The secret Oakley project you've never heard of
"They started this thing on the sly, and we were fully, completely funded by Oakley. But they never wanted that out."
Oakleys were everywhere in the 1990s.
The high-end sunglasses were functional and cool, sleek and sexy and sporty. They transcended the boundaries of sports, entertainment and fashion.
Lots of athletes wore them.
Like Michael Jordan.
And Dennis Rodman.
And Cal Ripken, Jr.
And Ken Caminiti, who looked pretty badass in a pair of shades.
Oakley sunglasses were so popular, a wave of knockoff products -- fake Oakleys, or "Foakleys" -- were popular in their own right.
The brand was a mainstream hit. It could have launched in any direction.
Which made the company’s next move especially perplexing. Oakley decided, in 1995, that it would develop a secret side project, Gatling Optical, that featured glass sunglasses -- Oakley lenses were polycarbonate. Gatling Optical embodied a western/rodeo/cowboy theme in an attempt to tap into the high-end western market (because that was evidently a thing).
"The company was owned by Oakley, even though they didn't want anybody knowing about it," a former Gatling employee told me.
"Apparently Sunglass Hut asked Oakley to come up with a glass lens that would rival Revo. Oakley was known for polycarbonate lenses. So they started this thing on the sly, and we were fully, completely funded by Oakley. But they never wanted that out."
Jim Jannard, the founder of Oakley, was listed among Gatling's officers, and Oakley's corporate info appeared on numerous company documents. The secret brand was based in Arizona at its onset.
Taking a page out of Oakley's playbook, Gatling Optical magazine ads eschewed words and explanations for image-focused advertisements that tried to embody a feeling. The ads appeared in magazines like American Cowboy, a publication "at the heart of the Western community," and featured rodeo pros like Lan LaJeunesse and Kelly Wardell standing around in Gatling shades.
But the magazine ads alone weren't enough. Gatling needed more star power to establish its name. So it enlisted Caminiti and hockey player Jeremy Roenick, among others. Caminiti would show up at malls and sports card shops and sign Gatling-branded photos for fans.
Gatling Optical never really took off. After a few years, the brand was brought in-house at Oakley's California headquarters, and by 2002, it was history.
Occasionally Gatling Optical items will pop up on eBay, vestiges from Oakley's super secret side project that remained a secret.