In Good Company: Stirling Barrett
Words by Amy C. Collins
Photo by Wes Frazer
Long before founding his sunglasses company, Krewe du Optic, New Orleans’ native son Stirling Barrett found early success in the art world, beginning in high school, which he admits came so easily he did not realize how lucky he was. Successful entrepreneurs will often tell you that luck is a key part of “making it,” and most will add that doing the hard work creates the opportunities for luck to go their way. Stirling is a stellar example of the creative trifecta: hard work, luck, and an unwavering belief that it can happen. It’s that mindset, with perhaps a touch of blind ambition, that drives Stirling and his team at Krewe to grow their 100-year old company that is today only in its fifth year.
Those early wins—the cover of a well-known New Orleans book on shotgun houses; representation in the renowned Jonathan Ferrara Gallery—inspired Stirling to start an art business, which he ran throughout high school and college. He earned a bachelor’s degree in Creative Advertising and Fine Arts with a double major in printmaking and photography from Meadows School of the Arts in Dallas. He returned to New Orleans after college to pursue photography and eventually fell upon the idea of creating eyewear, specifically sunglasses, that would celebrate the uniqueness of his beloved hometown with a business model that would prove New Orleans could be a catalyst to grow an authentic brand from a place that people wouldn't expect. And so Krewe was born.
It’s hard to deny the products Stirling and his team are turning out are gorgeous, high-quality pieces worthy of collecting. Each frame is handmade in small batches and guaranteed for life. Every style is named for a New Orleans street, bridge, cemetery, or other famous landmark. They are timeless yet funky, much like the city itself. In January of this year, Krewe added eyeglasses to its offerings. (You can now book an eye exam by a licensed optometrist at their 1818 Magazine Street location.) While sun and eyeglasses are the vehicle for Stirling’s creative vision, it’s as much the company culture that makes Krewe and its people worthy of note.
“We have core values that are really important in the company,” Stirling says. “We have profit sharing, amazing health and wellness benefits, but it's really about creating. Workplaces are not families, but I like thinking about them as work teams. There's a lot of camaraderie here, and there's a lot of love and connection within the team. Ultimately, we're here to do something bigger than our individual selves, and we try to create a culture that's optimizing for speed, failing fast, and growing at a rate that is outpacing the rest of the company.” Fail fast and fail well are perhaps not a typical value embraced by a young company—or any company—at least not in writing. It’s an honest perspective that calls to mind the wisdom of Marcus Aurelius or Seneca, knowing from the outset mistakes will be made, failure an inherent part of growth. But for Krewe, it’s part of the central ethos, and forward progress is forever the goal. “Good is the enemy of smart creatives,” Stirling says. “We're growing so fast that the processes that were in place six months ago are not the processes that should be in place today. If we're just saying,’ Well, we did a good job on that six months ago,’ we’re not asking the right questions. We should be doing a good job on it today. Good is the enemy of smart creatives because good is not good enough. Somebody else is doing it better. So, we've got to make sure we're questioning the way we're doing it.”
Stirling admits there are two chips on his shoulder that propel his doggedness to succeed. First, he says he’s dyslexic and has always been determined to prove such a disability can’t stop him from fulfilling his aspirations. Second, New Orleans. “I love this city,” says Stirling. “It has its challenges for sure, but it still has things that are amazing.” Stirling laments the frequency with which people, both in and outside the community, complain that the Crescent City has been in decline for the past four decades, always quick to point out its flaws and obstacles. He wears a more optimistic outlook. “The amount of creative talent we have is unheard of for a city of our size, and the culture. We have fifteen million people a year visit. Any other city in America, that would totally bastardize the culture, and here it's stronger than ever. I'm inspired by this city and believe we can create opportunities for young people, and jobs, and it's a place worth investing in.”
All seriousness aside, not taking themselves too seriously is one of the Krewe team’s core tenets. At the top of the list is, “Have fun. Make everyday a sun day!” Number two is, “Do you”—a NOLA-ism if there ever was one—and “Let your individuality thrive.” Stirling says the customers are the brand, but certainly the people behind the curtain, the influencers and decision makers, are the collective push toward establishing a legacy company. “Culture doesn't come from me,” he says. “Culture is our shared way of doing something with passion. We're building this company, but we are also building a great culture. If we have a great culture that everyone is living, then we have the opportunity to continue to do something really special.” Like establish a 100-year old company from the outset, doing something different from a place no one would expect.