I first met Paul Frank a few years ago in Huntington Beach, California. Introduced as the newsstand guy who hand-stitched wallets for local kids, he seemed the shy, observant type. Though I didn't know why at the time, his name (and nature) stuck. I didn't forget either.
Two years and one telephone interview later, I find myself in Costa Mesa, California, at the headquarters of Paul Frank Industries Inc. Although Frank, 31, doesn't remember me, you'd never know it by the way he whisks me around the room like a long-lost friend, showing off everything from vinyl fabric samples to sock monkey dolls, even his first sewing machine. Still seemingly shy when it comes to success, it isn't Frank but president Ryan Heuser, 26, and CEO John Oswald, 31, who fill me in on the company's international status--Paul Frank products are sold not only in the United States but throughout Canada, China, Germany, Japan and the United Kingdom--and its 1998 sales figures, which were just under $5 million.
While the company has clearly come a long way from the pier-side newsstand and 1995 founding in Heuser's garage, it would have been easy to leave it a permanent part-time fixture. Luckily, informal meetings with then acquaintance Oswald shelved that notion--it was he, in fact, who first convinced Frank and Heuser to either move ahead or get left behind.
Today, Paul Frank Industries is on the cusp of achieving mainstream celebrity. "It's not about being safe," explains Heuser, a former PR rep for Mossimo. "Consumers look to us for the fashion forward."
Fashion forward is right. Imaginary owls and elementary-like elephants show up throughout the products constructed from such materials as canvas, unwashed denim and high-grade vinyl. As designer, Frank's quest to avoid the copy-cat inbreeding of other fashion houses includes traveling to warehouses to find rare and often retired fabrics. "There are nice colors out there," says Frank. "Basically, the colors of the rainbow."
The universal appeal of primary colors juxtaposed with playful designs illustrates the pairing of Frank's creative impulses with the carefully calculated business decisions of his partners. Teaming art with business is never easy--unless, of course, you pick the right players. "I don't have a fashion background," explains three-time business owner Oswald of the company's checks and balances. "But I looked at [the opportunity] as the perfect mix, and I believed in Paul and Ryan's ability enough to invest."
On the back of every Paul Frank T-shirt tag is the catch phrase, "Paul Frank is your friend." When pressed about its origin, Frank laughs. "I wanted a slogan," he says. "Kind of like what a politician or used-car dealer might say. You're not sure how sincere it is." Politician or not, Frank is no used-car salesman. Unique by virtue of Frank's personal attention and involvement in each production phase, the company's designs are reminiscent of the age before generic mass production when brand identity meant something. Granted, Paul Frank promotes its products, but it does so in style.
So now that he's my friend, I ask the artist/business owner, who went from magazine seller to subject, for his advice to all those would-be entrepreneurs sitting on a pier dreaming up ideas for their own businesses. "Stay up late at night, pay attention to everything around you. Notice details," Frank says. "That's all."