Though he is licensed by the Medical Board of California as a registered dispensing optician, it was the hip-hop community’s Jazze Pha who first embraced Bernstein in the mid-1990s and gave him his more fashionable title: the Sunglass Pimp. Jay- Z, Kanye West, Rick Ross, the Black Eyed Peas, and P. Diddy are also certified fans. But Bernstein, a Ukrainian immigrant who came to the United States at age 11, offers much more than a $15,000 pair of vintage Alpinas modified with 3.5 karats of ice (not a lie). He offers a custom sunglass-buying experience from a true treasure hunter, one that leaves everyone departing his store with a pair of unique shades that have been fitted to the buyer based on style, bone structure, facial features, and a tolerance for some serious bling. It’s an experience LensCrafters can’t touch, and it’s why Bernstein’s clients, even the nonrich ones (okay, most of them are rich), don’t think twice about dropping between $200 and $1,500 -- and on occasion, upward of $25,000 -- on an item statistics show they are likely to lose or break before the next sunrise.
“Everyone leaves here looking good,” Bernstein says. “People come in and want to buy the wrong glasses, and I won’t sell them. I’ll argue with them right in the store. I don’t want anyone wearing my stuff looking ridiculous. If they look like clowns, I’ll tell them. Some people take it the wrong way, but the other 99 percent love it.”
Bernstein drives a hard bargain for his relic shades, rarely playing the old celebrity game that the richest folks get the most toys for free. He doesn’t mind offering a discount to those less fortunate, but he gets irked that the rich and famous are always looking for a freebie.
His passion for collecting glasses began in 1992, when he would comb antiques shops, flea markets, and secondhand shops in the San Fernando Valley with his father, a tough-talking Ukrainian with a heavy hand in negotiation. “I would scope the places out and then send my pops to buy,” he says. “He was this old, fragile guy who barely spoke English, and he would just tell them, ‘I give you five dollars.’ And then, [he’d] drop the money down and walk away, pretending not to understand -- stuff I would get arrested for! Pops was crazy.”