How I Did It: Paul Frank
As told to Lora Kolodny
Paul Frank's $100 million design business started in 1995 with a sock puppet monkey. Within three years, Frank's brand and his character Julius (the monkey as a cartoon) had permeated the fashion world from mainstream to couture. In 1999, Sanrio, the creator of another pop icon, Hello Kitty, allowed Paul Frank Industries to design shirts featuring Julius and Hello Kitty side by side -- and it had the unlikely effect of making the licensing industry cool. Paul Frank has since had co-branding deals with Oscar Mayer, the Elvis Presley estate, Barbie, and John Deere, among many others. Today, however, Paul Frank faces hundreds of imitators, and it's just not fun for Paul Frank (the 37-year-old designer, that is) anymore. So the company is leaving behind co-branding, and at least $2 million in annual revenue. "Too many copy cats diluted the meaning of collaborative designs," says co-founder and company president Ryan Heuser, who oversees operations in Costa Mesa, Calif., while Frank stays mostly to his workshop in nearby Huntington Beach. The company's co-branding finale, an Andy Warhol line, hits stores this fall and holiday season. In 2006, expect more original work, including an animated series, children's active wear (branded Small Paul), bedding, and more Paul Frank boutiques -- the company is expanding its 15-store empire to Scotland, Bahrain, Qatar, and Dubai. As for Julius, he turns 10 in November, meaning he shares a star sign, Scorpio, with both Hello Kitty and Mickey Mouse.
At age 13, I got an electric guitar and wanted to be a rock star. I never pictured myself in business. What happened was, I found that being in a band wasn't enough for me. But I loved making fliers, tape covers (we had tapes back then), and stage props like planets that were just papier-mache beach balls, or a custom-painted drum kit -- things like that. We had a big beatnik Julius Caesar bust in gold that I love.
By the early '90s a friend and I had started making amplifiers with custom cabinets, and using things like old tapestries and plaid vinyl to upholster them. We were thinking about going into business selling them, but he went off to medical school, which ended that idea. That was okay.
My ideas about color and composition formed at art school. I went to Orange Coast College in Huntington Beach, Calif., and took drawing and sculpting and became good at freehand drawing, drafting, and sewing. I never really set out to be a fashion designer. But I did like to make my own versions of things.
At school, I was still in the band, the Birdhouse 4. I started altering our clothes, making guitar straps, T-shirts, all that kind of stuff. It was around that time I got to be friends with Ryan Heuser, who does all the marketing and is president of Paul Frank Industries. He was "on the scene" in Huntington Beach. I always sort of admired his vintage style. From the beginning we would sit around at this coffee shop and talk about how we thought things should be made.
One time, I wanted orange vinyl stripes on my sneakers. You couldn't find that in stores yet. I could only find it at this boating supply store. So I had a huge quantity on my hands. Instead of using it for little stripes on my shoes I started making wallets, sewing them up in my room at home. I gave a few to friends, and then everyone wanted one.
I realized I could start selling this stuff. Ryan said, Why don't you? His dad discouraged us -- that was okay. Ryan went and borrowed money from his stepmom, $5,000. That's all we started with.
We have 200 characters now. I've trained 15 designers to draw them all.
Early on it was hard when stores perceived us as something for kids. I envisioned designs for teens on up to people in their thirties. By now, we're one of the very few brands that can be in Disneyland, in Pac Sun, in Nordstrom, and in these high-end boutiques at the same time. Isn't that neat? I get fan letters from lawyers who wear our stuff to trial because it is lucky for them. I love that.
Our success as a company has a lot to do with two things: being flexible, and being okay with where we are at the time. I lived at home until I was 31. And I have always felt successful. If I was selling a few wallets to people I knew, or selling just 300 T-shirts to a Japanese store, or selling to just one catalog, Delia's -- I always said: Whoa, all right! We did it!
I remember designing things that never got sold because people only wanted to take on Julius. That was okay. I could see that. But there were also times when a store would say, "This isn't selling well." You have to look at it like, That's good feedback. We can do something differently.
We've agreed to do compromise right. You have to make the stuff everybody wants. Then do the weird things on your own.
It is still frustrating that most retailers can't order a full line of things. It gets split up and separated. You may not see the purse, socks, and sweatshirt in one place. That's why we have our own Paul Frank Boutiques, where it all works together. The company has eight divisions now: eyewear, watches, bedding and home accessories, bicycles, apparel and accessories, swimwear, underwear, and now kids' stuff.
Thinking up ways to make our trade show and store events more fun can get weird. I'll show up and sit there, sewing. I want people to see Paul Frank is an actual guy, who makes stuff from scratch every day. Also, I'll go dressed up like a hot dog, or Andy Warhol. It's sort of a tribute.
Andy's not with us, but what would he have liked? I know he may not want me to do a Campbell's soup can print on a T-shirt. Hopefully he'd be flattered that I chose to put his bugs on a handbag, or make a wallet with a whole banana peel.
We use a lot of licensed images. We put the Oscar Mayer logo on a belt buckle. That was really fun because of its proximity to a certain anatomy. But think about this: Even if you're a vegetarian, you see the wiener mobile drive by and you lose your mind for a second! I wish I had one in my driveway.
It's never been hard for us to obtain a license. Any clothes company can make a green T-shirt with a John Deere logo. Paul Frank makes a fine fashion bag that is printed gold inside with a John Deere logo in gold satin and on the outside is printed some of the very first John Deere vehicles. That's not just a green T-shirt with a Deere on it. We look for companies or people that have integrity and class.
We don't really do traditional advertising, and we don't have to pay for product placement. We're not like Doritos. I think what it boils down to is, we've always had good luck with the press. Everyone wants pictures of Paul Frank accessories. They look darn cute in a photo. I've even made custom stuff just to be in a magazine. I appreciate it. It's an honor.
When you get big, a lot of people try to do what you do. Right now, so many are trying to copy our original characters and our licensed products. Defending intellectual property in court is my least favorite thing to do. It isn't creative. It is really expensive. I don't even like to talk about it. I think the people who try to copy us have minds like robots: "Must. Copy. Animal. Face." They try to even get their stuff next to our items in stores, but it doesn't compare. Fans absolutely know.
I don't know if we'll ever be ready to talk exit strategy. Along the way, I'd like to have more retail stores. I do want to make a cartoon. I really want to work with a real TV or movie company to do that. On our site we have some cartoons already but it needs to reach a bigger audience. Jason Schwartzman plays the voice of Julius the monkey. I play the voice of Worry Bear. There's kind of something wrong with each one of our characters. That's why people love them.
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