Derek Desierto thought he’d left the eyewear industry behind, but Friendly Universe pulled him back in.
Six years ago, while I was shopping in New York City, a woman followed me from Madewell to Bloomingdale’s to ask me where I’d gotten my oversized tortoiseshell cat-eye glasses. It wasn’t the first time I’d been asked by strangers about my Derek Cardigan frames, but it was definitely the most effort anyone had made to find out where they were from. The designer behind my specs is Derek Desierto, who is also no stranger to getting noticed. At 23, because of his personal style, he was pulled out of the customer service department at Clearly to design an in-house line of glasses for the company. “I think sometimes when you’re young and you don’t know, you’re like ‘I can do it. I got this,’” Desierto recalls of rising to the challenge, sitting in his office in Vancouver. He had dropped out of his college’s design program but sketched a collection of 10 frames inspired by vintage shapes. The name Derek Cardigan was borrowed from his illustration blog. The line was launched in 2010, and Clearly sold more than 100,000 pairs within three years. Despite being handed this “once in a lifetime opportunity,” Desierto left Clearly in 2013. “I still had this burning desire to do art,” he says of his decision to go back to school. But just as he was about to start a new gig in animation this past January, Roger Hardy, his former CEO at Clearly (who had also left the company), reached out to him about launching a new line of eyewear. “My first reaction was ‘Do not ask me to quit my job; I just got it,’” says Desierto. But when he saw the opportunity to create a brand with “a soul” and design glasses that could be meaningful, the now 32-year-old changed his mind.
Friendly Universe, which takes its name from Desierto’s old Instagram handle, will kick off this month with 15 frames on its website. Citing the transparency of Everlane and philanthropy of Toms as inspirations, the brand will highlight real people who are “doing something to create a friendlier universe” in its campaigns. Each person will choose a style to model, and a portion of the sales of that style will go to a charity of their choice. “It’s not enough to just make a cool product anymore,” says Caitlin Sheehan, brand director at Friendly Universe. “You need to know that you are doing the right thing for people and the planet.” Manufacturing will be done in the United States, Italy or Japan, using eco-friendly materials, and the frames will be moderately priced.
Design-wise, Friendly Universe will expand beyond what Desierto did with Derek Cardigan, though geeky thicker frames— which he says he can’t ever escape—will still have a place. “I love classic styles,” he says, “but I really want that mix—more whimsy and fun,” which will come through in the materials, colours and shapes. As if Desierto wasn’t busy enough, he’s still sketching. That’s how former beauty editor Eva Chen, head of fashion partnerships at Instagram, noticed him. She saw a drawing he had posted of her and her daughter on his account and asked him to illustrate her children’s book, Juno Valentine, out in November. It was a full-circle moment for Desierto, whose love of the category dates back to his college days when he worked as a kids’ book specialist at Indigo. It also sounds like the Filipino seer who saw Desierto as a child was right when she predicted that he was going to live a very charmed existence. “Everything I’ve ever wanted to do in my life is happening,” he says.
SUNGLASSES FROM THE FRIENDLY UNIVERSE PERMANENT COLLECTION, WORN BY ESTHER MAVAMBU, FRIEND OF THE BRAND