Interview: Eyewear Designer, Sunshine Bertrand

Words OLIVER MOL Images TRISTAN HOLLINGSWORTH

Sunshine Bertrand’s eyewear designs are wildly iconic, and feel both experimental and boldly themselves—as if the ideas that went into making them had been fully satisfied, worked with enough to realise their final form. Basically, they are a pleasure to the eye. The Ibiza-based, Australian-born designer has made an impressive habit of trusting her own instinct, and with a client list that includes: Bottega Veneta, Jacquemus, Chloé, Givenchy, Lucy Folk, Zimmermann, Victoria Beckham, Kenzo, it should come as no surprise that the interview below serves as an important reminder to the virtues of remaining open, welcoming spontaneity and reconnecting to ourselves. Full of wisdom and humility, Sunshine Bertrand acts as a creative mentor to those who work hard, while choosing to remain in flow with the world.

Sunshine—you studied fine arts and painted while living in Australia, then moved to London and worked your way into trend forecasting with WGSN. What were those formative experiences like, and how did you find yourself designing eyewear for the luxury landscape?

The whole journey was very fluid. I never set out to be an eyewear designer, but that was the way my life turned out. Although, I would say there has always been a root of collage in my work. I am the type of person who is terrified by a blank canvas, but if I have a bunch of found elements, then I start flowing and things come very naturally, and I am able to make coherent decisions. When I was in high school and art school, I used to go every single weekend—sometimes Saturdays and Sundays—to the big vintage warehouses outside Melbourne, and I would collage outfits together. It was my biggest joy. I really found a creative energy in that process, picking bits and bobs of 80s sportswear and crazy cowboy boots and tennis skirts, and I would just mash them up and make something that felt really good to me. I suppose I was training my eye through found items: textures, patterns, materials. I learned what really excited me was putting things together that felt like they shouldn’t work, but did. I loved that magic.

I also honed my eye by studying the history of art, making art, and traveling around Europe to visit works that I loved from books. I traveled to the Prado to see the Hieronymus Bosh painting that I loved, and I traveled to Hamburger Bahnhof in Berlin to see Cy Twombly. I was very inspired, and when I returned to Australia, a girlfriend, Gen Kay—who is a photographer—said she always liked the way I put clothes together, and asked if I wanted to do some styling. I told her I had no idea what styling was, but sure, and she told me to go to these amazing stores and pick some outfits, and then to put them on a model. I thought, Great! We did a couple of shoots for Oyster, and some publications in Japan, and I loved it.

Then I moved to London; I had a booking for some styling work, but it felt impossible because the job paid nothing, and I couldn’t even afford to get the tube. I had a friend who did production design, and I managed to get a job styling sets, and shortly afterwards—as sometimes happens—I met someone at a party who said they needed a trend forecaster. Again, I had no idea what that was, but that is the joy of living in the big smoke, and she said, “Basically, I need you to go to festivals and photograph what people are wearing for eyewear.” She made white label sunglasses for Topshop, Zara, Mango, and I thought that sounded pretty cool. I ended up working with them for quite a long time, and then I got a job with WGSN because I was already in the eyewear world—and that was the real breakthrough for me. I was on the cusp of pre-data trend forecasting; I don’t think they have people like me so much now, you know, people going on their intuition, but I always had the sense that I knew what the next thing was, that I knew what was coming, and the job was amazing. I really just went with my gut feeling, and the opportunity to be paid for that was amazing, and super fun. Then, I started working more on development and design. We were working on so much product, and I viewed it as a crash course on the vintage history of eyewear. I knew this was a huge opportunity, and I thought, Here is my ticket.

At a certain point, you decided you wanted to create with higher quality materials and more complex processes. How did you start working for Victoria Beckham?

I met a girl in a bar while I was away skiing. She was the creative director at Victoria Beckham, and she said she needed someone who could launch Victoria’s eyewear collection. I was like, Yeah, I can do that. Then they asked if I could do sales, and I said, “Yeah.” I had never done sales or production, but I helped Victoria launch her eyewear category, which was another big break. I had no idea what I was doing, but I learnt with this amazing team. Basically, we used Victoria’s huge profile and finances to set up a brand, and suddenly we were flying around the world with sunglasses I had designed. Victoria really trusted my eye. I had a strong sense of what she needed, and we really went for it in terms of the look and feel. You have to remember, it was early days, and she was really breaking through, changing the game for celebrity designers. Basically, it was The Row and her.

