"Sunglasses always make you feel like the most powerful person in the room, and yes, I mean indoors!" Christianah Jones, the British Nigerian designer favoured by Beyoncé and Billie Eilish, tells me. And she isn't wrong. Just think of Grace Jones dominating the dance floor at Studio 54 in countless pairs of statement-making shades; they're as influential a part of her aesthetic as anything else. And blocking out the sun's rays has nothing to do with it.
"Accessory first, sunglasses second" is Christianah's mantra, and one we can get on board with. Over the past few years, this '90s and '00s approach to sunnies has made a huge return, and the designer's brand has played a heavy hand in putting tinted lenses, micro frames and bold colours front and centre.
Sunnies so directional that they're almost anti-functional as actual shades are as powerful an accessory as an 'it' bag or pair of killer shoes. From Kehlani and Ray BLK to Lizzo, music's hottest talents have donned Christianah's retro-inspired glasses on magazine covers and on red carpets, while Bella Hadid and Millie Bobby Brown have also been snapped sporting the shades. It's not a bad client list for a someone whose designs were first sold on Depop (you'll find her stocked at Selfridges now, natch). We caught up with Christianah to chat vintage sunnies, Afropunk London and Lauryn Hill's eternal style.
Hey Christianah! You started off selling your own collection of vintage sunglasses. What first drew you to them and which pair were your favourite?
When I collected my first pair of glasses, I wore them until they were too fragile to sit on my nose. When I travelled, I'd come across old pairs and casually purchase and wear them as I bounced across different countries. On my first trip, I went away for 3 weeks and came home with over 20 pairs! From then on, I would deliberately find souvenir pairs to bring home. I would feel amazing rocking them. Even wearing the least interesting fit, I'd still look great, as it was something you wouldn't easily find or buy in nearby shops. They were limited and unique at the time.
I read that after you sold your vintage pairs on Depop, you ended up regretting it. Your brand was born out of this, though. Do you feel like it was a learning curve that made way for something better?
There's always a feeling of emptiness when you sell out of your collected and well-curated stock. Finding them was my living. Quite often, a buyer would purchase a pair of sunglasses and then just say "it's vintage Chanel," but that didn't sit right with me for some reason. I've spent 6 hours sourcing it and it's gone? It got to the point where I wanted to be appreciated for what I sold.
I'm always curious. I solo travel, connect with people, find out information, learn from locals and always bring that knowledge home with me. When deciding to make my own range, I was confident because I had gathered my resources and inspiration along the way. It taught me about business as I was designing. There was a lot to think about in terms of functionality and safety. Design was never my plan though. My dream was to act!
You sold your debut collection at Afropunk London back in 2017. What do you love about the festival and how did that event kickstart your business?
First of all, I love that it's a Black-owned-and-run festival showcasing Black artists and creatives. It's special simply for that reason. I'd usually go to Reading festival every year and it's completely different. I felt like I belonged there when Afropunk came to London. The vibe was insane and connecting with customers there really was the kick-off for the business. As soon as I came home, I built a website and uploaded my stock and it succeeded really quickly, especially in the US. I even met people there that I consider great friends today.
Depop has changed the way we shop and has played a huge part in allowing young women to be their own boss. What did growing your brand there teach you?
As time went by, it got more competitive to sell and be a top seller, which was good because it meant you'd have do even more. It taught me to push forward and make myself stand out. It was great for me as a member of the community when I was trying to set up the brand, too. I would do pop-ups where I would invite my Depop buyers who would come and support me. This was fantastic because they'd tell their friends who'd bring their friends and it was so nice to experience. I love the community in it and it taught me how to really connect with my customers. It's such a social marketplace.
Your brand is very '90s and '00s-inspired. Whose style do you most admire from that decade?
Yes! I'm a '90s babe and I have to say Lauryn Hill's simplicity in the '90s was so underrated. Naomi Campbell always had expensive "don't bother me" outfits in the '00s. Beyonce in the '00s is my house clothes, and I love Aaliyah for her futuristic '90s looks. Also, Gwyneth Palthrow repped the delicate vintage we wear today, J-Lo with the '00s pimp looks and Britney Spears in the '90s for her colourful lens eyewear. There's loads more but we'd be here all day. I just can't pick a favourite. I think now it's mostly characters from movies that I adore. The Matrix wins by far.
How have you been finding life under lockdown?
I found out I was in the Forbes 30 Under 30 list right when lockdown began and I got really ill at the same time, so it was a high and a low for me. I have also been pregnant during lockdown which has been great because I was able to do what I needed to at home without any stress. The whole experience really taught me about patience, effective productivity and genuine self-care. It was a time to learn, to reflect and to really think about the future and what it looks like personally and in business.
You have a hearing impairment; what do you wish more people understood about being hard of hearing?
It gets hard for me in social settings where I can't keep up with group conversations and I just want to go home because I'm exhausted from trying to listen. This makes me 'antisocial' even though I'm the loudest person in the room. I do wish people saw it from my perspective: imagine, having to keep watching a fly flying in the room for an hour. It disappears and reappears. Do you really want to keep track of another fly after that? That's what it's like with talking. The words come and go and we spend moments putting it together and catching up while you're still talking.
I wish they understood that we are just as fab. Also just because we couldn't hear you the first time, doesn't mean we're incapable of hearing it the second time. It doesn't make us less intelligent because we can't hear, we just need more time. I wish people didn't see deafness as a sad or bad thing too. It becomes very patronising when it comes up in a conversation but I truly see it as lack of education. I wish people understood that we lipread, we use sign language, we need subtitles and we don't want sympathy. We're happy with what we've got because we've got to live with it and it makes us who we are. I wish people understood that deaf people exist among them and are capable of being stars if given the opportunity or chance. 11 million people are deaf in the UK, we're right there. Just give us a chance to fit in your big wide (hearing) world.
Finally, is it still surreal to see the world's biggest celebrities wearing your sunnies?
Definitely. When I first saw Beyoncé wear my sunglasses I screamed! It really helps motivate me when I have tough days, which we all have. It also opened my eyes to fast fashion brands trying to rip off my designs and sell them for dirt cheap, as though my work means nothing! I'd love to see Rihanna, Cardi B, and even Kylie rocking my eyewear. I do love the look worn by Bella Hadid, too, as it's totally something I would wear.