Less is Much,
A Dallas store where Black is the new black
STORY BY HEATH BURSLEM
Huge, display-free windows invite passersby to peer deep into the spacious gallery that is Black Optical’s Dallas, TX, location. Those whose tastes lean toward striking simplicity, who think more in terms of style than fashion, function or brand, find themselves drawn to the exquisitely curated selection of eyewear they see inside, arrayed unadorned on white shelves that float above dark marble floors.
Owner: Gary Black
Area: 1,198 square feet
Employees: 10 full-time
Top Brands: Ahlem Eyewear, Garrett Leight, Jacques Marie Mage, KREWE, Mykita, and Thom Browne
To owner Gary Black, fine eyewear is “an extension of our love for design,” the store itself a space to display “a small selection of culture we are inspired by.” He opened Black Optical in 2007 after a decade as regional manager for a national sunglass manufacturer. Initial success in Tulsa, OK, was repeated in the larger markets of Oklahoma City and Dallas. A fourth store just opened in Newport Beach, CA. He’s obviously doing something right.
“I’ve done a lot of things wrong too,” Black counters. “I got to make the rookie mistakes on someone else’s dime.”
In 2007, Black wasn’t thinking beyond Tulsa. “The goal was to use Black Optical Tulsa as a vehicle to explore other interests; open a men’s lifestyle boutique, or a record store focusing on jazz music, become an architect.” While building the first showroom, he “came to the realization that Black Optical is the best vehicle for pursuing that passion.”
A veteran of four store openings, Black seeks out “neighborhoods that lean more residential than commercial. We like being a cultural hub for our communities, and we as a team get great joy from our clients and friends visiting to talk about art, music, or films.” Dallas’ Knox neighborhood fits that bill. “It’s the perfect Dallas neighborhood. We are surrounded by an economically diverse income [group], steps away from the Katy Trail, and walkable to Highland Park, the wealthiest neighborhood in Dallas. Our co-tenants are very independently minded, including some of the best restaurants in the city.” This is retail as salon: It’s not only about connecting with a community, but also helping to create one based on shared tastes.
“We merchandise our frames by aesthetic, not designer,” Black says. The store is devoid of P.O.P. displays; there are no brand- or lifestyle-based areas. “We barely have our own logo on display. We believe service is our best form of branding.” This is genuine “curated” retail: expert product selection combined with close attention to customer service. Without the latter, you’re simply showing off a collection.
The store’s dark Nero and Calcutta marbles offset white gallery shelving and walls, complemented by wood and leather. Black also has a fondness for acetate. When it comes to the eyewear itself, he’s no passive collector; partnerships with designers are a hallmark. “We have collaborated with Ahlem Eyewear, Garrett Leight, and Jacques Marie Mage.” According to Stirling Barrett, founder of New Orleans-based KREWE Sunglasses, “In the art world of eyewear, Gary is one of the pinnacle curators. To have him as a friend and learn from his industry insight has meant a lot to us.”
But is it really possible to merchandise purely by aesthetic? “Completely possible … Great brands do each have their own aesthetics, but there is also commonality. Various designers create aviators, oversized, petite, metals, sculptural, etc. Our expertise comes in discovering great collections and styles that will fit our clients best.” Black prizes his relationships with designers, but ultimately they are secondary. “Designers come and go; they have great collections and not-so-great collections. This is where a little ego comes into play. We make it about us. We have a deep respect for each designer we work with. But we want our clients to buy into Black Optical, not the designers.”
There are practical factors at work, too. “I didn’t start out merchandising by aesthetic. It really came out of figuring out a way to help clients more efficiently. Black Optical Tulsa is 96 feet long. It was taking too much time to walk back and forth. Consumers just want to look good, feel good, and see well. So, it made sense to keep similar ‘fits’ together.”
Black outsources to various labs depending on the frame. “Pricing is so competitive now, and turnaround times so quick. It’s best to focus on what we do best, which is fit frames.”
Given Black Optical’s approach, building a strong team would seem to be crucial. “Ultimately, we want to develop people, while they help develop our brand. We hire with the intent that the candidate will be with us for the long haul, but we also realize this is not a reality for this generation … Our interview process is very slow.”
Black Optical’s online presence is well tended and responsive. On various platforms, you’ll find references to everything from early ’70s Stevie Wonder to the Kenyan spectacles sculptor Cyrus Kabiru. But it’s not as intimidating as all of this may sound. There are fun lines of kids’ eyewear, and the cultural references run the gamut from Ed Ruscha to the grilled cheese sandwich — American classics both.
In one posted photo, Grace Kelly, circa 1950s, pores over a book by Jacques Cousteau. “At heart, we are explorers and learners like Cousteau and Kelly,” says Black. “[She] is the perfect example of not only iconic beauty, but incredible intelligence as well.” You’ll search in vain for a logo in the interior of Black Optical Dallas, but if there had to be one, that image might serve.
PHOTO GALLERY (8 IMAGES)
5 Cool Things About Black Optical
Video star. If Terrence Malick made online eyewear ads, they’d look like Black Optical’s video collaboration with Jacques Marie Mage, which seems to delight in walking a similarly fine line between art school pretense and visual profundity. Some clips plug events, some make aesthetic points, others educate. One shows you how Black Optical’s handmade leather cases are created.
Staff benefits. Under a “wellness reimbursement” plan, the company contributes $150 a quarter to any activity that contributes to an employee’s healthy lifestyle, be it a gym membership, massages, or registering for a 200-mile bike race. After seven years, staff get a paid 30-day sabbatical. And continuing education is encouraged, even at work; Black is building a leadership book library.
Designer collabs. At Black Optical, inspiration’s a two-way street. “Our collaborations have taken various forms. Sometimes it’s limited frame color/lens color runs, sometimes using precious materials like 18K gold mirrors or wrapping frames in Oklahoma-sourced bison leather.”
POP free. “We avoid all P.O.P., logos, and branding; even our [own] branding is virtually nonexistent,” says Black.
It’s not. “There is nothing cool about us. We are just a group of passionate nerds,” says Black. If you’ve been within a block of one of Black Optical’s stores, it’s hard not to scent some Warholian irony here. But he’s not just being, umm, cool. “While I was building Black Optical, two books inspired the brand: Deluxe: How Luxury Lost Its Luster, and Chasing Cool. The latter probably best explains why I don’t think Black Optical is ‘cool.’”
The Judges Say: Comments on Black Optical
- ”Their billboards are magnificent! With ‘We believe service is our best form of branding,’ it’s no wonder they offer a 30 day paid sabbatical to employees on their seventh anniversary.” Robert Bell, Eyecoach, San Francisco, CA
- ”Great presence on Instagram. Brand looks playful and fun. Store looks clean and modern.” Jim Sepanek, De Rigo REM, Sun Valley, CA
- “They have turned a small optical in Oklahoma into a brand recognized across state lines. Their advertising is targeted at those more likely to look for deals online, making their success in that demographic even more impressive!” James and Dr. Laura Armstrong, Alberta Eye Care and Cathedral Eye Care, Portland, OR
A Fine Story: Discreet, But Genuine, Love of Community
Gary Black is a member of the board of the Tulsa Ballet (which once participated in a joint ad campaign with Black Optical) and this is hardly the extent of his community involvement. There are those who see displays of “highbrow” taste as intimidating, or lacking a human component. Black’s community spirit is genuine, but it’s displayed as discreetly as his eyewear. It’s not signaled on his website, but in Oklahoma he’s been involved in distributing free prescription eyewear to the homeless.
This article originally appeared in the September 2017 edition of INVISION.