You have to remember, I had never designed sunglasses before. I was a trend forecaster. But, I knew what I liked. I was very close to my grandmother who was very creative and who had great style, and when she passed I was given a few of her old eye wear pieces, notably a bunch of Gianni Versace 80s like hate blockers. When I met Victoria, she showed me a sample collection that had been delivered to her by another designer. She basically told me they were the worst designs she had ever seen. “Is that how people think of me?” she asked. I told her they were boring as batshit. “They’re not you,” I said, “but I know what’s you.” Even if it doesn’t sound like it, I was holding back. She’s a huge presence; there’s a huge energy around her, and I was shitting myself. Then she said, “What would you do?” And I started showing her some visual stuff, literally tearing sheets out of magazines, and I said, “If you’re really asking me, I would go here: Full 80s, very glossy, gangster, feminine, but not too feminine, and they need to be a little tough, and with a lot of black and gold,” and she was like, “I love it.” We had three weeks to make samples, so I went to the manufacturing partner, and told them we don’t have time for molding or making things bespoke. However, they had a brow bar library, a nose bridge library, an arms library, and I collaged these frames together. The plan was to launch two designs, so I showed Victoria two concepts in three different sizes, but she told me we were going to launch them all. It was incredible, because it really felt like I was connecting with my grandmother, with her taste and eye, which was a part of my DNA. There was a very strong feeling and energy behind that first collection, and from there I was just flying.

You currently live in Ibiza, which must be wonderful for creativity. What drew you to the island from London, and how do you find people’s attitudes towards creativity and success in Europe compared to Australia?

I moved to the island nine years ago because I was burning out, and because the way I think is so visual. When I am in a big city I get overloaded; I want to experience everything, but I am also sensitive to energy. Also, I am quite dyslexic, so working with sales, and running my own business at those early stages without an assistant, or any behind the scenes management, took a huge amount of energy. I felt like a hamster on a wheel and I thought, I am not doing what I was put on this planet to do. I always felt good in Ibiza. I had mates living out there, and I used to go and stay with them a lot. I would get off the plane and think, Ah, this is my place. Each time, I kept taking more suitcases, and at some point I was like, I guess I am living here now. I realised I didn’t need to be in London on the Eurostar all the time. Also, I really wanted to reconnect with my femininity. I get quite masculine in the city, and I really wanted to dive into a spiritual path. I was hungry to reconnect to myself, to chill out, to bring it right down, and I actually took my bed into the forest and slept there for three months. I was literally so hungry for nature. Whenever I left London to see the ocean, I would start welling up and crying. It was this full body craving for nature. I got to Ibizia, and time really opened up. I was downloading so much creativity; I used to fill diaries and diaries, and it wasn’t just eye wear; it was all sorts of stuff. I just knew it was so right for me, and that I needed to live there, and really be connected to the earth, and be naked a lot of the time. I became a full wild, forest feral creature for a while. It was amazing. But, most of all, I am really grateful that I listened to myself amongst all the commotion that was going on in my world, and I thank my inner teacher all the time for teaching me what to do, and for listening to myself.

In terms of tall poppy syndrome, it simply doesn’t exist in London. Everyone is psyched for you, and I do know lots of Australians here, but I guess everyone leaves that at home. In Ibiza, there is a really interesting community. There are super successful people who have made all their money and hung up their boots. There are people who run organic food stores. I have a friend who grows flowers and distills essences and makes local products. I love the mix of ages. People are very happy to live their lives supporting their families and following the seasons. There’s a total sense of freedom, without judgment; you can dress however you want. It’s very open, and beautiful.

Could you talk about the decision to create your own studio, and how were you able to build your client list?

At some point, I told Victoria that I was leaving for Bali to meditate and surf, and when I returned I wanted to set up a studio to focus solely on creative. She told me to call her as soon as I returned, and I ended up working for her as a designer for another four years. My next break came at Kenzo through a wonderful friend named Ben Mazey. He believed in me and gave me a break, and for a while we made all sorts of fun and fabulous products. The next was Chloé, and I had a really good relationship with Clare Waight Keller, the creative director, and I followed her to Givenchy. After a while, if your work is good, you get passed around. I mean, at Chloé, there are still some of those styles being sold at airports, you know, those frames that get all the visibility. It was a wonderful partnership. I was there for eight years. We went through three creative directors there, and at some point I was working for both LVMH and Kering.

For a while, we worked with Bottega, but then when Daniel Lee left we left too. It was sad because Daniel was something else. Some of the briefs were like: Sesame Street, meets 70s concept cars, meets 50s glass ashtray. It was awesome. Another season he would say, “No acetate, no metal,” which is what we make sunglasses out of, and so we started using biodegradable rubber frames.

We have been with Zimmermann now for maybe three years, and that is doing really well. I love working with the Aussies. They’re so smart, and there’s not a word wasted. Often, there is a lot of bullshit back and forth, people flexing their creative control, but with Zimmermann it’s different. There is simply the founder who makes decisions, and then some very smart merchandisers and product people who support the creative vision. They have a great flow and unison, they respect each other.

Have you found there is a fine line between artistic expression and commercial success in your industry? And how, more largely, do you deal with criticism?

I would say that I am pretty satisfied by the level of creativity in my life, but I also understand that I am a commercial designer—and I love that I am a commercial designer. You know, I used to be a fine artist and I could do whatever I wanted, but now I am very happy to work in a world where I can design for other people. It is such a thrill to see people wearing my work. I literally still go up to people on the street and say, “Do you like it? Tell me what you think!” I find such a thrill in my work being used. I am the kind of artist who needs to fill a brief, and the briefs can get pretty tight, but I think I get more creative the tighter it gets. As I said before, the open canvas is terrifying—there are a million ideas.

