The Second Coming of Eyewear Maestro Peter Yee

Peter Yee is arguably one of the most famous eyewear designers that many in the fashion world have never heard of.

For 25 years the American-Singaporean designer worked at Oakley, playing a key role in shaping iconic frames such as the Zero, Eye Jacket, Trenchcoat, Pro M-Frame, X-Metal, Over the Top, O-wire, XS Fives, Monster Dog, Hatchet, Whisker, Box Spring, Soft Top 2.0, Crosshair and Spike.

By the time Yee departed from his role as vice president of design in 2018, he had created more than 110 design patents for the brand.

In 2021, he launched his namesake consulting practice, Peter Yee Design, with clients and projects spanning the globe.

“No one knew who I was. I was just a designer working there. My goal was always to create amazing designs with the team there,” explained Yee on why he flew under the radar for so long. “And also, everything we were doing had multimillions of dollars of ramifications. I lived in the dome of silence because everything was secret.”

But that’s about to change.

An exhibition spotlighting his innovative designs at Oakley will be unveiled at Adrian Cheng‘s flagship high-end retail complex K11 Musea at the end of March during Art Basel Hong Kong.

The designer said he is ready to put himself out there as he writes a new chapter with his own name on it.

Ato Boldon of Trinidad and Tobago wears Oakley sunglasses designed by Peter Yee during the men's 4x100m relay semi-finals at the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games

Ato Boldon of Trinidad and Tobago wears Oakley sunglasses designed by Peter Yee during the men’s 4x100m relay semifinals at the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games.

Getty Images/Michael Steele/Allsport

Yee was born to a Cantonese family from Hong Kong who emigrated to Singapore when his father, John Tit Yee, was recruited to play basketball for the city-state’s national team in the Olympics. When the future designer was three, his family relocated to the U.S., eventually settling in Las Vegas, where they operated a restaurant business.

Coming from a city full of neon lights and tourists on steroids, Yee fell in love with industrial design when he moved to Los Angeles for junior college. One day he signed up for a field trip to visit the prestigious ArtCenter College of Design in Pasadena.

“I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life. But when I walked through the student gallery, looking at these beautiful drawings, products, and models, my mouth was wide open. That was the moment as if the clouds opened up and a beam of sunlight hit me,” recalled Yee, who later enrolled in the ArtCenter College of Design and was able to graduate at the top of his class with honors, distinction — and an ulcer, as he joked in his bio.

Oakley was Yee’s first job. Brand founder James Jannard hired him in 1993 as the company’s first trained industrial designer. In 2007, EssilorLuxottica — simply Luxottica at the time — paid $2.1 billion to acquire Oakley.

“As a hobby I used to collect sunglasses. But I was a broke student. All my sunglasses were no more than $15. I picked my favorite one when it was my turn to meet them, and I remembered the founder was just looking at my eyewear after shaking my hand. It was inside of a building. I was just trying to be cool,” said Yee, who later decided to go work for Jannard because he sensed the company would offer him “an overabundance of creative freedom.”

It sure did. Yee recalled his early days at Oakley as “magical, with nothing being off limits or too risky to attempt.”

“At the time, they were already established as a small-to-medium business. I was employee number 300 and something. The business was probably around $67 million a year,” said Yee. “But every year after I joined, it kept going up. When I left 25 years later, it was a $1.5 billion annual revenue business.”

The Oakley 'Over the top' sunglasses designed by Peter Yee

The Oakley ‘Over the top’ sunglasses designed by Peter Yee

Courtesy of Peter Yee

During that quarter of a century he helped redefine the existing Subzero line into the Zero collection, which started as a sketch on a napkin.

“[Jannard] told me he had this dream about some eyewear and when he woke up, he doodled it on a napkin to show it to me. It wasn’t the best drawing, but I understood what it was,” Yee said. He knew he wanted to turn it into a real design.

