When Tom Cruise Saved the Ray-Ban Brand

Tom Cruise feels the need for speed. And Ray-Bans.
Tom Cruise feels the need for speed. And Ray-Bans. / Rusty Jarrett, Getty Images for NASCAR

One of the most iconic scenes of Tom Cruise’s career comes early on in the 1983 film Risky Business, in which Cruise—not quite yet a star—dances in his underwear to Bob Seger’s “Old Time Rock and Roll.”

Many people recall this scene as Cruise wearing sunglasses—specifically Ray-Ban sunglasses. He doesn’t. It’s an example of the so-called Mandela Effect, in which communal memories can change over time. But Cruise does sport the glasses elsewhere in the movie, and on the poster. And thanks to his charisma, the Ray-Ban brand experienced a renaissance that had sales shooting through the roof.

Ray-Bans actually have two iconic designs. The green, teardrop-shaped Ray-Ban aviators debuted in 1937 and were popular among pilots in World War II. They eventually found a niche among the general public, especially after General Douglas MacArthur wore them in a widely-circulated photo. (Bausch + Lomb, which makes the glasses, called them Ray-Bans because they “banned” UV rays.) But Ray-Ban also scored a hit with their Wayfarers, the chunky black sunglasses first introduced in 1952, which Cruise wears in Risky Business.

Prior to Cruise’s modeling of the style, however, Ray-Bans as a whole were struggling. Both the aviators and the Wayfarers were losing market share to sunglasses that were more emblematic of the 1980s, which had a tendency to ignore subtlety. The days of James Dean or Marlon Brando being Ray-Ban influencers had disappeared. In 1981, the company was selling just 18,000 pairs annually and was considering discontinuing them. In 1982, after fashion magazine GQ featured them in a spread, sales rose to 200,000 pairs. An improvement, but not a huge one.

Enter Cruise. In his first major starring role in Risky Business, Cruise portrays Joel Goodson, an ambitious teenager who uses his parents’ absence to both dance through the house semi-nude and start a brothel. Released on August 5, 1983, the film was a hit, and suddenly moviegoers wanted to wear what Cruise was wearing in the film. Sales of Wayfarers increased by roughly 50 percent to 360,000 pairs sold in 1983 and remained strong throughout the 1980s. By 1988, Bausch + Lomb was selling 3 to 4 million Wayfarers a year.

If that wasn’t enough to earn Cruise free shades for life, consider what else he did for the company. In 1986’s Top Gun, Cruise’s Pete “Maverick” Mitchell donned the aviators throughout the film. Once again, audiences wanted to emulate his look, and sales went up 40 percent. By 1988, orders for 4.5 million aviators were coming in.

So was it Cruise, or a costume designer? According to Norman Salik, the vice president of public relations for Bausch + Lomb in 1988, the actor deserved the credit. Cruise “just likes our products,” Salik told the Chicago Tribune.

Cruise became so synonymous with Ray-Bans that there was actually some blowback. When Cruise made 1988’s Rain Man with Dustin Hoffman, director Barry Levinson was opposed to his star wearing the brand because Cruise was too closely identified with them. Maybe the Mandela Effect was already in action.

Like most fashion statements, the Ray-Ban Wayfarers and aviators fall in and out of style on a regular basis. Cruise, however, never seemed to lose his love for the brand. In 2013, as the star was greeted by journalists at the premiere of Star Trek: Into Darkness, he was asked if his sleek dark sunglasses were 3-D glasses for the film. “No, man,” Cruise replied. “These are Ray-Bans.”