When I was introduced to Black Eyewear, I was very curious about their creator, Robert Roope and his passion for Jazz. So I wanted to ask him a few questions about eyewear icons and the relationship between his designs and jazz.
Tell me about your career.
At 14 trained as a Navigation Officer in the Merchant Navy. At 16, in 1959, I sailed from Liverpool on my first voyage to the West Indies and South America. We traded with countries along the Pacific coast, Ecuador, Columbia, Peru and Chile. It was awakening and fun.
My first job as an optician was in a Dollond & Aitchison practice on the Seven Sisters Road, Holloway in 1962. Here I dispensed hundreds of NHS glasses including those round gold frames that were later to be made famous by John Lennon, Ozzy Osbourne and many others. I was stunned to discover the variety of beautifully made spectacles that were arriving at the shop.
The attitudes towards spectacles in the 60s were changing. Specs were becoming fashion accessories instead of badges of disability.
In 1967 I went to work in an optical company in Copenhagen, Denmark to distribute eyewear from Germany, Italy, Spain and the USA. The best brands were from manufacturers like Carl Zeiss, Metzler, Marwitz, Rodenstock, Indo, American Optical etc.
In the early seventies I was sent by the American Optical Company to South East Asia to install optical factories and teach local people how to make spectacle lenses and fit them to frames and sunglasses in Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Bangkok, Hong Kong and Jakarta.
I returned to UK in 1975 and decided to set up my own opticians practice in St Albans in 1979, 31 years ago.
In 1998 I started selling my collection of vintage eyewear through the shop website and in 1999 through Retrospecs.co.uk. My large vintage collection of frames and sunglasses had been gathered from my travels abroad, particularly n Europe and Scandinavia.
How did you get into eyewear design?
My passion for eyewear design came out of a wish to rescue the bold simple iconic eyewear styles of the 50s. They had been replaced in the 80s by wall to wall unisex metal oblong frames in gunmetal and bronze. It was clone Britain, sameness, monotonous, characterless. I launched the Black Eyewear range in 2005 to put 50s designs back on the map.
Tell me about your relationship with jazz
I’ve been a jazz fan since I was 14. I got hooked on the first Jazz LP I could afford called ‘Gone with the Wind’ by the Dave Brubeck Quartet.
I loved the bebop era of jazz in the late 50s with Jazz greats like Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Charlie Mingus, Theolonius Monk, Sonny Rollins, Max Roach and many many more. I went to see them whenever I could in London, paticularly at Ronnie Scotts Jazz Club. The music was so exciting, liberating and empowering.The spirit of improvisation was key to this, a great feeling of freedom welling from the music.
Theolonius Monk (source The Selvedge Yard)
In Copenhagen 1969, I was a member of the Monmartre Jazz Club and one late evening after a few Carlsbergs I played a very short duet with Count Basie on the piano. This was probably the height of my musical career. Dexter Gordon was a regular at the club and I also met Ben Webster, Coleman Hawkins and Phil Woods.
Jazz has kept me together during difficult times in my life. Miles Davis’ ‘Porgy and Bess’ and ‘Kind of Blue‘ were often godsends during these times.
Favourite Jazz musicians
Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Bud Powell, Dave Brubeck, Cannonball Aderley, Chet Baker, Paul Desmond, Duke Ellington, Stan Getz, Art Blakey.
What makes an iconic pair of sunglasses?
Sunglasses are iconic if they transform the face and add character and mystery to it.
What inspires you?
Every year in spring an elderly lady customer comes to my Opticians shop and says “Mr. Roope, I want you to make me look like a movie star”.
“Which one this year?” I ask her. We choose one and by the time she leaves the shop she has almost become the Movie star she wants to be.
What’s your creation process?
Sometimes I visualize a face from the past. A look, a style, a character then emerges in my mind and I begin framing the face with a shape to suit him or her. I search around for the style shape for this face and begin to create something new if a suitable shape does not exist already in my collection.
I’m constantly scanning passers-by and observing the glasses they are wearing, I visualize more suitable eyewear for them. I am very conscious of the geometry of the face and aware that face shape and character can be seriously altered by the shapes and colours you add to the face.
From Bruce Weber’s ‘Let’s get Lost’
When were you the happiest?
Walking in the woods.
What were you like as a little boy?
Hyperactive playful troublemaker.
What was your dream job growing up?