EVERYTHING OLD IS NEW
Mississippi-based retailer rich in style and flair
by DANIEL P. SMITH
This article originally appeared in the June 2016 edition of INVISION.
OWNER: Cleve Barham
YEAR OPENED: 2008
AREA: 800 square feet
DESIGNERS: Cleve Barham and Lisa Palmer
TOP BRANDS: Swissflex, Kauzo Kawasaki, Oliver Peoples, Maui Jim, Mykita
Make no mistake, Cleve Barham has a style all his own. On the particular morning of this interview, the 64-year-old Barham sports tan socks lined with orange and yellow bifocals; doesn’t so much laugh as chortle, injecting a normal person’s laughter with an inordinate and spirited amount of glee; and generally employs two talking speeds: fast and faster.
And at Fine Eyes, Barham’s high-end, Ridgeland, MS-based eyewear boutique, every little bit of that flair comes alive in his 800-square-foot storefront.
The modern and eclectic 8-year-old space features pop art-inspired mannequins with bright red lips, a wistful nod to Robert Palmer’s iconic Simply Irresistable music video, while red, blue and green martini glasses sit beside frames from Zero G.
Throughout the shop, a diverse collection of frame stands — from chrome and painted noses to farm animals and the 12 zodiac symbols — hold some of the shop’s boldest-looking frames from brands like Etnia Barcelona and SALT. In the front window, meanwhile, two full-bodied mannequins don formalwear and sunglasses, looking California cool in the Deep South.
“There’s a pop right when anyone walks in the door,” Barham says.
A former Calvin Klein eyewear rep, Barham first opened Fine Eyes in September 1995 in Ridgeland, a bedroom community just north of Jackson, MS, The Magnolia State’s largest city and the state capital.
“When I first started, I was just trying to make a living and feed the family,” confesses Barham, a father of two adult daughters.
That same year, the Ridgeland City Council voted to develop an overlay district, intent on manufacturing a downtown for a community that never had one. “The mayor envisioned building a downtown from scratch, something that looked old, but was all brand new,” Barham says.
And that’s precisely what transpired — albeit over an arduous and long dozen years.
Walk into “downtown” Ridgeland today and you’d think you stepped back in time, a welcome departure from the nondescript strip mall location that housed Barham’s original Fine Eyes store for 13 years. “It literally looks like it’s been here for a century, right down to the fact that you have to cross over railroad tracks to get here,” Barham says.
Keeping pace with the area’s strict, city-defined architectural guidelines and the neighborhood’s other specialty retailers, Barham’s two-story yellow building on Jackson Street is punctuated by a bold red door.
That’s only the eye-catching start. In designing the space, Barham enlisted the help of one of his most loyal customers, Ridgelandbased interior designer Lisa Palmer. Together, Barham and Palmer collaborated on the design.
Fast talking and wildly creative as Barham is, his design instructions were simple and clear. “Old but new,” he sings.
The white-walled space is just that: a compelling and dynamic blend of classic, time-honored features and modern elements.
The old? Pecan hardwood floors and 15-foot ceilings lined with exposed white ductwork.
The new? Modern white cabinets, a custom-made wooden counter topped with walnut, black leather chairs and contemporary glass chandeliers that resemble puka shells.
On the showroom floor, each vendor captures its own space, a defined area thoughtfully fashioned to capture the given brand’s vibe. Maui Jim’s slice of the store, for instance, features Hawaiian leis, flamingo figurines and colored fish frame stands, while the Vera Wang Eyewear section includes wedding goblets, a bottle of Vera Wang fragrance and a crystal frog.
“I get creative with the presentation, and this is really when I have fun,” says Barham, who favors a mix of product across different price points. “I buy lines; I don’t buy frames. I commit to a line and I buy deep.”
Though located about one mile from Renaissance at Colony Park, one of the South’s premier — and most upscale — shopping malls, specialty retail thrives around Fine Eyes’ downtown Ridgeland location. Barham is surrounded by other forward-thinking independents, including the area’s top women’s boutique, a sophisticated men’s store and a chic bridal salon.
“In this market, there is cool, fashionable product, but you need to know where to find it — and a lot of that is right here around our shop,” says Barham, a former Vision Expo board member.
A native Mississippian who has long been reminded that he lives in “the poorest state in the Union,” Barham has been undeterred by the perceived hurdles. With no on-site doctor and a no-insurance policy, he’s selling $1,000 frames into his 21st year of business.
“Did I think I could do it? I don’t know, but I’ll tell you I know I love making people feel good about wearing their glasses,” he says.
He pauses — a rarity in the energized world of Cleve Barham — before starting up again.
“And I’ll tell you something else: I believe I could put this dog and pony show anywhere else — in Chicago, in New York City, you name it — and I could make a go of it. I’m that confident in what I do.”
Five Cool Things About FINE EYES
Fine Eyes’ Cleve Barham in the courtyard of his Ridgeland, MS, store.
1. The custom-made exterior signage was inspired by one of Oliver Peoples’ original frames. “I handed the sign maker a pair of OP 5s and told him to make me a sign that looks like this and to then put ‘Fine’ and ‘Eyes’ where the each of the lenses would be,” Barham says.
2. Each Sunday , Barham visits his store to clean the glass shelves and displays, a weekly tradition that has him touching and playing with merchandise on a regular basis. “Because of that, the store is a little different each week,” Barham says.
3. Fine Eyes shares a courtyard with its neighboring businesses , a flower-packed area rich in sensory-exciting color and scent. “It’s all in bloom now,” Barham says this morning in April. “The greens, reds and purples are coming out.”
4. When people ask Barham what he does for a living, he says — without hesitation — that he’s in the fashion industry. “After all,” he says, “eyewear is the number one fashion accessory anyone can possibly wear. We’d all do well to remember that.”
5. Separating Fine Eyes’ backroom from its showroom hangs a crisp, custom-made white curtain embroidered with a large pair of vintage frames, another example of Barham’s “old but new” design aims.
Running along the top of the Fine Eye’s showroom wall, Barham features 10 black-andwhite framed photos of customers — a local radiologist, an attorney and a real estate agent among them. When Barham first opened in 1995, he photographed many customers wearing the eyewear they purchased from his store, later running advertisements in the local newspaper featuring the customer’s photo and the Fine Eyes logo.
“This worked beautifully as a marketing tool,” he says. “People would be out and about in town and they’d be spotted from the ads, which got our name mentioned plenty. In a small community like ours, that was golden.”
Barham then points to another photo in the middle of the lineup. It’s him, circa 1957. “See that,” he beams, “right in the middle of two good-looking women.”