What with all the stuff going on at the Warby Parker offices—the Lunch Roulettes and Instagram Photo Walks, the earnest philosophies and rococo marketing ventures, the pop-up store in a yurt, the map of places to read in downtown New York, the blog with reading recommendations and “style stories” about their friendly and good-looking staff—it’s easy to forget that the whole point of the company is to sell glasses. The kind people wear in order to see. That’s it. Glasses.
Warby Parker is widely viewed as one of the great success stories of the post-recession age, and a model for how digital start-up culture can work in fashion. The simple model of producing stylish, affordable eyeglasses that buyers can order online and try at home—five pairs, five days, $95—has spawned countless imitators (including underwear purveyor Jockey, which one blogger dubbed “the Warby Parker of titties,” after it began offering bra “fit kits” online). Blumenthal and Gilboa have impressed high-profile investors such as J.Crew’s Mickey Drexler, American Express, and the hedge fund Tiger Global Management; a financing round earlier this year valued Warby Parker at a reported $300 million. Along the way, they’ve managed to establish themselves as part of a vanguard of consumer-friendly, socially responsible young “disrupters”: rhapsodized about by those trying to understand the 18-to-34 demographic, revered by their employees, who are also their customers. And they’ve done all this by making glasses—the province of nerds and librarians and Steve Urkel—seem cool.
“Glasses are cool,” reasons Blumenthal, who wears nonprescription versions of the frames Warby Parker sells. He cites the recent remake of 21 Jump Street, in which characters head back to high school to discover the script has flipped: The jerky jocks are outcasts, and creative kids rule the school. “We’re lucky enough to be living in that moment,” he says, “where it’s finally cool to be smart and thoughtful and to be creative.” The moment, they reckon, is theirs for the taking.
“What we really want to do,” Blumenthal says with the confidence of someone who grew up being told he could do anything he wants and has thus far found this to be true, “is to change the way business in America is done.”
Gilboa, shier, simply nods, as if to suggest this outcome is imminently possible. Warby Parker core value No. 8: Set ambitious goals.
You don’t have to look very hard to find Warby Parker’s origin story. It’s etched on the countertops of the flagship on Greene Street, where this summer a steady stream of tourists and interns could be found peering into mirrors to check out how they looked in frames named after poets and writers, surrounded by terrazzo floors, a bronze bust of someone old and dignified, and floor-to-ceiling bookshelves with tomes arranged and labeled by color (kelly, aubergine). The space, which its designer, Anthony Sperduti of Partners & Spade, calls “functional,” “intelligent,” and “absolutely not hipster,” is intended to resemble a library, inspired by the company’s “literary history,” as Blumenthal puts it (Warby Parker is an amalgam of two Jack Kerouac characters). But as the time line will tell you, Warby Parker was conceived not in a library but in the computer lab on the University of Pennsylvania campus, where the founders met at Wharton business school in 2008. Gilboa, a would-be medical student, had enrolled after his disillusionment with the health-care industry led him to Bain & Company and the idea that business was the most powerful way to change the world. Blumenthal, an international-policy wonk who had studied at the Hague, had come to similar conclusions after a stint at VisionSpring, a nonprofit that helped distribute low-cost eyeglasses in India and El Salvador.
“We were down in the computer lab, and Dave started describing how he just lost his $700 glasses,” Blumenthal recalls. Two other students, Andrew Hunt and Jeffrey Raider, commiserated, and it turned into a confab. “Jeff’s glasses had recently broken, and Andy had this amazing idea to sell glasses online.”