Over The Top: The Oakley Story

“Dedicated to purpose beyond reason.” Though this is the message of a very lucrative ad campaign for the most successful and most copied sport-specific sunglass company in the world, it is also a near-perfect description of the company’s founder and his creative philosophies. For the last 26 years, Jim Jannard and his brainchild Oakley have been reshaping conventional wisdom, transforming everyday products like sunglasses and shoes into functional works of art.

Despite the fact that products like the “Over the Top” sunglasses that Bubba sported after winning Loretta Lynn’s evoke a love/hate relationship with most, there is one thing that remains invariable¿the “mad scientists” at Oakley have been continual innovators at the forefront of design and technology for over a quarter-century.

A recent trip to Oakley’s 417,000 square-foot center of operations, nestled in Foothill Ranch, California, was the perfect way for me to gain some insight into the way Jannard runs things at the eyewear giant’s headquarters. Entrance into the lobby required a stiff pull on a ridiculously robust steel door, and once inside, I saw what had to be the most grandeur, tastefully overdone lobby in all of Orange County. The industrial-type architecture was simply startling: I felt like I just broke into some top-secret, Area 51 government hangar. To the right of me sat the waiting chairs: ejection seats from the cockpit of a B-52. On the other side of the lobby was an apocalyptic Mark 84 torpedo sitting on the floor, and not too far from that was a drag car hanging from the wall like an ornament. Was all of this necessary decoration for Oakley’s lobby? No, but neither are shiny, neon Iridium lenses on optically precise sunglasses for athletes¿however, they both generate quite a style statement!

So how did Jannard get into the business of blending functional design with unique artistry in his sports products? Well, it all started over 26 years ago with an inventive salesperson, a funky-looking grip and a dog named Oakley.

The year was 1975, and Jannard, a local rider and sales rep, came up with a new material that he called “Unobtanium.” The material, which is still used today in the ear socks of sunglasses, takes advantage of a soft, hydrophilic synthetic material that creates a tacky, almost sticky-feeling finish that actually provides better grip when wet. With this space-age material, Jannard whittled a set of handgrips that were different from previous grip systems in both construction as well as shape. They were the first grips to be ergonomically shaped to the specifications of the human hand, and they featured an “octopus” tread pattern, which combined with the Unobtanium to create a previously unheard of amount of traction for the hands.

“It was killing me,” said Jannard. “Everyday at work, I was selling products like grips that I knew could be better. I’d come back to my superiors with great ideas for the manufacturers, but they would tell me to just shut up and sell. I realized that I was going to have a heart attack if I didn’t try to execute some of these ideas, so in ’75 I started Oakley with $300.”

Taking a grassroots marketing approach, Jannard traveled to local races, pitching his “wonder grip” to riders. The weird look of the cam-shaped grip attracted immediate attention, and before long Jannard was barely able to keep pace with growing demand.

The Unobtanium grips went from being quizzically gawked at to being trick aftermarket accessories, but there was a slight problem: their ergonomic shape was great on the clutch side, but the throttle side was a different story.

“I remember those grips well,” recalls former 250 Supercross champ and current Oakley employee Mike Bell. “They were a great idea and the construction was incredible, but I never got too into them because the big bump on the throttle side felt so funky when you grabbed a handful!”

It didn’t take Jannard long to deal with the problem and spawnhe Grip II, utilizing the same Octopus tread pattern that allowed traction in 360 degrees but came in a more traditional, round shape. Jannard continued reaping success in the amateur MX scene, and eventually introduced the grip to the BMX market where it was especially successful due to a major boom in the industry at the time. Oakley, a company started from scratch and named after a dog, had evolved into a successful, profit-pulling enterprise that cast a huge shadow of potential in Jannard’s mind.

