Everybody dreams, but Russ Campbell, founder of Old Focals Eyewear, acted on his and made it real.
By Cuyler Gibbons
30 years ago, Russ Campbell came west from Detroit to make his fortune like so many have before him. He worked odd, part-time jobs, like bill collector and cable salesman, while casting about for a real plan for the future. Looking for inspiration he’d taken to setting his alarm for 2 a.m. and getting up and writing down his dreams.
One night, he dreamt of coming across an old man who was wearing sunglasses and bouncing a baby on his knee. He took off his glasses and put them on the baby. Campbell had been on a personal search for the ideal pair of sunglasses at the time, and in his dream he told the old man how much he liked the sunglasses. “Oh, those old focals?” said the man. “You can have them!” giving the glasses to Campbell, who woke up and immediately wrote down the dream.
Contemplating his note in the morning he realized he might have hit on the idea he’d been looking for. Why not take old vintage eyeglasses, turn them into sunglasses and sell them?
For most people such inspiration manifests as an “interesting idea” that might get talked about but is rarely followed up on. Not so for Campbell. With the blessing of his mother, “Yeah! That’s a great idea,” she said, Campbell went first to the Salvation Army scouring their glasses for frames he liked. Soon he was tapping other charities and thrifts and simply buying their entire inventory. Working out of a garage he refurbished the frames and after first contracting with an optical lab for the lenses, soon learned how to fabricate the lenses himself. Though it was still a one man operation, his glasses soon found traction and a home in prestigious Beverly Hills retailers like I. Magnin
While it was Campbell’s eye and the quality of his craft that got him his first toehold, a creative marketing innovation led to his first big breakout success. Understanding the power of narrative and wanting to connect his vintage eyewear to its “past lives” Campbell came up with the idea of attaching fictional “histories” to his frames—events where the previous owner and thus the frames were ostensibly present—such as “saw the Beatles on Ed Sullivan”—complete with a “certificate of authenticity” that said “You are the heir to all the sights that have been seen through this frame.” This simple, yet clever idea, earned his frames a national review in Playboy magazine and from there he’s never looked back.
While it was Campbell’s own acumen that led to his first break his second big break came to him unbidden and transformed his business. Campbell had found an ideal home for his vintage glasses with vintage clothing retailer American Rag, which became his principal account. Unbeknownst to Campbell, a prominent Hollywood prop master had become a devotee of Campbell’s frames, while the retailer kept their true origin a secret from him. After several months, however, the prop master was able to track Campbell down to tell him “I’m working on a movie, and I need your help.” That movie turned out to be Tucker: The Man and His Dream, starring Jeff Bridges, and directed by Francis Ford Coppola. The movie was a period piece, about late ‘40s auto entrepreneur Preston Tucker. It’s Campbell’s self-taught expertise in period eyewear of the last 100 years that has solidified him as the entertainment industry’s go to guy for demographically and historically accurate spectacles.
Campbell owns two retail locations, his first on Green Street in Old Pasadena, now 20 years old, and the recently opened Old Focals location in South Pasadena on Mission Street, where you can find classic vintage specs to suit any taste. But his personal focus is with his T V and film clients. He is, as he says “consumed by eyewear at all times. Even when I’m not ‘working,’ I ‘relax’ watching Turner Classic movies, noting who would be wearing what, when and where.” The day I spoke with Campbell, he was putting together some recommended glasses for characters on the TV shows American Horror Story, Goliath, and Shameless. And it seems much of Hollywood, when not wearing Campbell’s shades for work, are wearing them for themselves. Campbell counts stars Gary Oldman and Meryl Streep among his customers, and says he’s been supplying Johnny Depp with his distinctive specs for over 20 years.
Some guys just have a knack for seeing the way forward with great clarity. Russ Campbell is one such guy. If you’re looking for eyewear that doesn’t look like all the other eyewear out there what was once Russ Campbell’s dream, is now his mission—to find the perfect frame for you.