'London's number one eye guy'

March 16, 2018

Tony Gross pictured in 1989 with models wearing his designs in The Sunday Times Magazine



[Note by Tom Gross]

There will be fewer Middle East dispatches this month because I have been busy organizing a funeral and dealing with other administrative matters on behalf of my uncle Tony Gross, whom I was very close to.

Tony, who was unmarried and childless, died suddenly, but peacefully, last week.

He was a pioneering fashion optician, who worked with people such as Elton John choosing glasses to match Elton’s exotic outfits before concerts. His glasses were worn in several films, including by Julia Roberts in Notting Hill.

As it says in The Times (of London) obituary below, Tony “set about turning glasses from unattractive, government-funded pieces of eye science into a fashion statement that was sexy and mysterious”.

Those who needed to wear glasses “should not have to feel glamour is no longer an option”, he insisted back in the 1970s.

Unfortunately, 11 years ago, Tony suffered a severe stoke and had to retire and sell his stake in Cutler and Gross to help pay for the medical care.

Since many of you on this Middle East list know me personally, for those interested I attach some obituaries below.

(My uncle was also a keen reader of these Mideast dispatches.)


A young Elton John wearing Tony Gross’s glasses, who signed the photo “To Tony with love”



Tony Gross, ‘London’s number one eye guy’ dies
Gross, once the leading fashion optician in the UK, designed glasses for Elton John, Madonna and Princess Diana
The Jewish Chronicle
March 8, 2018


Tony Gross, co-founder of British luxury eyewear brand Cutler and Gross, has died aged 78.

Described in the 1980s as “London’s number one eye guy” by W fashion magazine in New York, Gross was born into an observant Jewish family in London’s East End in 1939. Starting from relatively humble origins, he worked with Elton John in the 1970s, choosing glasses to match the bespectacled star’s suits. Later customers included Madonna, Tina Turner, George Michael, Hugh Grant, Grace Jones, Princess Diana, Sting, Bono, Rhianna, and Ava Gardner. His glasses were also worn in several films, including by Julia Roberts in Notting Hill.

Gross, who was in his heyday the leading fashion optician in the UK, was childless. His nephew, political commentator and occasional JC contributor, Tom Gross said: “He had been in a retirement home for the last few years following a stroke, but maintained his good humour and was his usual jolly self to the end.”

A family friend told the JC: “Whereas Tony’s late brother, the writer John Gross, was renowned for his literary skills – ‘Britain’s best read man’ as The Spectator called John – Tony was primarily a visual person, excelling at art and design.”


Tony Gross, snake in mouth, showing his more playful side



British optician and designer who made sunglasses a celebrity necessity
Obituary: Tony Gross
The Times (of London)
March 14, 2018


When Tony Gross began selling designer glasses in 1969, an appointment with an optician was widely regarded as an unfortunate “medical necessity” which he likened to “going to the chiropodist”.

Gross, who made many of Elton John’s outlandish spectacles and whose other clients included Madonna, Hugh Grant, Grace Jones, Princess Diana, Sting and Ava Gardner, set about turning glasses from “unattractive, government-funded pieces of eye science” into a fashion statement that was “sexy and mysterious”.

His designs banished the association of glasses with frumps and fogeys, and a visit to Cutler and Gross’s shop in Knightsbridge became a fun experience. It was akin to a trip to Biba or Mary Quant to purchase something that was chic and fashionable, and would be an essential accessory to a stylish wardrobe. Those who needed to wear glasses “should not have to feel glamour is no longer an option”, he insisted.

Gross and his business partner Graham Cutler, whom he met at optometry school at Northampton College, formed a formidable duo. Cutler was a down-to-earth optician with an eye for detail, who oversaw the complicated mechanics of producing bespoke spectacles. It was a vital role, for a top of the range pair could take eight weeks, 42 steps and 35 pairs of hands to make.

It was Gross who brought the creative flair with his stylish designs. As a committed bon viveur and man about town, his enthusiasm and taste acted as a magnet that brought pop stars, actors and royalty to Cutler and Gross’s door. Many of their celebrity clients also wore Cutler and Gross glasses on screen, including Julia Roberts in Notting Hill.

As a trained optometrist, he admitted that he had initially regarded the fashion world as “superficial, ephemeral and lightweight”. Yet he came to believe that it was “exactly these traits that make it so exciting”.

Gross collaborated with top designers at fashion shows, where his sunglasses became an integral part of the haute couture look. Indeed, he happily conceded that he was in large part to blame for the modern tendency of actors and pop stars to wear sunglasses indoors and all year round.

When Cutler and Gross opened for business “you could only sell sunglasses to old people who were worried about damaging their eyes”, he recalled. “And most of the styles were just awful. Very unflattering.” It was impossible to sell sunglasses during the winter at all and a wet summer was “bad for business”.

The big change, he believed, came in the yuppie era and what he called “the go-getting Thatcher years”, when he marketed his first pair sunglasses for more than £100 (in excess of £300 at today’s prices).

Bono was a regular client who appreciated how Cutler and Gross’s eyewear could dazzle. “Look, rock star with them on . . . ordinary bloke without them,” he candidly demonstrated, lifting them up and down, in the manner of Eric Morecambe.

