In conversation with Gai Gheradi of l.a.Eyeworks: Where eyewear meets activism

Over the past 40 years, l.a.Eyeworks built a reputation for daring, expressive eyewear, sold via independent retailers around the world and in the namesake store on Los Angeles’ famous Melrose Avenue. In an exclusive conversation with Gai Gheradi, co-founder alongside Barabara McReynolds, we find out why every face needs a great frame, and explore the intersection of eyewear and activism — epitomized by their renowned LA store window.

When Gai and Barbara set up l.a.Eyeworks in 1979, they wanted to change the way people thought about eyewear, empowering glasses-wearers with an imaginative new offering that surpasses trends. Today, their award-winning frames are known for their unique use of color, form and materials, designed by the pair with their trademark wit and style. And since the beginning, they have brought their humor to their shop windows to showcase their most fabulous frames, and also take a sideswipe at societal and political issues of the day.

Your business has been known for innovative eyewear for over four decades. What drew you to eyewear in the first place?

The realization that there was a genuine opportunity to connect and communicate with people, and to empower them through the medium of eyewear; to encourage a new perspective. We have always thought of what we do as a way of being of service to others.

Describe l.a. Eyeworks in three words.

I can describe it in two: Uncensored Visions.

Rectangular eyeglasses with blue tortoiseshell acetate frame and decorative studs at the upper corners.

© L.A. Eyeworks

Oversized cat-eye eyeglasses with a green to clear gradient frame and a bold shape.

© L.A. Eyeworks

Square sunglasses with a thick transparent red frame and tinted lenses.

© L.A. Eyeworks

How do you split the design and business-leading roles between you both?

Barbara and I have always directed the design and creative direction of the collections, as well as the collateral projects we develop to support them. Our other founding partner, Margo Willits, directs our international sales program, and Rob Rich is our CEO.

What inspires your designs?

Mostly it’s a confluence of personal experiences, like finding out that horseshoe crabs have blue blood, or the colors of icing on donuts, or the way someone wears down the soles of their shoes, or seeing a great dance move, or catching a whiff of the fragrance on the edge of a peach.

Who do you have in mind when you’re designing?

The magnificent, diverse array of faces that we see.

Black and white portrait of a smiling person wearing black sunglasses with the quote "A face is like a work of art. It deserves a great frame." and the brand "l.a. Eyeworks".

© SMOKEY by L.A. Eyeworks

Black and white portrait of a person with dramatic makeup, wearing unique prescription glasses with the same quote and brand as the first image.

© BURBANK by L.A. Eyeworks

Are there any frames you are especially proud of?

There are so many that come to mind. Often, we cross-applied emerging industrial techniques to our ideas. When digital laser engraving emerged, we made a frame called SMOKEY and inscribed maps of communities in L.A. that were considered “unhip” onto the frames.

Color portrait of a person with a mustache wearing black sunglasses, against a psychedelic multicolored background with the text "l.a. Eyeworks uncensored visions".

© WESTIE by L.A. Eyeworks

Color portrait of a person with red hair wearing orange eyeglasses, against a red and multicolored background with the text "l.a. Eyeworks uncensored visions".

© GIBSON by L.A. Eyeworks

You’re known for your disruptive approach, aren’t you?

Yes, sometimes we challenged the things you weren’t supposed to do in eyewear design. In 1988, we made an incredibly minimal, slender design called BURBANK that featured a flat base lens with a 90-degree angled corner suspended from a very thin armature. Barbara has called it “the bumble bee of eyewear that wasn’t supposed to be able to fly, but did.” The design caused a stir, and was embraced by adventurous opticians, design devotees, and the fashion crowd.

Your shop windows have become a platform for sharing art and thought-provoking messaging. How did this come about?

From the day we signed the lease on our Melrose Avenue store in 1979 we began “talking” to the street with our window slogans. We refer to this ongoing dialogue as “the original Twitter feed.” The windows continue to be a unique way to broadcast our points of view to the world and to convey a message to Los Angelenos where you often find them: in their cars.


© L.A. Eyeworks

Describe your favorite shop windows to date.

“SAFE SPEX” comes to mind as a benchmark window installation in the early ‘90s. We hung eyeglass frames in condoms behind the lettering as a commentary at the advent of the AIDS pandemic, when it was taboo to discuss sexual health and harm prevention.


© L.A. Eyeworks

How have you used your windows to call out political and societal issues?

We’ve always had a fascination with really big things, so one window installation featured enormous bras, accompanied by the slogan “GET OVER IT!”. When news of massive investment scandals broke in the early ‘00s, we created an installation that featured two pairs of “tighty whities” underwear — a giant version in one window with the text “CREATIVE ACCOUNTING” and a very small pair in the other with the words “FULL DISCLOSURE.”

What are some of your favorite slogans from the windows?

Sometimes the windows are responsive to social and political issues like these, and sometimes they are just a wickedly funny pun or imaginative wordplay, like “I SLAY A LITTLE PAIR FOR YOU”, “INDIE VISIBLE”, “WEAR THEM OUT” and “LOOKS EXPANSIVE”.

Interviewed by Kate Matthams