Words & Photography Kirk Truman
“The ‘Bird’ was dedicated to Charlie Parker, the ‘Chet’ was dedicated to Chet Baker, and off I went… I had decided that black wasn’t enough.”
It’s said that the eyes are the windows of the soul. If that’s so, then when they’re covered, it should be delicately, and with style. I wear the ‘Bird’ in two-tone brown: the frames are dedicated to the great jazz musician Charlie Parker, the saxophonist and composer who was a leading figure in the development of bebop, admired for his limitless powers of improvisation and beauty of tone. Such was his cultural impact that he helped personify the jazz musician as an intellectual, rather than just an entertainer. It’s all reflected in the Bird frames. But I know what you’re thinking: how does jazz relate to eyewear?
Optician turned eyewear designer Robert Roope is as knowledgeable about glasses as he is about jazz. Roope was born in Hull in 1943 and was raised in a house next to a railway line with the tracks on one side and the river Humber on the other. He lived there with his mother, father and six siblings (three brothers and three sisters) in the midst of the flat East Yorkshire landscape. “Growing up in Hull was very bleak. It wasn’t a very enjoyable place to be,” says Roope. “I was born into a bombed building – it was really tough going, I must say. I was pretty pleased to get out of the place.” From here, he embarked on a career in the navy, attending Trinity House Navigation School for two years, and later becoming a Happy Snap photographer in Bridlington, where he encountered two people who had a major influence on him. “I met two successful jazz musicians, Chris & Mick Pine. I chatted to them and they told me about London,” he says. Leaving behind his roots in Hull, Roope made his way to the capital with a friend to begin a new life in the city. Wowed by London life, which offered quite a contrast to his northern upbringing, he began to develop a relationship with jazz. “I was stunned when I got down here. My friend’s sister had just one record, Johnny Mandel’s ‘I Want to Live’, with the music by Gerry Mulligan. She played it over and over again,” says Roope. “From that moment I was hooked. I got interested in the music, which was all down in London. I was carried away… I’d even call people over at the Birdland Club in New York just to listen to the music over the phone.”
In 1962, Roope began to study optics at what was then Northampton College (now the City University), during which time he had a Saturday job with Dollond & Aitchison on Seven Sisters Road. At this point, he began collecting the vintage eyewear that would, much later, influence his own designs. He began to purchase a few frames at cost price for his mother, who suffered from poor eyesight. After 50 years working as an optician, Roope pursued his passion making the transition into eyewear design. In 2006, he began launched his first collection, partly in frustration at the 25-year dominance of poorly made and poorly designed oblong frames. His brand, Black Eyewear, initially did what it said on the tin: it made black frames. It was never his ambition to become a designer; it happened purely by chance when his six original black eyewear designs immediately drew positive reactions. “God knows where I got the idea from. I was fed up with the bigger brands not making designs that were available in black. So I called up an Italian company and made six black frames. When I looked for design inspiration, I looked at 1950s optics,” he says. “One day, a motorbike stopped outside my St. Albans shop. A guy got off and said to me ‘I’ve come to see those six black frames.’ I said to him: ‘Where’ve you come from?’ He said he’d come all the way from Belgium. At this point, I felt like I’d got a brand going!”
Perhaps it was inevitable that Roope’s lifelong passion for jazz and wealth of knowledge about the music would find a reflection in the design of his frames, which reference the classic eyewear worn by many of the jazz musicians of the 1940s, 50s and 60s. As a token of Roope’s admiration for their music, each of his designs is dedicated to a different figures from jazz history. To date, Black Eyewear offers more than 100 models of glasses and sunglasses. With its notably extra large frame, ‘Miles’ is dedicated to the trumpeter, bandleader and composer Miles Davis, who played a trailblazing role at the forefront of several developments in jazz music, from bebop to fusion.
“I decided one afternoon that I would dedicate each model to a jazz great. Obviously they’d never worn them, but I wanted to find some sort of friendly connection to each,” he says. “The ‘Bird’ was dedicated to Charlie Parker, the ‘Chet’ was dedicated to Chet Baker, and off I went… I had decided that black wasn’t enough.” Roope’s array of designs also includes frames dedicated to Duke Ellington, John Coltrane, Ella Fitzgerald and many more. I recently discovered a new favourite of my own, which also happens to be one of Roope’s most popular designs – ‘Buddy’, dedicated to virtuoso drummer Buddy Rich and currently available in 28 different colour variations. In 2013, Roope’s son made him aware of a vacant shop space at 38 Goodge Street. “We started here on Goodge Street as a pop-up and quite soon people were visiting us on a regular basis; quickly we became a permanent fixture,” he says. Since then, Roope has continued to showcase his designs in his Fitzrovia-based store as well as in his shop in St. Albans.
You have to admire Robert Roope. Now in his 70s, at an age when many feel that their best work is behind them, he has created a successful new brand: Black Eyewear is a testament to his enthusiasm and energy as well as his passion for the music he loves. He’s showing no signs of slowing the tempo either: right now, he’s developing new designs inspired by the sounds of Tubby Hayes and Ronnie Scott.