How one millennial CEO built a luxury eyewear brand that’s been spotted on everyone from Jeff Bezos to Brad Pitt

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Courtesy of Garrett Leight

For millennial designer Garrett Leight, owning a luxury eyewear brand is about more than just ambition – it’s about keeping his family legacy alive.

Born and raised in Venice, California, 35-year-old Leight grew up watching his father, Larry, run his high-end eyewear brand Oliver Peoples. At first, Leight never thought he would join his father or the family business. Instead, Leight told Business Insider, he was studying journalism at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and intended to enter the music industry, or to do something similarly creative – essentially, goals that were far different from the world he grew up in.

But in 2008, Larry sold Oliver Peoples to Luxottica, and in that moment, Leight says he understood the importance of keeping his family legacy alive.

“I feel like [this industry] chose me,” Leight told Business Insider. “I just loved the family atmosphere and the energy that [Oliver Peoples] had …. and I saw it dwindling because it was becoming more corporate. So I just wanted to rekindle that.”

That summer, Leight made the decision to start his own eyewear company. He took the stake he had inherited from the sale of his father’s business and invested the whole sum into launching his own brand.

Leight was born and raised in Venice, California.

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Leight was born and raised in Venice, California.
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Courtesy of Garrett Leight

“I had been working for Oliver Peoples for like two years …. [and] I kind of became miserable there,” he said. “I didn’t know that I was an entrepreneur at the time, and [there] was just this overwhelming feeling that I needed to create my own thing.”

On November 6, 2009, Leight opened his first concept store in his hometown of Venice and a year later founded Garrett Leight California Optical (GLCO). His first collection was inspired by his childhood, he says, and reflected the artistic and intellectual diversity he was surrounded by growing up. So far, it’s been a critical and commercial success. Leight says that some of the brand’s best-selling frames of all time hail from those first two Venice-inspired collections.

“I launched my first collection off the influence of my customers,” Leight said. “And my customers were just cool intellectual locals with really rad interests and jobs, but they flew completely under the radar. That’s basically the spirit of a Venice creative. You don’t really know why they’re sitting at the coffee shop all day and writing on the computer, [but] they’re actually doing something.”

The importance of marketing to millennials

GLCO realized early on how vital it was to get millennials to buy their products.

To promote the brand, Leight and his team don’t hire big influencers and they don’t hire small influencers. In fact, they don’t hire influencers in the traditional sense at all. Rather, they focus on connecting with a community of people who they feel would genuinely buy their products; who would sincerely love their glasses; and who would honestly tell other people about their enthusiasm for the frames.

“For us it’s less about [follower] numbers and conversion and data,” said Jamie Katz, chief communications officer of GLCO. “It’s more about an organic alignment. If they feel like they are an extension of what we’ve tried to create as the Garrett Leight lifestyle, then we feel like they’re probably in a community of people that would also appreciate the Garrett Leight lifestyle.”

Instead, GLCO works with stylists, who often give the products to their clients. In turn, Brad Pitt, Leonardo DiCaprio, Lady Gaga, and even Jeff Bezos, have all been spotted wearing Garrett Leight glasses.

The GLCO team has also been using digital media to educate their millennial and Gen Z customers on the importance of investing in a good pair of glasses.

“We’re a born-out-of-the-recession brand,” Leight said. “During that recession, the conversation was just about timeless, classic items that were valuable because they wouldn’t go out of style …. [Today] it’s all about logos and color and brand, and less about the things that are guaranteed to last you forever.”

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The “Magician” glasses, which change colors once exposed to UV light.
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courtesy of Garret Leight

This is why, Leight says, his brick-and-mortar shops aim to create unique experiences for buyers ⁠- taking the in-person opportunity to educate consumers on how GLCO products are made, and why they would be a valuable investment.

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The “Magician” frame is part of the GLCO Fall 2019 collection.
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courtesy of Garret Leight

“Since we started 10 years ago, one of the most common questions I still get is how to select glasses for your face,” said Elena Doukas, design director at GLCO. “I think people can be overwhelmed by their choices. [But] we’re very focused in our own stores on giving an experience where the customer leaves feeling included in their selection, and expanding that experience in a digital age I think will be key moving forward.”

As head designer, Doukas has been responsible for some of GLCO’s most innovative designs

For the brand’s most recent collection, Doukas took inspiration from her childhood in the southwest United States.

Leight (right) and his design director, Elena Doukas (left).

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Leight (right) and his design director, Elena Doukas (left).
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courtesy of Garret Leight

“I’ve always been very drawn to the Southwest culture,” Doukas said. “I loved this kind of customized experience of matching a stone to someone’s personality, and wanted to combine that with glasses. I thought it would be interesting to place a stone near the temple of the frame so it not only adds a sophisticated visual detail, but it also harnesses the powers that the stones are known for.”

Growing up in Colorado, the designer remembers the long drives she would take to visit her family who lived in Santa Fe. Specifically, she recalled the crystal shops along the route, and revisited those memories last year, while also stopping by the Petrified Forest in Arizona.

Upon returning to California, she decided to create an eyewear collection based on the colors and cultures of the Southwest. Her most innovative design to date: sunglasses made with the healing crystals Rose Quartz, Black Onyx, and Tiger’s Eye. It is part of the Mr. Leight Fall 2019 collection.

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The “Olinda” glasses feature healing crystals.
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courtesy of Garret Leight

These sunglasses – in addition to the brand’s “Magician Sunglasses,” which have frames that change color when exposed to UV Light – are set to make an impact on the market, proving once again that Doukas and Leight have a, if not harmonious, then a symbiotic creative relationship.

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The “Olinda” is part of Mr. Leight’s Fall 2019 collection.
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courtesy of Garret Leight

“When he first hired me, we worked together as opticians in his Venice optical shop, and it was there that we started an ongoing conversation about eyewear aesthetic and fit,” Doukas said. “Garrett brings an overall vision and identity to the brand, which I then work with him to translate into the physical product that we create in each seasonal collection.”

In 2018, GLCO came full circle when Leight was able to launch an eyewear collection with his father

At that point, it had been exactly ten years since Larry sold Oliver Peoples to Luxottica, but because of Garrett, the Leight family name was still at the forefront of luxury eyewear.

“He’s been such a source of positivity for the industry,” Leight said of his father. “[Their collaborative collection, called Mr. Leight] felt important to me. Clearly legacy and family is more important to me than I thought ten years ago. [And] just putting that on my resume of life feels like the greater good.”

Leight (right) and his father, Larry Leight (left).

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Leight (right) and his father, Larry Leight (left).
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Courtesy of Garrett Leight

Despite finding lasting success in the industry over the past decade, Leight is careful not to assume the market will always be this favorable to his company.

“I’ve learned not to take everything for granted,” Leight said. “Especially when you’re growing really fast, you kind of feel like you’re on top of the world. [But] you could lose sight of some things. As an entrepreneur, you’re always one mistake away from losing everything, more or less. So you just have to be aware of your business and, especially as a creative leader, [try] to have a grounded mindset.”

So as the industry enters a new decade, Leight and GLCO are taking their time, cruising California style into the future of eyewear. Having now moved beyond their initial customer base of Venice creatives, the brand can be found in 25 countries, on six different continents, and in seven flagship locations around the US ⁠- including in Austin, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and New York City.

“We market …. who we are, what we stand for, [and] what we’ve been about since day one, which is California DNA and the quality product and great customer service,” Leight said. “We just kind of were ourselves and created what we thought was cool and people liked it.”