Elton John was an early and longstanding customer who became a friend. Gross advised before concerts on which pair of glasses matched whatever outrageous costume the singer was planning to wear on stage. When trying on a new Cutler and Gross design, John would ask what other colours the frames came in and order a pair in every shade.

Yet, although Gross had an instinctive flair for self-projection and loved to entertain and tell stories, he was scrupulous in not gossiping about his celebrity clients. “Treating someone famous with integrity and being discreet is vital,” he said.

Despite his conservative appearance, he was a bohemian whose appetite for the good life was immense. He enjoyed clubbing all night and although he never married, he had a lively appreciation of female pulchritude and bestowed his affections liberally.

Howard Hodgkin and David Hockney were friends and he was a keen collector who owned a number of works by the French nouveau réaliste Yves Klein. He sold them before their saleroom price hit the sky, but he was not unduly concerned.

He was born Anthony Gross in 1939, in Whitechapel in the East End of London, where his father, Abraham Gross, was an immigrant Jewish doctor from a Polish shtetl. His mother, Muriel, who later worked in the Cutler and Gross store, was born in Britain to immigrants from Belarus.

Before German bombs began to fall on the East End, his father evacuated his wife and children, first to Sussex and then to Egham in Surrey. After the war both brothers were educated at the City of London School, although Tony was very much in the shadow of his brother John Gross, who was four years older and won a place at Oxford at the age of 16. He became the editor of the TLS and was dubbed “the best read man in Britain” by The Spectator.

His father’s insistence that it was time “to make something of himself” persuaded Gross, with less than total enthusiasm, to train as an optician. He initially set up a practice in the Holloway Road, London, but swiftly grew frustrated that the only frames he could offer were “boring, unsuitable or just plain ugly”.

His old college friend Graham Cutler had come to a similar conclusion and they agreed to pool resources. The result was what Gross called “the first high-tech shop in London” at 16 Knightsbridge Green.

After suffering a serious stroke that left him barely able to walk or talk, he sold his half of the company in 2008 to pay for his medical care. He spent his final years in a care home in Notting Hill Gate.

According to the writer and journalist Tom Gross, who regularly visited his uncle, he kept his sense of humour and remained good company. “His vocabulary was reduced to 20 or 30 words but we still had great conversations,” his nephew said.

Asked about his own choice of glasses, Gross revealed that he never wore his own designs. “Out of principle,” he said, “it’s like you’re trying to sell them.”

* Tony Gross, designer of glasses, was born on July 12, 1939. He died after several years of ill health following a stroke on March 6, 2018, aged 78


Tony Gross shows his range of spectacles to Princess Anne



Tony Gross, designer of fashionable glasses
Daily Telegraph
March 12, 2018


Tony Gross, who has died aged 78, was one half of Cutler and Gross, purveyors of trendy eyewear to the famous and the fashionable; earlier he had been house poker player at the White Elephant Club in Mayfair.

For Gross, glasses were about more than correcting vision. “Eye contact is the first sexual contact you can make with someone,” he explained.

Cutler and Gross opened in Knightsbridge Green in 1969, with Gross providing much of the creative input to Cutler’s managerial acumen.

Soon their distinct spectacles were being worn by the likes of David Hockney, Elton John and Grace Jones, who would sip cocktails in the store while encouraging customers to select increasingly outlandish styles.

In 1989 Sting was seen wearing the “Eccentric” frame, with one lens circular and the other oval, while in 1991 the Princess of Wales attended the British Grand Prix at Silverstone wearing Cutler and Gross sunglasses.

Gross, who was round and charming, enjoyed recreating designs of earlier years. He faithfully reproduced the iconic wraparound frames won by Aristotle Onassis and brought back the little round Algha spectacles of 1932 that could fit inside a gas mask.

Nor did sunwear escape his attention. “Sunglasses can be tribal, like a mask,” Gross explained, adding that the actual presence of the sun was irrelevant. “People wear them because they know they look good in them.”

Anthony Gross was born on July 12 1939 and brought up in Mile End, the son of Muriel and her husband Abraham, a Polish-born Jewish GP who ministered to a distinctly working-class part of the East End throughout the Second World War.

The family was highbrow and literate. Gross’s brother John, once described as “the best-read man in Britain”, became editor of the Times Literary Supplement.

Young Tony attended the City of London School and his father wanted him to take up medicine; he, however, preferred the clubs of Soho.

They compromised by Tony enrolling on the optometry course at Northampton Institute (now City University), where he met Graham Cutler. The pair were soon firm friends.

When they graduated in 1963 Cutler remained at college as a research assistant and Gross joined an optician’s practice in Holloway Road while moonlighting as a professional poker player. But they both became increasingly frustrated with the range of glasses on offer: either boring, unsuitable or just plain ugly.

They began collaborating in 1969 after chancing across a former hairdresser’s shop, bringing on board George Smith as their frame maker.

Nevertheless, the great British public took some convincing. “Your glasses were a medical necessity, not something to be enjoyed,” Gross recalled of the prevailing attitude.