“I put it in my back pocket and purposely changed the subject because I didn’t want to talk about that too much because I wanted to surprise him. I later redrew it all and made a prototype with the team. That became the Zero 0.3 and blew the founder away,” said Yee, adding that two weeks later he expanded the style into an entire collection.

He also came up with the brand’s current circle-shaped Oakley ellipse logo with the founder, designed with all the concepts Yee believed the brand’s vernacular should be at the time.

“It was a graphic and physical manifestation of what performance looks like in a logo,” he recalled. “The O is made up of accelerating curves and to me, [this] intellectually equates with performance because it’s more aerodynamic.”

A personal milestone for Yee is the era-defining duel spherical sunglass style Eye Jacket, the first frame to carry the logo he designed, later displayed in New York’s Museum of Modern Art as an example of contemporary eyewear.

It also represented many first achievements for Oakley as it was the first sunglass made completely using computer-aided design from hand sketches, prototyped via 3D printing, and the first frame to have hinges incorporated within the frame. It also had an unconventional hinge line that interlocks the stems to the center frame when opened, achieving a stronger structure.

Pharrell Williams wearing an Oakley frame designed by Peter Yee

Pharrell Williams wearing an Oakley frame designed by Peter Yee.

Courtesy of Peter Yee

“As a designer, I always wanted to do things that are unique and different. I’d never wanted to be a me-too designer. I’m not trying to talk bad about it because it exists and it’s fine. But for me, you know, if there’s something nicely designed, I don’t need to copy it because it’s already done. My purpose is to create something that hasn’t been done. It’s more fun,” said Yee.

The Over the Top, a unibody, dual spherical lens frame worn over the head as opposed to around and over the ears, was another radical style by Yee. Four-time Olympic medal winner Ato Boldon wore a pair during the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney.

“Everything was magical. Nothing was forbidden. We were pushing the boundaries of what acceptability was for the general public. If you look at the iconic things that Oakley has done that I was fortunate enough to work on, they don’t look like anybody else’s work. I guess that is why many brands later copied Oakley,” said Yee.

Dennis Rodman in the 1997 Movie

Dennis Rodman in the 1997 Movie “Double Team” wearing a pair of a pair of early Subzero Oakley sunglasses.

Getty Images

Fast-forward to 2018 and Yee decided to leave Oakley after spending a quarter of a century there. The change in corporate culture was something he had a hard time adjusting to, Yee confessed. He took some time off and worked at Exemplis, a commercial furnishing company, as a design lead to take a break from eyewear.

Yee also joined social media and was soon overwhelmed by diehard Oakley fans. That gave him the idea to share the sketches and design process of the famous eyewear pieces he worked on. A motivational video on YouTube that said “Success is your responsibility” also shook him up during his low point in life.

“The people who tend to follow my social media are everything from high-end collectors, to design students,” said Yee. These conversations, which felt at once fun and like “good therapy” for the designer, and the fervent interest in what he might get up to next got him thinking that there was a gap in what’s on offer today.

Oakley eyewear sketches by Peter Yee

Oakley eyewear sketches by Peter Yee.

Courtesy of Peter Yee

What shape those could take will be unveiled at the exhibition this month, as Yee feels the technologies of the 3D-based phygital platform Spin.Fashion provide the right framework to tease what he dubbed his “special projects.”

He will also bring rare items from his personal Oakley collection, such as an X-Metal Romeo frame with his name laser engraved on the back of it and the number two of the 10th anniversary Time Bomb watch.

“It’s number two because the founder has number one,” he said.

At the pop-up inside K11 Musea, visitors will be able to tap the NFC chips from the physical archive pieces with their phones to project the items in AR with an audio guide and to virtually try on the pieces via an AR Mirror. They will also get to experience a guided mixed-reality interactive tour by wearing the Apple Vision Pro.

Yee is proud of the Oakley chapter of his life, but he’s not retired and is nowhere near done. “If I were to die today, I’d be very proud of the professional career I leave behind,” he said. “But what if, when I die, all the Oakley stuff is just the first half of the book? Maybe there’s a more interesting second half.”

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