Johnny Fly Co: The Cornelius-born Fashion Company that Became an International Brand

Johnny Fly Co

With a market as saturated as the fashion industry is, it can be hard to find something unique and innovative enough that it brings the excitement back to getting dressed in the morning.

What fashion accessory can tie an outfit together? What gives its wearer a unique sense of style? What will immediately make a statement? For John Freeman, a Charlotte native and former race car driver with a love of fashion, the answer was simple: sunglasses.

It was something he’d found on the faces of everyone from rappers to racers, so John knew the accessory had potential. If done right, he could bring a fresh appeal to what he felt was a stagnant look. Through craftsmanship and hours upon hours of experimentation, he ultimately found the medium that would become the centerpiece of his brand: real wood.

Johnny Fly Co

After assembling thousands of wooden sunglasses by hand in a dining room in Cornelius, John took his old racing nickname, engraved it on the side each pair, and began Johnny Fly Co. With a commitment to sustainability and creativity, John and Tara, his wife, built their brand of high-quality, high-fashion sunglasses.

As they were celebrating the opening of their new store in Charlotte’s historic art district NoDa, John and Tara sat down with us to share their story and how they continue to bring improvements, innovation, and individuality to a beloved accessory.

Johnny Fly Co

Where did your knowledge of wooden craftsmanship come from?

J: I’d say I love all the wooden stuff and I’m very handy, but I’m still not a shaper, a craftsman. I can execute a vision well, but you really need the best people and pieces to make it really all come together. You need a love for something natural and unique, and with wood you can’t make it twice, so your pair is your pair and your item is your item, which is kind of the DNA of the brand.

How did you become involved in the business, Tara?

T: I came in just before the eyewear—he had little plastic eyewear then—and I came in to help with some brand stuff and to do some modeling on the side. We just collaborated from there. I do branding and graphic design, so I got more and more involved.

J: That’s when eyewear really took off, with her coming in. She was really the clean aspect to my chaos. I would still be making 45 different products and I’d be doing a good job at them, but I wouldn’t be doing a great job at them.

So you all blew up in the European market first. How did that come about?

J: That’s where we learned how small the world was: I remember the day we figured out how to accept international payments on our E-Commerce back in the day. We turned it on, and then we started getting orders from Europe, North Africa—all over. All of a sudden, we were shipping way more international than we were domestic.

Johnny Fly Co

I know sustainability is a big aspect of the business. Where is your wood sourced from?

J: The wood comes from all over the world, depending on the species. We’ve got about 14 or 15 species of wood now that we use. For some of the more exotic stuff, we work with grow houses that ethically grow specifically for harvest. The majority of our woods are what I call “weed woods” because they grow so fast. They’re easy to harvest and and species that continuously grow on repeat.

T: It can be from South America, it can be here, it can be Asia. Our eyewear is really a global effort. Each piece along the way is made from the best of what’s available to us, and that’s really what we focus on. We partner with several eco-friendly organizations to ensure the wood and leather are ethically-sourced. And through the non-profit One Tree Planted, we plant a tree for every pair of sunglasses sold.

So, where do you see the business going from here?

J: We have a lot of room for our product to grow. We’ve got a lot of new things happening; prescription eyewear is something that’s launching now, actually. As far as the brand goes, we still have a lot of the US market to tap into. And on the store side, I’m really interested to see where this goes. In my heart, I love retail, I love customers, and I’d love to see another one of these in a different location.