When Selima Salaun goes to work at one of the four Selima Optique locations across Manhattan, she never knows who might walk in that day. The Soho outpost, especially, can attract anyone from curious window shoppers to downtown celebrities.
Since opening her first boutique 30 years ago, Salaun has, in many ways, become one of New York's best-kept fashion secrets. Her brand's Soho flagship is inconspicuous in passing, easily missed by those not in-the-know. But with the help of growing whispers amongst the city's A-Listers from the moment of the store's inception, Salaun has quickly (and for the most part, quietly) become a go-to for the rich and famous in New York and beyond.
The eyewear business wasn't always Salaun's passion. She was born in Tunisia and grew up in France, and initially found the idea of selling glasses and lenses completely unappealing. Her mother had an established career in the optical industry, and though Salaun's heart was in fashion, she felt she didn't have much room to deviate from the career path her mother paved the way for. So, she went to optical school, but by the end of her studies, she had an epiphany: Optics didn't have to be a boring or stagnant job.
"People will go spend thousands of dollars on bags, thousands of dollars on shoes — but with eyewear, they always say, 'It's just to see,'" she says. "But eyewear is to be seen as well. [Glasses] are the first thing somebody will notice on you."
So, Salaun married her love of fashion with her education in optometry, designing statement-making glasses meant to be a fashion accessory.
She originally left Europe and came to New York to help open stores for Alain Mikli. "When I was done opening the store and training the staff, Mikli told me, 'Okay, it's time to [open the stores in] Tokyo,'" she recalls. "I said, 'Absolutely not, I'm staying here.'"
Salaun stayed, and started working on what would become Selima Optique. "When you don't have any investors or anything, you have to be smart about how you start your business. Everything was word of mouth," she says. "I would be dancing in clubs, and saying to people, 'I'm opening a store!' And people were very, very curious — especially because I was coming from Europe and had an accent. The people liked it."
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As for that first store: "I was living in Chelsea back in 1993, but I was always walking through Soho. One day I said to myself, 'This is the neighborhood that I would love to open a store in.' I passed the space where the store is now and saw a sign that said 'For Rent'. I told the owner that I had a passion that I believed in, and with no credit and a few thousand dollars in savings to my name, I took a chance."
Salaun's time promoting her business at the club and around the city ended up paying off when notable customers began to trickle in. "I remember when Boy George came in for the first time — I didn't recognize him," she recalls. "I said, 'Don't we dance together at the Palladium?' And he said, 'I'm sure we did.'"
Over the years, Selima Optique has accumulated a roster of celebrity fans that includes Beyoncé, Madonna and Chloë Sevigny. Many come through their stylists, but just as frequently, Salaun says, A-Listers who live or stay in the surrounding neighborhoods happen upon the boutiques themselves (Zendaya and Florence Welch are some of the more recent customers.)
Though each frame has its fans, the most notable — and recognizable — Selima Optique style is arguably the Aldo sunglasses, sold to Carolyn Bessette-Kennedy in the mid-90s.
"She bought one color, but then I made others for her because she was so obsessed with the style," Salaun says. "She had such a specific look, she was very chic. She never asked for pink or red or blue. It was tortoises, khakis, and neutrals."
Bessette-Kennedy's frame of choice became synonymous with her name and image. As a result, custom orders soon began to play a large role in Salaun's business, particularly from celebrities. It's still heavily favored and sought after today.
One of the most elaborate bespoke pieces Salaun has ever designed was for Michael Jackson. As the pop star was preparing for what was supposed to be his farewell tour in 2009, he approached Salaun with a vintage Christian Dior brooch, and commissioned her to design glasses that looked just the same.
"Those were such a nightmare to produce because they had so many Swarovski crystals," says Salaun. "They're crazy, but they're amazing. I think his estate has them now."
Salaun has since sold frames to Bad Bunny, Ryan Gosling, Rihanna and more. There's one person Salaun hasn't worked with, though, that she hopes to in the future: After enthusiastically singing the lyrics to "WAP," she says, "I love Cardi B. I really admire her and what she does. She's never come into my stores, but I think she's amazing."
Though Salaun's business continues to flourish, supporting emerging designers and uplifting the next generation of creatives is of the utmost importance to her.
"I saw these two adorable girls on the street and stopped them. I asked, 'Who are you?' Their names are Coco and Breezy," says Salaun. "They told me they wanted to be designers, so I gave them 50 pairs of glasses and paid them to embellish them. When they brought me back the finished pairs, I called Paper Magazine, and they put out a story on them. Then, Lady Gaga wore a pair in her 'Marry the Night' music video."
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As for what's next for Salaun and Selima Optique, expanding her brand across the globe, as well as getting into wholesale and focusing more on her retail operations, are top of mind.
"I hope to keep on growing. I've been very optimistic," she says. "I want to continue hiring young talents. There are so many people with incredible ideas, and it really excites me to be able to give them a chance to produce their own eyewear."