NEW YORK (Reuters) - If there's a winning look on New York's fashion runways this week, sunglasses may trump the spring clothes from top designers.
Shades, from huge Jackie Onassis frames to dashing aviators, 1980s rocker specs and nerdy squares, popped up in spring 2009 collections and attracted notice as an affordable way for style-conscious consumers to don designer wares.
Showing sunglasses were Michael Kors, Diane von Furstenberg, Derek Lam, Perry Ellis, Lacoste, Carmen Marc Valvo, Nicole Miller, Gottex, Catherine Malandrino and others among the 200-plus designers at the semi-annual New York Fashion Week.
The sunglasses trade can benefit as even the wealthiest consumers become more budget conscious as the U.S. economy faces a possible recession by year's end, experts said.
And while dropping hundreds of dollars on designer shades may seem silly to some, it's more affordable than the cost of a designer outfit, handbag or high-end shoes.
"With sunglasses, there's less guilt factor than with a bag, which can cost $1,000, $2,000, $3,000 or more," said Robert Schienberg, spokesman for Marchon, which makes Calvin Klein, Michael Kors, Fendi and Coach eyewear.
"Women are running out of room in their closets and their budgets," he said.
Driving demand for designer sunglasses is the lack of an "it" handbag at the moment, retailers and trend experts said.
U.S. sales of sunglasses are expected to grow about 20 percent in 2009 over 2008, according to Marshal Cohen, chief retail analyst for the NPD Group, a market research company in Port Washington, New York.
That's in contrast to the flat to slightly higher growth other consultants see for the entire U.S. luxury sector.
"You can thank the youth market," Cohen said. "The teenagers and college students have jumped all over sunglasses as the 'must have' fashion accessory.
"For the generation before them, it was jeans. And then it was the handbag. Now designers are jumping all over the sunglasses licensing category," he said.
U.S. retail sales of sunglasses, not just designer brands, rose to $2.3 billion in the 12 months that ended March 31, from $2.2 billion in the same period a year earlier, according to The Vision Council, a trade group.
The demand for designer sunglasses also is driven by consumers over 40, said Jill Gardner, senior vice president of design for Signature Eyewear, which makes licensed frames for Nicole Miller and Carmen Marc Valvo.
"These people are aging in a style-conscious way," she said, noting the punchy spring colors of orange, purple, berry and aqua could entice consumers to buy several pairs.
Sunglasses are not merely more affordable, but are more wearable than many designer clothes, said David A. Wolfe, creative director of The Doneger Group, a trend forecaster.
"No matter how old or fat you get, your accessories always fit," he said.
Additional reporting by Michelle Nichols; Editing by Ellen Wulfhorst