design experience. “I have a passion for business,” he says. “The idea came from me researching and seeing what market would have the most profit margins, and eyewear was one of them. The biggest advantage was that eyewear is a product that is one size fits all.” Also, pricing played an important role, with the name of the five-year-old brand coming from the saying “robbery and fraud.”
“I wanted my customers to be able to re-buy my product in case they lost their pair,” says Mehrdad. “That is something that happens to all of us from time to time. We always end up losing our sunglasses.” The brand today has a cult following and even collaborated with value online retailer boohooMAN.com last year.
The success of Roberi & Fraud prompted Mehrdad to start another eyewear brand, Philó, aimed at a more discerning client looking for affordable fashion-forward sunglasses. “The materials used to create Philó are the same as Dior and Chanel,” he says. “After my research, I realized that the eyewear market does not have a brand that uses expensive materials but sells it for an affordable price. I filled that gap in the market.”
More recently, a few Arab entrepreneurs have also found success in the eyewear market, and among them is influencer Karen Wazen Bakhazi, who launched her eponymous eyewear brand in 2018. Her brand’s retailers include Dubai’s Harvey Nichols and international luxury online retailer Moda Operandi. Since this is a region that does enjoy a sunny climate for most of the year, it does seem natural that more local entrepreneurs are looking at this category.
A finalist for FTA Prize 2021 in the Accessories category, Port Tanger is named after the Moroccan city of Tangier. Founded by Daniël Sumarna and Bilal Fellah, the label features handcrafted sunnies that are heavy on nostalgia. “Objects have always been a key part of my upbringing,” says Fellah. “My mother’s sunglasses were part of my toys. It was the most honest object I often went back to. It does bring me joy, it is that simple.”
The Arab world, with its vast and diverse culture, gives the designers inspiration for their objects of joy. “There is continuity from the Middle East to North Africa and the Silk Road. A beauty inherited from time and history that we’re not even close to understanding, maybe imagine. That mysterious part is the feeling you have within, and this is what translates into the design. Infinite possibilities, form and shape,” says Fellah.
Just entering the market is Sama Nehlawi, with her brand Nahle that was born between Canada and Syria, with all its sunglasses named after cities and landmarks in the Middle East. Says the founder: “Since I can remember, I’ve had an obsession with sunglasses. I get pretty bad migraines and so I need them in any bright light. More than that, I love fashion, but I never saw myself designing clothes. Fast-forward to last year during quarantine, I had graduated and had a hard time finding a job. I thought it was the perfect time to pursue my dream.”
Nehlawi decided this was the right time to turn her passion into her purpose. All her packing is made from sustainable materials, and she wants her brand to be about inclusion. While it is made in Canada, it does have an Arab soul with some raw materials sourced from Syria.
With fashion looking to include more global brands, niche labels that have strong cultural messages are resonating with retailers. But if you’re looking to start wearing sunglasses at these times, when everyone is thinking health first, it’s best to think of sunglasses as more than a fashion item. “If the lens is not UV400 protected then it can potentially damage the eye follicles,” says Mehrdad. Being protective has become as important as product design when it comes to the accessory market.