With the BMX market eating up the grip system, things were going well for Oakley, but the arsenal of ideas in his head kept Jannard from being content with just selling grips. He had tons of other ideas to unleash on an unsuspecting world, so next came goggles. You see, the problem with the grips was that the riders’ hands were always covering them, so no matter how well they were designed, they were never really seen by the masses. Riders began seeing Oakley stickers everywhere, but half of them didn’t even know what it was! This led Jannard into the goggle business, where the straps were much more identifiable. With an already reputable name in motocross, it wasn’t hard to get top pros to wear the new Oakley O Frame goggles, and in 1980 Jannard went full speed ahead with production.

As you might expect, Jim still wasn’t happy with the success of the goggle, which led to yet another light bulb going off in his head. Why not invent a sport sunglass design, but something different from what had been seen in the past. Something that provided protection to athletes, had a cutting edge look, and was optically competent in meeting the strict needs of athletes’ vision. Along came the Eyeshade, a one-lens sunglass that Jannard described as a “goggle feature-laden product in sunglass packaging.” At first, the Eyeshade seemed pretty strange, aesthetically, to say the least. In fact, Oakley representatives say that initial reaction to the glasses was a situation similar to the introduction of the Over the Top, which is considered extremely wild by today’s fashion standards. But along with the ripples in the eyewear industry came waves of sales.

It just took a little time for the rest of the world to catch up with Oakley’s vision of the perfect sport sunglasses, but once the scrupulous and safety-conscious world of professional athletes realized the benefits of the optically correct Eyeshades, the rest of the world followed in their wake and embraced the glasses as the state of the art pieces of equipment that they were. By today’s standards, the glasses were a bit silly and outrageous looking, but so were the feathered mullets of the college jocks and jet-boat drivers that treasured the shades on spring break jaunts to Palm Springs (with bands like Poison and Whitesnake blaring, of course). After all, it was the 80’s!

“We were still pretty young in the sunglass industry and were at the point where we were thrilled to have a shop call and place an order of a couple of pair when this kid called requesting some different lens colors,” recalled Jim. “We said sure, but asked him what he needed them for. He told us that the sport was cycling, and at the end we asked him his name. We were pretty shocked when he said ‘This is Greg LeMond.’ After that call, we knew we were on to something.”

It was proven¿Jim Jannard showed the naysayers and skeptics that he could take a solid product with truly unique and extremely functional designs to the next level by blending in art and mixing them with his own strange breed of fashion. Venturing into the sunglass world was a tough transition for Jim, but despite the initial negativity he encountered, Jannard began to reap the rewards for chasing his dreams and flaunting his creativity. So what next?

Jannard continued with his wild sunglass designs, releasing several new models and at the same time stirring up the eyewear industry by upping the technology and performance of his shades. What kind of performance?

Examples include development of lens coatings like Plutonite and Iridium, both of which are helpful to the eyes of athletes the world round. Plutonite is a proprietary material used to produce lenses with exceptional optical clarity that, through its inherent nature, blocks 100% of all UVA, UVB, UVC and harmful blue light, yet at the same time is extremely lightweight, durable and impact resistant. Iridium caters to the needs of athletes, who embraced the metallic oxide coating because of its contrast improvement, which enhances perception of detail in objects. These were tremendous breakthroughs for people that enjoyed outdoor activities and needed eye protection that was functional. These developments made the athletes happy, and for the recreational consumers, Oakley offered this Iridium coating in a wide spectrum of hues, exciting kids with lowered mini-trucks the world round. Combining the several lens colors available with interchangeable components of similarly varying colors meant that consumers could completely customize their glasses by buying them piece-by-piece. For example, suppose you had a red Iridium lens; all you needed to do was buy some blue arms and a white nosepiece, and you were ready to celebrate the Fourth of July!

Not only did this keep customers satisfied by providing them with trendy, do-it-yourself custom-made glasses, but it also helped Jim turn more profits by creating a new market for splatter-painted replacement parts that “tricked out” the Oakley Blades and Razor Blades, along with other models.

All of this ingenuity eventually led to several patents, and currently the company holds over 520 worldwide. This helps Oakley in their fight to keep piracy down, which, despite a dream team of lawyers that is undefeated in patent infringement cases, remains a major hurdle for the company.

