Love your sunglasses (should I know you?)

While sales of handbags declined 14 percent in the last year, according to NPD, total sales in the $3 billion eyewear industry rose by 10 percent, even while the number of individual glasses sold has slackened — an indication there has been significant growth at the upper end of the market, Cohen said.

Why are designer sunglasses bucking the downturn of other luxury goods? Retailers and other fashion authorities cite It-bag fatigue (women have bought more bags in recent years than they can store in their closets), whereas sunglasses are still a novel way to acquire the cachet of a designer brand.

Sunglasses at the top rung of the price ladder are in step with trends, changing shapes and colors seasonally to reflect the whims of buyers. This summer, a heightened enthusiasm for aviator and wraparound frames and vintage Jackie O styles is contributing to their status as the luxury accent of the hour.

Designers are playing into shoppers' desire to be recognized, at least by those in the know, by downplaying big logos and incorporating more subtle signals of provenance. Bottega Veneta offers frames with woven leather insets that are recognizable to connoisseurs of the house's hand-woven leather goods. Prada butterfly frames echo the motifs of the brand's recent runway collections. Chrome Hearts frames are embellished with sterling bolo designs and leather trim reflective of the company's rough-rider image.

Such stealth-wealth signifiers appeal to Sylvia Toporkiewicz, a visitor from Poland, who was browsing late last month at the Sunglass Hut on Spring Street in SoHo. She weighed the hip factor of a pair of crystal-encrusted Versace frames against some equally costly but understated Ray-Ban glasses, choosing the Ray-Bans, because, she explained, "I don't want to look Paris Hilton."

She is among those turning their backs on ostentatious styling, and especially on the owlishly super-size frames popularized a few years back by Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen, in favor of scaled-down rectangles in bi-colored plastic, imitation tortoise shell, wood, titanium or even gold.

Over all, "people are leaning towards the classics in rich materials," said Richard Talmadge, the chief operating officer for Safilo, which makes Balenciaga, Jimmy Choo and Valentino eyewear. The company's best sellers include Marc Jacobs aviators and television-screen-shaped plastic frames worthy of Anouk Aimée in "La Dolce Vita."

The most coveted styles have a candidly patrician cast. "They look back to the 1970s," said Jayne Mountford, a trend consultant in Los Angeles. "They represent the iconic look of the jet setter."

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In contrast to the '70s originals, which made people seem aloof or anonymous, contemporary variations often feature gradient lenses that are tinted on top and clear below — a more approachable look.

"Sunglasses aren't armor anymore — they're not about saying don't touch me," said Ed Burstell, the vice president for cosmetics and accessories for Bergdorf Goodman in New York. Among the more rarefied labels at Bergdorf are Bulgari, Bottega Veneta, Alexander McQueen, Marc Jacobs, Chanel and Barton Perreira, a six-month-old brand coveted by aficionados.

In the fall, the store plans to expand its already large sunglasses boutiques by 25 percent. Bergdorf prices range from about $300 to $750 for a high-end tortoise-rim version of Ray-Ban's Wayfarers, or $1,395 for frames from the brand Gold & Wood, which have diamond-studded temples.

Despite the price, Burstell described luxury sunglasses as relatively accessible to shoppers used to paying in the thousands for bags or dresses, a "fashion purchase that doesn't break the bank."

The demand for luxury sunglasses has spurred designers to quickly affix their logos to the latest styles, including some designers who had not previously had eyewear lines. The roster includes established giants like Tom Ford, Karl Lagerfeld and Giorgio Armani, and cutting-edge brands like Stella McCartney, Proenza Schouler and Thakoon, some offering wares for both women and men.

"Men have embraced sunglasses with a passion, and may even be driving sales," said James Spina, the editor in chief of 20/20, an eyewear monthly. "Unlike men's previous pet object, the watch, which half the time is covered by a sleeve, sunglasses are always visible, a kind of jewelry for the face. They give men an identity."

Browsing at Ilori last month, Matthew Knoll, the owner of a catering company in New York, seemed inclined to that view. He was prepared to spend $400 or more for a distinctive look, he said, adding, "I don't want to see my sunglasses on someone else's face."

Toporkiewicz continued to scour the Sunglass Hut for frames she hoped would compliment her steeply-angled cheekbones. She would be happy, she said, to spend $300 for a pair that gave her an old-fashioned Garbo-esque allure. "But if they are really nice," she added, "I would pay any price."

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