The hip-hop group Migos won the BET award last month for best group, but perhaps another winner emerged as well — Julz, a.k.a. Julian Emami, owner of South Street's Vintage Julz eyewear boutique.
Outfitting the rappers from Lawrenceville, Ga., known by Quavo, Offset, and Takeoff, in his vintage glasses — ones they wore while accepting their award — was "the craziest experience of my life," said Julz, 26. "For two hours before the show, they tried on outfits and glasses."
Julz deals in dead stock, a term used to describe merchandise that was never purchased or used by consumers, which he finds in warehouses around the world or from old opticians and collectors. He likes them because they are heavier and better-quality than current glasses, and it seems others agree.
For Julz clients Chris Brown, Usher, Meek Mill, and A$AP Rocky — don't forget athletes and actors he outfits — eyewear can be as much a part of their persona as their music is. Featured in the last few years in music videos, movies, postgame interviews, and social media, the stylish accessory has caught on even for common folks, who comprise half Julz's clientele. Whether tinted as shades, filled with prescription lenses, or just worn with clear glass as a fashion statement, Julz's hard-to-find vintage Cartier, Fendi, Alpina, Jean-Paul Gaultier, Tiffany, and Bugatti glasses from the 1960s to the early 2000s range in price from $200 to $7,000.
When Julz opened his shop three years ago, he reached about $80,000 in sales. The next year, sales were $400,000, and this year, he says he's on track to hit a million dollars.
After selling glasses to rapper YG, it wasn't long before other rappers discovered the boutique. "In the industry," he said, "everybody knows everybody."
It was in 2015 when Julz uncovered a stash of Bugatti glasses in an old British optician's warehouse that in the early '90s were giveaways for people who purchased a European Bugatti luxury car. After Migos wore them, the round glasses took off.
"The price of the frame has risen from $300 when I first started my company to over $1,000 today," Julz said. "Now they are practically extinct."
Riders on SEPTA's G bus route know driver Kyle Williams by his vintage sunglasses. "It could be raining, and I still have sunglasses on," said Williams, 37, of West Philadelphia. "I like the look, the unique design and style, and I get compliments all day long."
Williams was walking down South Street a couple of years ago when he discovered Julz's store, where three colorful bejeweled Dior frames valued at $2,500 each — likely the last of their kind — are prominently featured in a display case.
Williams was thrilled to add pair of Porsche sunglasses with silver-and-gold-tinted frames and tinted lenses to his collection of about 50 pairs of $100-to-$600 glasses. The Porsche sunglasses went for roughly $300.
Former professional boxer Bernard Hopkins says vintage sunglasses are an important part of his style. He's meticulous when pairing glasses with his outfits — "I'm a fashion guy, and I like to look stylish, from the eyeglass all the way down to my shoes," said Hopkins, 52, who owns at least 20 pairs of glasses. "I choose the glasses based on what I'm wearing."
He didn't always understand the subtleties — "I had the wrong glasses on a lot of times" — until a stylist explained that certain glasses work better with a suit, others with more casual clothes. "I didn't know."
Julz also customizes frames and lenses in his in-house lab — adding bling to frames, changing lens colors, and incorporating UV protection. A certified eye-care professional, Julz can add a prescription, a skill he learned interning for a local optician.
Julz' journey began in 2012 after graduating from Community College of Philadelphia, majoring in culture, science, and technology.
"I was going to become an X-ray technician, but I was confused," said Julz, who lives in the same South Philly neighborhood where he grew up. He had always loved fashion — "I wore whatever I wanted and stuck out. At the time, kids made fun of me. Now they say they knew I'd make it."
Julz was an Instagram follower of Corey Shapiro, owner of Vintage Frames in Montreal, so he applied for a summer internship.
"I told him my story, and he told me to come to Canada," said Julz, who had never been outside of Philadelphia. He drove to Canada, but was stopped at the border for not having the right documentation. After spending a night in a nearby flea-infested motel, he returned to the border, this time getting through with stipulations.
After a three-month unpaid internship, Shapiro hired Julz, who spent the next two years learning all he could. He assisted his mentor with Shapiro's famous clients, such as Lady Gaga. "She bought, like, 40 pairs for $100,000," he said.
Then Julz decided it was time to go home. Josef Roth, owner of South Street's Shyne Jewelers, offered him space to showcase his glasses. "We had the same type of clientele — urban, hip-hop," said Roth, who had met Julz as a customer several years earlier. "He's unique, one-of-a-kind, and he knows what he's doing, bringing styles people love and can't get anywhere else."
Through word of mouth, a website, and social media, Julz's clientele grew, and a year later, he moved a few blocks west to a larger space. "People come from Australia, London, and Japan," he said, "anybody looking for something different in eyewear."
Julz also uses his experience to authenticate eyewear that clients have bought elsewhere. A few telltale signs of counterfeits are that they are lightweight and display the wrong font on the markings stamped inside the frames. "The expensive ones, like Cartiers that go for $1,000 and up," he said, "have intricate details that you really can't duplicate."