“Every product that I have ever designed, from the original hand grip to our latest T-shirt, has been copied by someone, somewhere. Not only are the copies hurting our sales, but they are generally of inferior quality, which hurts our reputation for making the best products out there,” said Jim.

Oakley is undoubtedly one of the most imitated and copied companies in the world, and it takes just one trip to the swap meet to see that “Foakleys” (or fake Oakleys, as they’ve come to be known) are right up there with Gucci handbags on the list of knocked-off designs. Still, the money continued to flow, along with the ideas in Jannard’s head, and once again Jim decided that it was time to venture into unfamiliar, uncharted territory. The year was 1998, and the product was shoes.

Shoes?! What could a company that has specialized in goggles and sunglasses for the last decade-and-a-half possibly know about shoes? Well, when the company is Oakley, apparently quite a bit.

In June of ’98, Oakley released their O Shoe. With an MSRP of $125 and a design that was completely radical, Oakley releases began to read like a script. People understood the intense technology but were shocked by the compete disregard for conventional styling, thus poking a little fun at the shoe. Sales weren’t great in the beginning, and several investors went as far as to file lawsuits against the company due to a lack of faith in Jannard’s interest in the shoe business, which many believed was a way for Jannard to take a stab at Nike after a failed business deal.

What mattered, though, was that Jim believed in the launch of the new shoe line, and history repeated itself once again¿Oakley footwear is now turning profits and revolutionizing the way shoes are being built by incorporating technology into their “artsy,” futuristic designs.

What makes the Oakley line so successful is the new technology that goes into designing the shoes from the ground up. Instead of the industry standard two-dimensional design that most other manufacturers use when drawing up their new line of shoes, Oakley has taken advantage of a 3-D of performance?

Examples include development of lens coatings like Plutonite and Iridium, both of which are helpful to the eyes of athletes the world round. Plutonite is a proprietary material used to produce lenses with exceptional optical clarity that, through its inherent nature, blocks 100% of all UVA, UVB, UVC and harmful blue light, yet at the same time is extremely lightweight, durable and impact resistant. Iridium caters to the needs of athletes, who embraced the metallic oxide coating because of its contrast improvement, which enhances perception of detail in objects. These were tremendous breakthroughs for people that enjoyed outdoor activities and needed eye protection that was functional. These developments made the athletes happy, and for the recreational consumers, Oakley offered this Iridium coating in a wide spectrum of hues, exciting kids with lowered mini-trucks the world round. Combining the several lens colors available with interchangeable components of similarly varying colors meant that consumers could completely customize their glasses by buying them piece-by-piece. For example, suppose you had a red Iridium lens; all you needed to do was buy some blue arms and a white nosepiece, and you were ready to celebrate the Fourth of July!

Not only did this keep customers satisfied by providing them with trendy, do-it-yourself custom-made glasses, but it also helped Jim turn more profits by creating a new market for splatter-painted replacement parts that “tricked out” the Oakley Blades and Razor Blades, along with other models.

All of this ingenuity eventually led to several patents, and currently the company holds over 520 worldwide. This helps Oakley in their fight to keep piracy down, which, despite a dream team of lawyers that is undefeated in patent infringement cases, remains a major hurdle for the company.

“Every product that I have ever designed, from the original hand grip to our latest T-shirt, has been copied by someone, somewhere. Not only are the copies hurting our sales, but they are generally of inferior quality, which hurts our reputation for making the best products out there,” said Jim.

Oakley is undoubtedly one of the most imitated and copied companies in the world, and it takes just one trip to the swap meet to see that “Foakleys” (or fake Oakleys, as they’ve come to be known) are right up there with Gucci handbags on the list of knocked-off designs. Still, the money continued to flow, along with the ideas in Jannard’s head, and once again Jim decided that it was time to venture into unfamiliar, uncharted territory. The year was 1998, and the product was shoes.

