Matter: Shades of Change

The blades that slashed through the cycling nerd barrier

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Photo by JP Van Swae/Words by Vernon Felton

Go on a group ride today and nearly everyone sports some kind of eyewear. Cyclists, however, rode through the bulk of the 20th century with no eye protection whatsoever. It was truly a devil-may-care period during which condoms were for French sailors, helmets were for astronauts and protective eyewear was for… army snipers? Maybe CIA agents?

Then, in 1984, Oakley founder, Jim Jannard, created what would eventually become known as the Eyeshade—essentially a snow-goggle grafted onto a sunglass frame. It offered huge benefits: a shatter-proof lens, excellent optics, a sweat pad along the brow, and no-stick nose pads. Greg LeMond famously landed on the podium in the `85 Tour de France rockin’ a pair and suddenly riders realized—Hey, maybe I need something covering my own eyeballs.

There was one hitch: those Oakley Eyeshades made you look an alien. A really uncool alien. Sporting a pair and walking into a 7-Eleven to fetch a post-ride Gatorade was like wearing a hockey mask to a piano recital. You didn’t make friends.

Greg LeMond wore a pair of Eyeshades like this (originally called "Factory Pilots") to the podium in the `85 Tour de France. Andy Hampsten and Phil Anderson soon followed suit. Cyclists finally had a pair of performance glasses--though they also now looked like aliens. The Eyeshade style is a love-hate kind of thing, but they helped kickstart the performance eyewear boom. I still have a pair...

Greg LeMond wore a pair of Eyeshades like this (originally called “Factory Pilots”) to the podium in the `85 Tour de France. Andy Hampsten and Phil Anderson soon followed suit. Cyclists finally had a pair of performance glasses–though they also now looked like aliens. The Eyeshade style is a love-hate kind of thing, but they helped kickstart the performance eyewear boom. I still have a pair…

That all changed in 1986 with the debut of the Blade, and, in 1987, this slimmer version, the Razor Blade. Both Blades possessed the Eyeshade’s core features and none of its geek factor. You could be a 90-pound tax attorney or a 300-pound, long-haul trucker, but the moment you slapped on some Blades, you looked just like Arnold Schwarzenegger in The Terminator. Suddenly, cyclists were joined in their love of Oakleys by millions of cops, pro surfers, mini-truck aficionados, major league baseball players and your Uncle Mel.

The cycling-specific glasses were snatched up by the mainstream. Oakley sold between 50,000 and 300,000 pairs per year during the original products’ eight-year production run. The Razor Blades sold like hotcakes, which is kind of amazing when you consider that, at $110 a pop (and $60 per replacement lens), the things weren’t cheap. To put this all in perspective, minimum wage back in 1987 was a whopping $3.35 an hour. A pair of Blades, consequently, cost you a week’s worth of washing dishes and mopping floors during their heyday. If you were going to spring for those iridium lenses, you practically needed to sell off a quart of A Positive at the nearest blood bank.

Could you really dream up 22 million different color combinations for your Razor Blades? It's hard to say, but this much is clear--you sure had a hell of a lot of ways to get...er...creative.

Could you really dream up 22 million different color combinations for your Razor Blades? It’s hard to say, but this much is clear–you sure had a hell of a lot of ways to get…er…creative.

The Razor Blades had a lot going for them. Durable. Good ventilation. Excellent clarity. But there was also this—you could customize your Blades. Oakley offered a huge swath of colors for their lenses, nose pads, frames and earpieces. If you believe the Oakley marketing literature of the time, you could dream up more than 22 million different color combinations.

Lime green frames with black lenses? Great for conservative functions—bank managers loved `em. Red iridium lenses with blue temples and a white brow piece? Perfect for fourth of July celebrations. Powder blue with clear lenses? An instant touch of class that made them the go-to eyewear choice for job interviews.

“The Blades were way ahead of their time—they were really the first sporting sunglass that I can remember,” recalls John Tomac. Tomac knows his Oakleys. The guy was a one-man Oakley billboard, dominating every mountain biking discipline during the `90s whilst rocking Eyeshades, then Blades and Razor Blades and, eventually, M-frames.

“The cool thing is that they weren’t just cutting edge on style, they were cutting edge in terms of technology and function too,” says Tomac. “Protective, versatile…you could swap out the frames and lenses… They were really revolutionary. You could actually still wear them today.”

John Tomac was a walking billboard for Oakley glasses throughout the 80s and 90s. Hell, he's even rockin' them in this Tioga ad (yes, everyone's stems were that long back then...don't ask, it's hard to explain). Mountain bikers the world over finally had a pair of glasses that were both functional and cool.

John Tomac was a walking billboard for Oakley glasses throughout the 80s and 90s. Hell, he’s even rockin’ them in this Tioga ad (yes, everyone’s stems were that long back then…don’t ask, it’s hard to explain). Mountain bikers the world over finally had a pair of glasses that were both functional and cool.

Which, as fate would have it, is something Oakley is betting on. The company is now selling both Eyeshades and Razor Blades as part of their 30th anniversary Heritage Collection. That’s right—Oakley is willing to wager that you still think these things look cool. They might be right.

But let’s step back for a moment. This isn’t simply the story of a pair of iconic sunglasses. The Oakley Razor Blades have a much bigger legacy than that. The Razor Blades put Oakley on the map—transforming the company from a small start-up that peddled BMX grips and motocross goggles into a global trendsetter. The success of the Razor Blade led to the development of Oakley shoes, shorts, jerseys, watches and more.

“Oakley stopped being simply a sunglass company,” explains Oakley eyewear brand manager, Declan Lonergan. “The Razor Blades launched the company into being something more. The financial success was part of that, to be sure, but I think the way the world received the Razor Blade gave Jim the confidence to be brave in his design work and to develop an identity for Oakley that was really our own. It’s what truly set Oakley apart.”

More to the point, the Razor Blades almost singlehandedly convinced the general public that sunglasses weren’t just cool, they were necessary–necessary for cycling, for pitching shut outs in the major leagues and for getting the job done right at first communions, senior proms and weddings.

Sure, other companies were producing sunglasses, but the dominant, popular models of the time, such as the Ray-Ban Wayfarer, looked like something that Jackie O might have worn while sunning topless on her yacht. Oakley created an entirely new paradigm in which glasses needed to not only look cool—suddenly sunglasses needed to feature indestructible lenses, they needed to be well ventilated, they needed to be lightweight and comfortable…in a word, they needed to perform….

The Razor Blades changed our very expectations of what sunglasses were supposed to do. You may not rock Oakleys today. Maybe you’ve never have. If, however, you wear any kind of performance eyewear, you can rest assured that it has a bit of that Razor Blade DNA buried somewhere deep inside it.

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