Sunglasses that float. It’s one of those brilliantly simple, problem-solving product ideas that you hear and must have immediately. Better, Panda sunglasses aren’t the “sport” (read: ugly) model you might expect from floating frames —they’re beautiful, sustainable, eco-friendly bamboo. And as enamored as I am with the product, that’s only the beginning of what’s great about the company: Panda has established itself as a philanthropic brand in the vein of TOMS, giving the gift of vision. For every pair sold, Panda partners with Optometry Giving Sight to provide an eye exam and a pair of prescription glasses to someone in need. They also works with OGS to help train and establish eye care centers around the world. I caught up with co-founder Luke Lagera for the full founding story, and to find out what’s next for my new favorite philanthropic sunglasses brand.So where did this idea originate, and how was Panda born?
Luke: “Three college buddies graduated and after a year of work, we all hated our jobs. So we were like, “let’s try this.” We had had the idea in college, to do what Blake Mycoskie [the founder of TOMS] did with feet, but for the face, so we started making these bamboo sunglasses. We took it to Kickstarter hoping to raise $3,000 and we raised $25,000 in three days. So we were like, “Okay, maybe we’re onto something.” So we just kept moving and we started the online program and started selling, got a lot of organic traffic, and then we basically begged to be in a trade show called ENK that’s in New York, and that’s when we picked up Nordstrom. Nordstrom ran us for two years in 75% of stores nationwide, and we’re still in a lot of them but we’re currently moving with them to all online.”
“We took it to Kickstarter hoping to raise $3,000, and we raised $25,000 in three days”
“We fully admit that TOMS is a role model company for us. About two years ago the Washington Post ran a national review that said “Panda sunglasses are TOMS shoes for your face.” So that helped us get some organic traffic and since then we’ve built on that, hired more people, kept expanding. We didn’t ever expect to have a single employee, we just thought it would be a fun project but then it just kept growing and here we are.”
How does your partnership with Optometry Giving Sight work?
Luke: “We partner with them to provide eye exams and prescription glasses for people in need. We’ve also gone on trips with our non-profits, so two years ago we went to Columbia and helped hand out glasses. We’re not optometrists obviously but we were aids, and it was really cool. So the concept is just kind of taking something that you buy on an everyday occasion and making it impactful.”
What was the process of sourcing the bamboo like?
Luke: “We sampled bamboos from all over the world—India, Mexico, a few places in South America, China, South Korea—and had them carve out glasses frames. We wanted to do it with bamboo because we knew they would float. So now all our sunglasses float and we put a water protectant on them so you can throw them in the pool or drop them in the ocean and you’ll never lose them. As it happened, China had the best bamboo quality, so we import it from there.”
I know you just started making watches as well, so what else is next for Panda?
Luke: “We want to get into apparel—actually when it’s fine-cut, bamboo is almost like silk, so we’ve been thinking about that. But we right now we’re focusing on the watch.” A bamboo watch may be in my future, considering I haven’t worn another pair of sunglasses since I got these. I mean, are they chill AF or what?
I got the Hepburn in “Natural,” so I had to get a little bit dramatic. Seriously though, I’ve never gotten so many compliments on a pair of sunglasses in my life. #WearPanda am I right? (Featured photo: Instagram @jdriscollphotomen)