Shoes?! What could a company that has specialized in goggles and sunglasses for the last decade-and-a-half possibly know about shoes? Well, when the company is Oakley, apparently quite a bit.

In June of ’98, Oakley released their O Shoe. With an MSRP of $125 and a design that was completely radical, Oakley releases began to read like a script. People understood the intense technology but were shocked by the compete disregard for conventional styling, thus poking a little fun at the shoe. Sales weren’t great in the beginning, and several investors went as far as to file lawsuits against the company due to a lack of faith in Jannard’s interest in the shoe business, which many believed was a way for Jannard to take a stab at Nike after a failed business deal.

What mattered, though, was that Jim believed in the launch of the new shoe line, and history repeated itself once again¿Oakley footwear is now turning profits and revolutionizing the way shoes are being built by incorporating technology into their “artsy,” futuristic designs.

What makes the Oakley line so successful is the new technology that goes into designing the shoes from the ground up. Instead of the industry standard two-dimensional design that most other manufacturers use when drawing up their new line of shoes, Oakley has taken advantage of a 3-D process that utilizes CAD/CAM engineering and liquid laser prototypes. All of this fancy shoe jargon translates into a masterfully designed shoe that offers superior fit throughout the entire range of motion, which makes it a sought-after commodity by outdoorsman as well as urban dwellers that find themselves on their feet all day long.

The 3-D design also allows the shoes to be created as a whole rather than in separate parts, something that Oakley likes to call unibody construction. Other technically functional aspects of the shoes that Jannard has brought to life is the usage of a thicker sole that acts like suspension for the feet, hydrophilic materials that wick perspiration away from the skin for moisture control, and the usage of blown Kevlar filaments in the construction of the outsole.

All of this technology makes it easy to see why the shoe is quietly sneaking up on its high-budget competitors, and Jannard has to get a kick out of the fact that once again he succeeded in something that people told him he couldn’t do. His latest venture into the shoe market shows that with the right research, design and marketing, there are no limits to what Jannard and his mad scientists can accomplish.

Turning a company like Oakley into a publicly-traded success was easy for Jim¿all he had to do was continue following the advice of his ad campaign and be “dedicated to purpose beyond reason.” So with all of the success of the grips, goggles, glasses and shoes, there is only one question left: What’s stirring around in the inventive mind of Jannard now? Though it would be easy to come up with a list of speculations that is a mile long, time will only tell what Jannard will unleash upon us next. It’s pretty easy to guess that whatever it is, though, it will be as state-of-the-art as it is successful.3-D process that utilizes CAD/CAM engineering and liquid laser prototypes. All of this fancy shoe jargon translates into a masterfully designed shoe that offers superior fit throughout the entire range of motion, which makes it a sought-after commodity by outdoorsman as well as urban dwellers that find themselves on their feet all day long.

The 3-D design also allows the shoes to be created as a whole rather than in separate parts, something that Oakley likes to call unibody construction. Other technically functional aspects of the shoes that Jannard has brought to life is the usage of a thicker sole that acts like suspension for the feet, hydrophilic materials that wick perspiration away from the skin for moisture control, and the usage of blown Kevlar filaments in the construction of the outsole.

All of this technology makes it easy to see why the shoe is quietly sneaking up on its high-budget competitors, and Jannard has to get a kick out of the fact that once again he succeeded in something that people told him he couldn’t do. His latest venture into the shoe market shows that with the right research, design and marketing, there are no limits to what Jannard and his mad scientists can accomplish.

Turning a company like Oakley into a publicly-traded success was easy for Jim¿all he had to do was continue following the advice of his ad campaign and be “dedicated to purpose beyond reason.” So with all of the success of the grips, goggles, glasses and shoes, there is only one question left: What’s stirring around in the inventive mind of Jannard now? Though it would be easy to come up with a list of speculations that is a mile long, time will only tell what Jannard will unleash upon us next. It’s pretty easy to guess that whatever it is, though, it will be as state-of-the-art as it is successful.