Tony Gross obituary | Fashion

Tony Gross, who has died aged 78, must have been the first optician to influence fashion. When he began peering into eyes professionally, in the early 1960s, spectacles were medically prescribed, their appearance subordinate to sight correction.

They had evolved marginally over time, their shapes depending on the frame materials: metal, wire, horn or plastic. But fashion round the eyes had come in only with sunglasses; then, starting in 1969, the small company of Cutler & Gross transposed the glamour of dark glasses to the design of remedial spectacles.

Elton John’s 70s at-the-piano image depended on a wardrobe of C&G’s emphatic frames; and models and designers, movie and music people wore them, including Bono, Sting, Grace Jones, Valentino, Versace, Diana, Princess of Wales, and Madonna.

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Julia Roberts in Cutler & Gross spectacles in the 1999 film Notting Hill. Photograph: ImageNet

Gross had no particular vocation for optics. He was the younger son of Abraham Gross, a Polish Jewish immigrant who had struggled to become a doctor in Mile End, east London, and his wife, Muriel, who later worked as a receptionist in the first Cutler & Gross shop. The Grosses cherished education, and Tony followed his elder brother, John (later a literary critic and writer), to the City of London school. A steady profession was expected for young Tony, so he trained as an optician, although by style and temperament he was better suited to an art school: interested in the look of things, curious about human behaviour, a dandy dresser and ubiquitous around town.

Gross’s tiny first consulting room was on unsmart Holloway Road in north London. He already collected old frames as the only alternative to the narrow range of available NHS standards, and sold them to rock musicians and fashion people he met as a clubgoing, poker-playing, restaurant diner; they recommended him to their circles. Advertising for medical purposes was legally prohibited, so he went uncredited when his vintage granny frames began to appear in magazine shoots.

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Sting wearing Cutler & Gross

Still, business was good enough for him to form a partnership with a fellow former Northampton College optometry student, Graham Cutler (“I’m fashion and flair,” said Gross, “he’s the expert”), and in 1969 to rent an eccentric shop in the cul-de-sac of Knightsbridge Green. It had been an Edwardian pharmacy, then a wigmaker’s, and the architect Piers Gough revamped it in so movie-set a manner that clients fully expected a secret door to Q’s workshop behind the eye-charts.

The main problem was finding a manufacturer willing to undertake small, experimental, ever-changing orders. Big companies said a dismissive no, and the eventual supplier was an elderly repairer with a top-floor workshop in scruffy Shoreditch. Cutler & Gross began to produce prescription and plain-lens sunglasses too.

Through the 70s the firm remained discreet, but more customers were in the know, hence the ever more impressive clients. Gross gradually became a regular attender of international fashion and accessory shows, a charming owl with an order book, wearing vintage specs or the meanest shades, though never company products as that would be swanking. He never lost interest in devising classic frames in tortoiseshell or geometric steel, and ephemeral novelties in wild colours of resin, saying that the fashion world was superficial “but that’s what makes it exciting”.

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Madonna on location for her film W.E. in New York, 2010, wearing Cutler & Gross glasses. Photograph: Marcel Thomas/FilmMagic

By the 1980s, major fashion brands and designers were licensing production of spectacles, as well as sunglasses, in their names. Calvin Klein offered to buy Cutler & Gross for its cool reputation but the partners rejected the deal, preferring their own size and style of business. With the 1985 relaxation of the no-publicity regime, Gross was liberated to be spokesman, a shrewd, funny talker about the sexual power of the glance or the history of facial concealment, of masks, veils, hat brims and shades.

Besides his exhaustive collection of vintage glasses for inspiration, he sourced old supplies over decades from stockrooms of opticians across France and the UK, and opened another dotty shoplet on the Green to sell them. He continued designing until 2008, when, after poor health, then a stroke, he withdrew completely from the business.

Gross’s great satisfaction was that he had made it from Mile End to have both a craft-led business and a home in Knightsbridge. He passed through many relationships, including a long, close one with Monica Chong, who was later C&G creative director.

He is survived by a nephew, Tom, and niece, Susanna.

Tony Gross, eyewear designer, born 12 July 1939; died 6 March 2018