By Paddy Kamen
The story of Argyleculture is the story of Russell Simmons, design guru to young adults with an urban, hip hop sensibility. And, by the way, Argyleculture’s eyewear frames are stunning.
But how did a young man who grew up on the fringes of illicit business dealings become one of America’s leading designers and entrepreneurs?
After more than 10 years writing about eyewear designers, I can promise you I’ve never come across anyone like Russell Simmons. His background is far from art school, not at all couture. Simmons has a simple honesty about him that is disarming. When asked how he began establishing himself as a designer he is frank: “I would buy things I liked, borrow ideas, tweak them a bit and knock them off under my own label.”
Phat Farm Fashions was that label, now a well-known brand. Simmons sold his stake in that business for a hefty sum in the late ‘90s.
But fashion design and manufacture was Simmons’ second or even third career (you will see that it’s a challenge to pin down this fellow’s many ventures and story lines). Simmons first became famous as the impresario for hip-hop music back in the 1980s, with his concert promotion and artist management company, known as Rush Management, and his record company, Def Jam. He helped to launch the careers of leading artists like the Beastie Boys and Run-D.M.C.
Add film producer, cell phone designer, political activist, yoga practitioner, writer, energy soda creator, and prepaid Visa debit card (the Rush card) originator to Simmons’ list of accomplishments and you can perhaps see how challenging it is to keep an interview with him on the subject of eyewear fashion. Not that he isn’t focused and articulate. Simmons recently spoke with Envision: seeing beyond magazine while driving from one meeting to another in New York.
Argyleculture eyewear embodies the aesthetic of the brand, which began with apparel. Simmons realized that his primary market in the music business – hip hop lovers who were maturing – needed a brand they could identify with as adults. He went for preppy, but on ‘steroids’, emboldening a look that was done so well by Ralph Lauren, adding bolder colours and design features that spoke surprise, thereby redefining the term ‘American classic’.
“Hip hop brands made billions of dollars but then they went out of style and there were no more brands for the adults who had been hip hop youth,” he says. “I call this market the urban graduate. This customer was underserved. There was no design representation in the market.”
Simmons works with many designers on his apparel and accessories collections. The Argyleculture frames are designed by Laura Khligh for licensee The McGee Group, based in Marietta,GA.
Simmons is effusive about Khligh. “She is so talented and really does get our brand. For me, it is a luxury to have a designer who understands the DNA of our company. It’s a dream to work with her.”
The inspiration for each season comes from storyboards and apparel images sent from Simmons’ head office in New York. “I translate their storyboards into frame drawings and we get together several times a year,” says Khligh. “Russell is incredible to work with, because he knows immediately what will work for the brand’s customer.”
Diddley is one of Khligh’s favourite models for the current season. “This is an updated clubmaster style that will work for either male or female faces. We worked with beautiful Italian and Japanese acetates. One is a honey tortoise, triple laminated with bright blue in the middle. Many of the Argyleculture frames show a lot of colour when held in the hand but they blend in and become more subtle when on the face.”
Argyleculture frames achieve a perfect mix of art and design, with comfort and weight among the prime considerations. Says Khligh, “I’m always looking to achieve that blend of current fashion and great technological design. The larger frames may have a weighty look but they are light and comfortable.”
Simmons sums up his work with Khligh, the place of Argyleculture in the market and also hints at the secret of his success: “As a creative person, there are moments when I am very sure that what I am doing is original and new and will still be accepted. I feel that way about our frames. Khligh shows me inspiring frames, with combinations you do not see elsewhere. I can look at them and see the ‘wow’ factor and I know that they fill a gap in the market. The design is new, yet it belongs.”
An Argyleculture sunglass collection is expected next year. Stand by for something original, and keep on eye on Simmons as he redefines style for a new generation.