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Shock the Monkey

It could be said that designer Paul Frank has a monkey on his back. That monkey being the infamous Julius who has appeared on everything from clothing to furniture to even a Vespa scooter since the Southern California native first introduced his products five years ago.

But when the former art student sat down at a sewing machine and began making custom wallets for friends back in 1994, stars, chickens and elephants were the first motifs he employed. “One day I made a backpack with a monkey on it for my girlfriend,” he says. “Then her brother wanted one… and then his girlfriend wanted one.” Julius—inspired by the folk toy sock monkey—was born. “I remember having one when I was little and buying them at swap meets as a kid.”
It should be noted, “Paul Frank is your friend,” is the company’s official motto. Making gifts for his friends led to the formation of the company bearing his name. And one of those early friends was Ryan Heuser who handled public relations for Mossimo Inc. Heuser was so impressed with Frank’s accessories he put up $5,000 to launch a new company. He let Frank take over the garage of his Huntington Beach home. Paul Frank began growing so fast Heuser left Mossimo and became a partner, along with CFO John Oswald, a 34-year-old former venture capitalist. In 1997, Paul Frank Industries was officially incorporated.

Paul Frank can now be found in an eclectic range of stores including Nordstrom, Bloomingdale’s and Delia’s. There are also Paul Frank stores in Los Angeles, Newport Beach, San Francisco, New York, Tokyo and Osaka. In addition, there is an innovative web site:

However, the company, which is based in Newport Beach, Calif., is more than the monkey. In fact if you want this laid back Cali dude to get fired up, ask him firstly about said cartoon primate, Julius. “I hate when people just talk about the monkey,” says Frank. “It’s really all about the bags being hand made and being made out of PVC [polyvinyl chloride] and other auto materials. And it’s about being sold because of bright colors and the materials I use. It’s the whole design ethic, the function and all the elements of design and art. It’s not just the face of one animal.”

Actually it was Ellie Elephant who was the first to catch on. “The Japanese loved them and wanted the characters on T-shirts,” notes Frank. This makes perfect sense as Frank takes inspiration for his characters from the Japanese company, Sanrio, known globally for Hello Kitty. “I’d go with my sister and my old girlfriend to the Hello Kitty store. [Sanrio] is the whole reason why I started making things. They’re why I made a cut out monkey.” As the ultimate compliment, Paul Frank was approached by Sanrio to co-brand products featuring Julius and Hello Kitty together on T-shirts and accessories. The line debuted this past spring.

Animals aside, materials have been the key behind Paul Frank’s designs from the very beginning. “I first used dead stock PVC—the kind for commercial applications for buildings and doctor’s exam room beds because they are fire proof and germ resistant,” he explains. “I bought the materials to put stripes on my shoes. I ordered a yard of orange vinyl from a boat shop. While I was in the boat yard, I happened to see the rest of the catalog with materials like naugahyde, made in fun colors like orange, red, marigold and light blue. They matched the Prism colored pencils I had from art class.”

Forever channeling his creative energy, Frank learned his craft by doing. “I took apart airlines bags and studied how they are made. I didn’t know how a bowling ball bag was made. I taught myself,” Frank says. “They don’t teach you that in school. They teach you pattern making for shirts and stuff. I learned how to make bags with seams and piping. I’d think: How can I make this look like an old piece of furniture or a car seat? I’m not copying a Gucci bag.”

Recently the designer ventured into the optical arena. Paul Frank Optometrics (PFO) from Baum Vision launched at Vision Expo East in March. “I chose the name Optometrics to get away from anything to do with trendy stuff,” he explains. “It let’s you know you can go to the optometrist and have the versatility to make your own decision. And you don’t have to wait for people to design for you. You can tweak it yourself. It’s people in lab coats; it’s clean. It evokes images of science class.”

Frank felt designing frames was a natural transition as he has always had an appreciation for eyewear. “Since sixth grade I’ve been collecting sunglasses. It was only a matter of time. I used to get a pair of thrift store glasses and put lenses in them,” he recalls. “I’d go to the optometrist and have them pop out the lenses and put in new ones.”

Despite his affinity for frames, Frank admits creating eyewear has been difficult. (He had actually done sketches of eyeglass designs back in ’97.) “One of the challenging things was I can cut and sew a bag in two hours. Eyewear is more compound shapes. I literally want to get out clay and sculpt them.”

He has also had to “tone down” some of his ideas and collaborate more with PFO president Shane Baum, an optical veteran who has worked for both Mossimo Eyewear and Optical Shop of Aspen. “You can make an orange bag with helicopters and it’s pretty cool and pretty universal. You can’t make an orange pair of sunglasses,” says Frank. “You can’t get too crazy because it’s going to be worn on someone’s face. I don’t know how many centimeters apart people’s eyes are. Shane knows about optical dimensions. I draw something and say, ‘Hey Shane, will this work?’”

Being a kid at heart has played a big role in the 34-year-old designer’s success. In fact, Frank finds irony in being dubbed a designer. “I get letters from kids who say they want to be a fashion designer like me,” he says. “I was just an art student who happened to make bags and purses.”

Speaking of irony, it is that coupled with sarcasm that Frank uses for his inspiration. “I look at things with a sense of humor and sarcasm,” he explains. “A lot of what I design comes from the heart and comes from little insecurities. Humor’s a lot of it. The most popular characters are ones I just created. Worry Bear—I drew him on an airplane. He’s neurotic. [Frank hates to fly.] Julius was for my old girlfriend who I adored. I created him not to make money but as pure expression of love and design. Clancy Giraffe came from asking: What if I dressed Julius up for Halloween? No big agenda. I’m going to be funny and put Julius in a giraffe costume.”

Paul Frank is still about making gifts and giving back. The company is involved in various philanthropic endeavors in the community. Frank actively supports charities directly benefiting children, the arts, abuse shelters and animal rights.
“I just feel like I’ve had a lot of good fortune. So it only seems right to help out other people when I can,” he says. “I’m really generous. My mom is like that. My mom would make lasagna for people and take it to their house. When I make stuff for people I don’t charge them. There is something about making something because you like somebody or what they’re about. When people come to visit me in the office they might like a watch I designed and I tell them, ‘Here, have it.’”
That’s not monkey business.