As far as how I deal with criticism, I think I have pretty thick skin. I always try to find it constructive, and I don’t really take it to heart. But the other thing I would say is I used to have huge imposter syndrome. I went to therapy and the therapist said, “You know, you’re getting paid by these people who are at the top of their game … that’s proof enough,” but it still didn’t land. Then one day my dad said, “I still have imposter syndrome,” and I was like, “Woah, amazing.” That kind of lifted me because I realised loads of people are feeling like imposters too. Now I recognise it is part of the drive and pushes me forward.

I have definitely learned that there are degrees of perfectionism and, over time, when to let go of my battles, however I know very quickly when a product is complete. I think it’s just an inner knowing. When I was young my mum was constantly asking, “What does your gut say?” and so I was always trusting my intuition. I would say my intuition is my secret weapon in my career. It has given me everything. The other thing I like to ask is, “Does it feel charming?” Sometimes, there can be a crazy cool brand that’s not paying you anything. Or they’re paying you loads, but you don’t want anyone to know you’re working with them. I ask myself, “Is it charming?” and follow the charm.

 

Sunshine—you are the mother to two children. How have they impacted you creatively, and how, if at all, has your relationship to work changed since you became a mother? Basically, how do you navigate running an international business while being a mother?

I have been very fortunate to have a team who have been with me for a long time. At this point, my designer and I are aiming to work telepathically, and we are almost there. My ex says that sometimes we don’t even talk, we just make little noises at each other, or we give each other looks, or we just grunt. What I am trying to say is that we are very close, and I have a great team, which includes my other secret weapon: my business coach. She really helped me when I had kids, to enable my team to step up and take on a whole other level of responsibility. When I came back to the business after my first child, they were already at a level and didn’t want to return. So—since having my first kid, I actually have a really good work/life balance. The team has really stepped up.

Looking back, part of the motivation for leaving Victoria and working in-house was to create a business that was woman led, and for women having families. It’s a very flat management style, and we are all really good at what we do. There’s a lot of respect. We care about one another personally, and on a work level immensely, we look out for each other, and we have a wonderful, very trusting culture. We have no set hours or set holidays. It is very free flowing. I don’t care if someone wants to work from Greece for two months, whatever they want, because it has been set up as a remote business from the beginning. Actually, I still think about something a girlfriend told me years ago. She had a huge job and young kids, and I was like, “How do you do it? How do you compartmentalise your work?” And she said, “The trick is to care less.” And that doesn’t mean you are doing less quality work, it just means that there is a confidence underpinning everything you do. I do the very best work I possibly can, and I have a base level that cannot be touched.

Could you talk a little about sustainability within the eyewear industry, and whether you actively seek out new techniques or materials to incorporate into your work?

In terms of sustainability, there really isn’t much information regarding the eyewear industry and the impact it has. Unlike textiles and jewellery, eyewear is not really looking at itself yet. In fact, as an industry, I would say it is really backwards. I don’t want to be that person who is negative about people doing things, but the reality is a lot of the sustainable material claims are kind of bullshit. What they actually claim to do is pretty easy to refute. Maybe in a very highly monitored laboratory, biodegradable plastics could become biodegradable, but it is not going to happen in the rubbish bin. Brands are trying to do things with packaging, and there are some developments for sure, but eyewear is so heavily regulated. I mean, you can’t mess with a lens, because it is a medical device. There have been experiments with recycled ocean plastics, but they have a cheap feeling and people don’t want to wear them. The industry will get there, it is just not there yet in terms of materials.

 

The iconic painter Henri Mattise said, “Don’t wait for inspiration, it comes while working.” You are a courageous leader who has carved out an incredible career in a challenging industry. What advice would you give to young creatives starting out?

I would immediately say follow intuition, follow charm and follow flow. Don’t be too stuck on the outcome, the end of the road, because you might get there and be like, What’s next? You might be closing off to opportunities that open up. I mean, I had no idea about eyewear. No idea about trend forecasting. I think there are so many things out there that you can do as a creative or a designer that you don’t even know about yet. I used to think, Oh, do I regret not studying fashion? But it is my own path that allowed me to find this sweet spot—because I am not a product designer or an industrial designer or a fashion designer. I come from this other place that allowed me to find the success of my career. I had a total love of fashion and what was current, and I cared about the future of fashion. I also loved understanding the technicality behind what is a very technical product—the sort of geeky side of eyewear—and that’s how I’ve got all these gigs. I understand what a brand wants and needs, but I also understand how things are made, and how much they cost, and how we’re going to get there without spending loads of money. Be open to finding that sweet spot for you, because you might think it is something when actually it is something else.

Also, I don’t want to preach this because it is not for everyone, but becoming a specialist in my field has really served me. I am the eyewear person. Brands have accessories teams, and they usually design eyewear without the specific experience, and then they find me, and I am able to add a whole lot more value, because I really know eyewear. A few times people have said, “You want to come and work on shoes or bags?” And I have said, “You know what, I am your eyewear person. I am really good at it, and I can offer you a lot. So let’s do that.”