At the time it was illegal for opticians to advertise, but as early as 1979 they got around the ban by shooting images of glasses chains. The law was changed in 1985.

The pair opened a second store in 1978, on St Christopher’s Place, although it quickly became more of a social club than a retail venture and closed in 1983. Yet the brand continued to thrive and soon Cutler and Gross were exhibiting at fashion weeks in Paris, Milan and London.

Gross, who adored being surrounded by beautiful people, explained how he had once shared all the typical accusations that the world of fashion was “superficial, ephemeral and lightweight”, but added: “I learnt that it’s exactly these traits that make it so exciting.” He retired ten years ago.

Tony Gross was unmarried. He is survived by a nephew, Tom, and a niece, Susanna.


[Update, March 29, 2018: The Guardian has now published an obituary.]


Julia Roberts in Tony Gross spectacles in the 1999 film Notting Hill

Tony Gross obituary
Optician whose company, Cutler & Gross, introduced glamour into eyewear and attracted a host of celebrity clients
By Veronica Horwell
The Guardian
March 29, 2018


Tony Gross, left, with Graham Cutler. They preferred to control the size and style of their business rather than selling it to an international fashion house.
Photograph: Cutler & Gross

Tony Gross, who has died aged 78, must have been the first optician to influence fashion. When he began peering into eyes professionally, in the early 1960s, spectacles were medically prescribed, their appearance subordinate to sight correction.

They had evolved marginally over time, their shapes depending on the frame materials: metal, wire, horn or plastic. But fashion round the eyes had come in only with sunglasses; then, starting in 1969, the small company of Cutler & Gross transposed the glamour of dark glasses to the design of remedial spectacles.

Elton John’s 70s at-the-piano image depended on a wardrobe of C&G’s emphatic frames; and models and designers, movie and music people wore them, including Bono, Sting, Grace Jones, Valentino, Versace, Diana, Princess of Wales, and Madonna.

Gross had no particular vocation for optics. He was the younger son of Abraham Gross, a Polish Jewish immigrant who had struggled to become a doctor in Mile End, east London, and his wife, Muriel, who later worked as a receptionist in the first Cutler & Gross shop. The Grosses cherished education, and Tony followed his elder brother, John (later a literary critic and writer), to the City of London school. A steady profession was expected for young Tony, so he trained as an optician, although by style and temperament he was better suited to an art school: interested in the look of things, curious about human behaviour, a dandy dresser and ubiquitous around town.

Gross’s tiny first consulting room was on unsmart Holloway Road in north London. He already collected old frames as the only alternative to the narrow range of available NHS standards, and sold them to rock musicians and fashion people he met as a clubgoing, poker-playing, restaurant diner; they recommended him to their circles. Advertising for medical purposes was legally prohibited, so he went uncredited when his vintage granny frames began to appear in magazine shoots.

Sting wearing glasses by Tony Gross

Still, business was good enough for him to form a partnership with a fellow former Northampton College optometry student, Graham Cutler (“I’m fashion and flair,” said Gross, “he’s the expert”), and in 1969 to rent an eccentric shop in the cul-de-sac of Knightsbridge Green. It had been an Edwardian pharmacy, then a wigmaker’s, and the architect Piers Gough revamped it in so movie-set a manner that clients fully expected a secret door to Q’s workshop behind the eye-charts.

The main problem was finding a manufacturer willing to undertake small, experimental, ever-changing orders. Big companies said a dismissive no, and the eventual supplier was an elderly repairer with a top-floor workshop in scruffy Shoreditch. Cutler & Gross began to produce prescription and plain-lens sunglasses too.

Through the 70s the firm remained discreet, but more customers were in the know, hence the ever more impressive clients. Gross gradually became a regular attender of international fashion and accessory shows, a charming owl with an order book, wearing vintage specs or the meanest shades, though never company products as that would be swanking. He never lost interest in devising classic frames in tortoiseshell or geometric steel, and ephemeral novelties in wild colours of resin, saying that the fashion world was superficial “but that’s what makes it exciting”.

Madonna on location for her film W.E. in New York, 2010, wearing Tony Gross glasses

By the 1980s, major fashion brands and designers were licensing production of spectacles, as well as sunglasses, in their names. Calvin Klein offered to buy Cutler & Gross for its cool reputation but the partners rejected the deal, preferring their own size and style of business. With the 1985 relaxation of the no-publicity regime, Gross was liberated to be spokesman, a shrewd, funny talker about the sexual power of the glance or the history of facial concealment, of masks, veils, hat brims and shades.

Besides his exhaustive collection of vintage glasses for inspiration, he sourced old supplies over decades from stockrooms of opticians across France and the UK, and opened another dotty shoplet on the Green to sell them. He continued designing until 2008, when, after poor health, then a stroke, he withdrew completely from the business.

Gross’s great satisfaction was that he had made it from Mile End to have both a craft-led business and a home in Knightsbridge. He passed through many relationships, including a long, close one with Monica Chong, who was later C&G creative director.

He is survived by a nephew, Tom, and niece, Susanna.

• Tony Gross, eyewear designer, born 12 July 1939; died 6 March 2018

All notes and summaries copyright © Tom Gross. All rights reserved.