Ulla Eyewear proves glasses are one of the newest and most stylish fashion accessories. For more than 15 years, the family-owned shop has offered a curated collection of handmade exclusive eyewear with a European flair. Ulla’s frames are bold and colorful, with a wide array of both eyeglasses and sunglasses for women, men, and children. “At Ulla, there’s a pair of glasses for everyone and every personality,” says Brittany Graber, owner and president. “Glasses are no longer just a medical necessity. They’ve transformed into a means for self-expression.”
Opened in 1998, Ulla [pronounced ooo-la] welcomes customers into their bright and airy store with a welcoming dose of Midwest congeniality. Their goal? Fun and self-confidence. “We want people to come into our store and try on lots of glasses, even the crazy ones!” Brittany says. Nestled adjacent to Macy’s in Hilldale Shopping Center, Ulla’s modern interior—complete with an eye-catching turquoise wall—is a comfortable yet chic environment to do just that. “We love it when our customers can laugh at themselves and have fun with the process. Our staff works to ensure everyone walks away feeling good about themselves. That’s all that we want.”
Brittany purchased Ulla in 2010 from her father, Joe, who founded the store. The owner of a lens lab, Joe made
the decision to bring his company “full circle” in the late 1990s. With the help of his German-born wife Ulla—the company’s vivacious namesake—he opened Ulla Eyewear to offer fashion-forward Madisonians a place to buy unique glasses. Ulla herself remains the inspiration behind it all, epitomizing the vibrant, modern eyewear the shop has become synonymous with. Since taking over the store, Brittany has continued to grow the company while still keeping it all in the family. Her mother, Mardy, works as an optician in the shop.
With summer’s imminent arrival, Ulla has upped their stock of sunglasses and sport sunglasses. “Madison is an active city—especially in the summer—and sunglasses are essential for protecting your skin and eyes from UV rays,” Brittany states. Ulla carries an array of sunnies, including retro and wayfarer styles, as well as stocking glasses from one of their newest lines, Vuarnet. Vuarnet, a French brand made popular by skiers in the 1990s, is making a comeback with retro, sporty sunglasses and hip clip-on options.
Vuarnet is just one of a handful of brands exclusive to Ulla. The shop has solidified partnerships with premium eyewear brands that allow them to be the sole carrier in the Madison area. Other exclusives include Bespoke, Etnia Barcelona, Lindberg, SALT, and Tom Davies. Ulla’s distinctive selection of frames means that while prices are higher, the quality of their products meet a higher, handcrafted standard. “These aren’t cookie cutter frames made en masse by machines,” Brittany affirms.
Not all glasses have to be colorful or funky to make it onto Ulla’s shelves. “Minimal frames don’t have to be boring,” Brittany says, noting new advances in eyewear design that offer more classic-looking options. That includes glasses with unique hinge designs and frame shapes, as well as frameless glasses. Many brands also offer custom inscriptions. Perhaps most notably, eyewear companies are experimenting with new raw materials for truly one-of-a-kind glasses. Ulla recently began carrying an Italian line of glasses called Feb31st made from wood that take two months to craft and are completely customizable.
Although look and feel are important, Ulla recognizes glasses are still a medical necessity that demand the right prescription and fit. Having worked in her father’s lens lab growing up, Brittany is well trained in this area. “Our eyes are unique and require lenses that are specially formulated for each individual. We are extremely careful and double check all lens orders that come back from the lens lab,” Brittany says. “You can never be too cautious when it comes to people’s eyes. We have a well-trained staff and special technology to make sure it’s always perfect.” Ulla utilizes the assistance of fit technology machines, which measure optimal fit and can be used for both eye and sunglasses. Brittany is adamant that the shop’s staff of eight employees have a honed attention to detail and customer service to ensure customers walk out the door with the right glasses and right prescription. “I know that’s what I want when I shop somewhere—someone who’s looking out for me.”
Whether you are in need of eyeglasses, sunnies, or new specs for the entire family, Ulla gives back to customers with helpful discounts. They offer 15 percent off with insurance, as well as multiple pair discounts—25 percent off a second pair and 35 percent off a third pair. If you spread the word to family and friends, Ulla’s referral program will also earn you rewards since Brittany states, “Word of mouth is huge for us.” In addition, Ulla gives back to the community at large. As dedicated partners with A Fund for Women as well as Combat Blindness International, they volunteer and host events throughout the year for both causes.
With construction at Hilldale expected to be complete by the end of summer, Ulla’s European sensibility fits in perfectly with the shopping center’s fresh makeover. Soon this family-run shop will sit alongside national retailers like Michael Kors, Kate Spade and Sur la Table. But Brittany asserts these well-known chains will not alter Ulla’s individuality. With a background in design, Brittany enjoys the creativity that running her own business allows her and looks forward to keeping on top of—and starting—new eyewear trends. “We don’t want to be like everyone else, because there are a lot of places you can buy eyeglasses,” Brittany asserts. “People come to us because we have unique eyewear that’s high-quality and expert customer service that ensures you’re getting the right glasses for you.”
Holly Whittlef is a freelance designer and writer who lives in Madison, and blogs about her love of good design and food at Hollis Anne.