“There’s something very special about putting on sunglasses,” Perverse Sunglasses founder Toni Ko told me, “because it’s like you’re hiding behind something, but it gives you a sort of secret power. Wonder Woman’s bracelet is like the equivalent of sunglasses.”
It’s that belief that led Ko to launch the ultra-affordable line, which has already been spotted on It-girls such as Rihanna and Cara Delevingne. Just a little more than a year and a half ago, Ko sold her first company, NYX Cosmetics, to L’Oreal for a sum rumored to hover around the $500 million mark. If you’re a beauty fan, you’ll know NYX is known for its ridiculously affordable, chic makeup (think: $6 matte liquid lipsticks); and the the same principles apply to Perverse.
With the majority of glasses falling under $50, Ko’s doing what she did for beauty: breaking barriers and offering seriously fun, high-quality products at a price point that’s pretty unbelievable. We talked to Ko about her new business model, her favorite sunglass moments in pop culture, and what it takes to grow your own business to massive proportions.
StyleCaster: What’s the story behind the name Perverse?
Toni Ko: The meaning of perverse is misunderstood by everybody. The true meaning of perverse is “deliberately doing things against the norm.” I love that meaning because we’re here to deliberately break the business model of the eyewear industry. It’s been really stagnant for a long time. For example, we have a ridiculously beautiful price point for great-looking sunglasses. Another thing that we’ve done on purpose is that we’ve hired nobody from the eyewear industry. I have people from finance, makeup, hair, fashion. I want to bring a different perspective, and that’s the meaning of perverse.
The reason I started a sunglasses business is because I got really bored after I sold my company to L’Oreal about a year and a half ago. I retired for about two days and decided I needed another project. My true passion is the beauty industry—but I have a noncompete contract with L’Oreal for five years. I was looking at other industries in which I could use my expertise, so I started making a list of items that I have a true passion for. At the end of the day, it narrowed down to beauty and fashion. I looked into fashion; clothing is just not my business, and shoes are too bulky and come in 20 sizes.
I thought about sunglasses. I own more than 100 pairs—they’re all $400, $500. So, I started thinking why is it so expensive? What can I do to bring the price down and make it more approachable so any consumer can match their outfit? [Turns out], the reason why sunglasses are so expensive is because the market is dominated by one company. They name their price. I saw a niche in the market, and I just went for it.
What’s your favorite sunglasses moment in pop culture?
Do you remember the movie posters from “Matrix”? So totally cool. It’s not my favorite style of sunglasses, but that poster is so, so cool.
Who’s your favorite sunglasses style icon throughout history?
There are two women: One is, of course, Jackie O. The next one is Audrey Hepburn from “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.”
What’s your design process?
It’s imperative for us that everyone on our team likes it. You should see our product-development sessions. It’s just like girls huddled, trying on sunglasses. We pick the ones that look universally flattering on everyone.
If you could wear only lipstick or sunglasses, which would you choose?
I’m going to go with sunglasses, because lipstick makes you feel good, but sunglasses make you feel like a badass. These days, I’m in the mood to feel badass.
Some of the pieces from your line such as El Gato [above] are pretty extreme. What do you recommend styling them with?
When we launched that item, I knew it wasn’t for everyone. But it’s for those people who aren’t afraid to explore, because it’s so attention-getting, I think it looks best with just a pair of jeans and a white tank top. Just let the sunglasses do the talking.
How do you come up with the names of each style?
A lot of the names are inspired by our loved ones, so our VP of creatives named a pair after her husband, and one pair is named after her mother-in-law!
What advice do you have for finding the perfect pair of sunglasses for your face shape?
We don’t have guidelines. We’ve tried on thousands, and every guest that walks into our office—we ask them to try on a pair. What we’ve really realized is that many different pairs that most people thought did not work, do work. Depending on their hairstyle, makeup, outfit. It’s about everything. Don’t be afraid, just go ahead and try.
Your story is so inspiring for other women entrepreneurs. What advice do you have for women who want to start their own businesses?
There’s so much—but here’s one piece of advice I got from a close friend that always works with me. Stick to your goal only, and everything else is white noise. That’s very important. Another thing: When you start out, you open your business and you start seeing cash come in—when you see that cash, that’s not your money. That money belongs to the company, and you have to reinvest as much, if not every single dollar that comes in back into the business for at least a couple of years to grow your business. I did that with my last business. I plan to do that with this business as well.