Stanford Business School alums Robert Denning and Karlygash Burkitbayeva are the co-founders of San Francisco-based Westward Leaning, a socially conscious line of universally flattering sunglasses established in 2011. Though the entire line is comprised of one frame shape, the classic wayfarer, the arms of each pair feature unique materials such as brass, aluminum, wood, and antler, related to a particular social issue. Their goal was to successfully merge high-end retail with a contemporary social issue while keeping this message a core brand value. For every pair of Westwards sold, the company donates ten dollars to the various education programs each pair of sunglasses represents through its personalized design. Today, Westward // Leaning launches their fourteenth model.
How did the two of you meet?
We met as students at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business. Karla lived on the floor above me [Robert], and I thought she was the most fashionable girl in our class.
What does the name Westward Leaning represent?
For us, Westward Leaning not only serves as a reminder of our West Coast roots, but also expresses our social mission and progressive aspirations. We agonized over the company name when we first started—we still have a list floating around of over a hundred names we came up with—but then Westward Leaning just clicked because we felt it really captured what we wanted the brand to stand for in a way that was still subtle and inclusive.
Was developing a fashion label a specific goal for either of you?
Not particularly. Both of us came to the GSB with strong finance backgrounds, and fashion and design were more tangential interests. The idea to start a fashion label actually grew out of a class we took on entrepreneurship, which required student groups to launch a company. We stuck with it after the class ended because Westward Leaning married our business experience with those tangential passions, as well as our commitment to social progress. It also sounded nice to get to go to work everyday with friends—we haven’t been disappointed.
Your philosophy as a corporation is phenomenal. Who has the fabulous job of discovering the social or charitable message associated with each style of sunglasses?
I am the one who designs the models, from the material to the story to the charity, but I obviously bounce my ideas off of Karla. I definitely feel very fortunate to have the fabulous job of designing the social/charitable component of our designs. This, to me, is the most important and unique part of our company. I don’t have a formal design background, so I feel like what I can add is thoughtfulness and beauty around the charitable and social messaging relative to our peers.
Every pair of sunglasses purchased gives ten dollars to an education charity. Why did you choose education?
We’re committed to providing for a brighter future through our charitable donations—that’s our tagline: We want a future so bright, you have to wear shades. We believe that education is the most effective call to action, so supporting charities that support education felt obvious given our mission.
What was the inspiration behind the sort of teaching moment opportunity with the names of each design?
I think deep down I secretly want to be a history teacher for high school or something. Like, actually teach high school history classes. So even though I’m a fashion designer, I try to indulge this passion and interest by naming all of our models after different historical events.
How did you develop the ‘one size’ model? Is this limiting at all?
We spent a lot of time prototyping our first model, making small tweaks to each iteration so as to finally produce what we feel is the perfect frame. Obviously people come in all different shapes and sizes, but we believe that our wayfarer is pretty much universally flattering. We often point to our “lookbook,” or basically a collection of all the photos people have sent us wearing their Westwards as proof of the frame’s versatility.
Who is your biggest competitor in the sunglass market?
Although we keep an eye on trends in the sunglass market, and we definitely have some industry crushes, we’re very focused on perfecting our product and brand experience. It’s more important to my design process to remain open and exposed to cultural and social developments than it is to focus on “competition.”
The brand’s marketing heavily relies on social media initiatives. Why did you go this direction?
A lot of the social media legwork was done for us by our very generous fans. For instance, Instagram is the number one source of photos for the aforementioned lookbook. Social media is also very democratic, so that definitely appeals to us ideologically.
Did you ever think it would be tough to be taken seriously as a luxury label alongside designers at the same price point without a social message?
Starting a fashion company is daunting regardless of price point or concept, and anyone who says otherwise is lying. We feel very lucky to have found success so far, but, really, being able to work together on something that we’re passionate about on so many different levels, and while making a difference, has been beyond rewarding.
How many collections a year to you present?
About five to six collections. We tend to do two to three big collections: for fall, spring and summer. And then we do two to three additional collections when we feel inspired by a different cause/charity/story/trend throughout the year. Our PR and wholesale teams are always furious with me for being incapable of planning ahead. So we try to have the two to three big collections planned well in advance. And then I allow myself the indulgence of launching two to three smaller collections as and when I feel inspired throughout the year.
Today you launch your fourteenth model – how would you describe this pair? What cause does it support?
Our fourteenth model is dedicated to the sea. Named for a passage in Shakespeare’s The Tempest, it features created coral inlaid into our new Tokyo Tortoise frame.