If Beyoncé’s wearing sunglasses, there’s a good chance she’s wearing Krewe, an eyewear brand from New Orleans. The multi-million dollar brand–which was a runner-up in the 2016 Vogue Fashion Fund, one of the fashion industry’s most prestigious awards–creates eyewear with bold, statement-making flair.
“I’m evangelical on behalf of my city,” says founder and creative director Stirling Barrett, a New Orleans native. “New Orleans has a very playful sensibility to it: People come here to let loose, or as we say, be themselves. We’re inspired by these surroundings to create colorful and unique designs.”
Celebrities have certainly flocked to Krewe, with everyone from Gigi Hadid and Serena Williams to Emma Watson and Blake Lively spotted in the brand’s shades. But none as frequently as Beyonce, who appears to resonate with the brand’s New Orleans-based aesthetic. (The star recently purchased a $2.6 million church-turned-mansion in the city, and her sister Solange lives there.) In paparazzi photos, she’s been captured in a futuristic cat-eye style wearing a blue fur coat and a checked dress; or in a titanium pair as she heads to a workout; or in bedazzled oversized sunglasses while wearing a glam silk top and matching drop earrings.
Given her intimate knowledge of the city, Beyoncé may recognize the names that Krewe bestows on each style, which refer to different landmarks in New Orleans. The St. Louis, for instance, is named for a major artery in the French Quarter, and the metal bridge across the nose is inspired by the cast-iron balconies that line the streets there. The Ward has a sleek, titanium frame, and is inspired by the jazz scene that comes out of many wards in the city. The Collins is named for and inspired by New Orleans architect Collins Diboll, who was known to be a little eccentric: The glasses have a round, bottle-cap shape that gives the wearer a quirky vintage look.
Barrett is fully aware that not every customer will understand–or even care–about how these designs are rooted in specific reference points in the city. But he says that this doesn’t bother him that much. “The connection between product and place doesn’t matter to everybody,” he says. “But as designers, we know that New Orleans permeates the products we make, even if the customer doesn’t fully understand it. It’s fine if they just take away the sense that a New Orleans brand is able to execute elevated design.”
From the start, Barrett’s vision for Krewe was to translate the culture and energy of his hometown into a brand that would resonate in the fashion world. Barrett had observed how fashion labels are often inspired by other American cities, like New York or Los Angeles. Some went so far as to incorporate the cities into their names, including Donna Karan New York or Genetics Los Angeles. “I thought, Why couldn’t I do that with my own city?” Barrett recalls.
Growing up in New Orleans, Barrett was used to people stereotyping the city in various ways. Some associate it with the Mardi Gras parade and the boozy nightlife on Bourbon Street. Others love the jazz, Creole cuisine, and French architecture. And yet others think of it as the city devastated by Hurricane Katrina. “When people imagine New Orleans, their vision of the city is grounded in the past,” says Barrett. “Nobody thinks of it as a modern, design-oriented place. And I thought I could change that by building a fashion brand here.”
But launching a fashion company in New Orleans has its challenges. For one thing, Barrett has struggled to find employees with fashion experience and expertise, since the city has not historically had a thriving fashion industry. To build out his team of 50 (and growing), he says he’s had to hire people from other cities who are willing to move. He’s also invested heavily in training young New Orleanians. “I’m interested not just in building a business, but helping to create an industry here,” Barrett says. “You’ve got to start somewhere, and equip people with skills.”
Barrett also believes that choosing to keep his company in New Orleans is also a way of investing economically in the city. While Krewe doesn’t manufacture the eyewear in the city (it’s made in Asia), all the design work and marketing happens in New Orleans. He’s also been focused on building a retail presence there, with a store in the French Quarter and another on Magazine Street that has an optometrist on site. (It also has a permanent store in SoHo, New York.)
The company also has two traveling stores which the brand dubs “tiny houses.” Although they’re only 200 square feet in size, the windows and roofs let in plenty of light, and they have 14-foot ceilings. Their exteriors pull directly from New Orleans architecture: One is a replica of the shotgun houses that line various Bayous in the city. The other is made of mixed metals and woods, and is inspired by the more industrial parts of New Orleans, where ships and boats were made. Right now, the two tiny houses are parked in Houston and Austin, but the idea is for them to move continuously to different cities.
“We want to give people around the country an opportunity to explore New Orleans architecture and culture,” says Barrett. “But it’s also a good way to test the market. If people are responsive to our brand, we can look into setting up permanent stores.”
In five short years, Krewe has grown quickly. It now makes several million dollars a year in revenue, and it is growing fast, thanks to collaborations with other fast growing fashion brands, like Reformation. Ultimately Barrett hopes that the brand’s success will inspire other New Orleans-based entrepreneurs to launch brands in their city. “It’s harder to build a business here than in other places,” says Barrett. “But would we want to be anywhere else? No. If we can inspire other people to launch startups in New Orleans, I believe that would be our biggest investment to the city.”