Jack Martinez and His Black Flys Are Back!

The '90s may be long gone, but not OC's infamous, lunatic eyewear brand

Jack Martinez and His Black Flys Are Back!

The fireworks had just gone off when the cop in the motorboat pulled in front of Jack Martinez's waterfront home in Corona del Mar and got out the handcuffs.

"C'mon, it's the 4th of July," Martinez protested.

"No, son," the cop said with a smile. "It's the 5th of July."


In the early-morning hours after Independence Day 1998, police booked Martinez at Newport Beach's jail for the crime of illegally setting off fireworks. He had a lot of company: several of his friends had been busted for similar crimes and were now in the process of awaking from alcohol-induced stupors or learning good manners. But after his ticket had been paid and Monday rolled around, Martinez was back in his office, underwriting what made possible all of the ridiculous partying that had landed him behind bars.

Martinez was the president of infamous eyewear brand Black Flys, which doubled as the center of perhaps the most excessive party scene in Orange County history. It was the sunglasses brand favored by legendary ska and rock band Sublime, who often played at company barbecues and parties, typically in warehouses, office parks and fabulous homes in Costa Mesa and Newport Beach.

The popularity of the sunglasses wasn't limited to locals, but it wound its way up the celebrity food chain. Bono wore the Fly No. 5 shades in the video for U2's 2000 hit "Beautiful Day."

To wear them in Orange County in the era of President Bill Clinton was to make a statement of unabashed nonconformity, recalls rocker Travis Barker, who hung out at Black Flys parties before his band Blink-182 became famous and before he started his own skatewear brand, Famous Stars and Straps.

"They separated themselves from the corny things that were going on around them," Barker says of the company. Instead of classic Ray-Bans shades or cop-like aviators, Black Flys were colorful, boxy frames that supported large, often-ostentatious, bug-eyed lenses. It was much more than a pose, Barker recalls. "It was controlled chaos. They were pirates compared to other people. It was fucking wild. Jack was a bigger rock star than any rock star I'd met."

But the good times derailed in 2008. The great global economic meltdown of that year forced out of business a significant number of Black Flys retailers, many of them mom-and-pop shops. Martinez's Spanish and U.K. distributors went belly-up, too. Suddenly, he had no money and two choices: sell the company he co-founded in 1991, or go out of business.

Martinez chose the first option. Black Flys' Japanese distributor, Carrozzeria Japan Co., Ltd., purchased the brand that year for a fire-sale price of $1.5 million, then gave it to Torrance-based salespeople to manage. It seemed like the Martinez era was over. He continued to work as Black Flys' creative director, but higher-ups ignored his bold designs in favor of less idiosyncratic styles. So Martinez did what tough business people do—he rebuilt. He put a lot of his creative efforts into bicycle company Backward Circle, and he and his business partner, Dan Flecky, opened two franchises for Hawaiian restaurant Aloha Grill, in Costa Mesa and Huntington Beach. And in fall 2011, Martinez, 46, was quietly rehired as Black Flys' chief executive.

But the world and fashion has changed greatly since 2008, says Shaheen Sadeghi, founder of the Lab and the Camp specialty centers, who worked with Martinez at Quiksilver Inc. when Sadeghi was the surf giant's president and the active-sports eyewear market was still undeveloped. "Brands that have a real authenticity have a chance to come back," Sadeghi says. "When Black Flys came out, they represented an edgy fashion product for the action-sports industry."

Indeed, there's no shortage of competition among such eyewear brands. All based in Orange County, Von Zipper, Dragon, Electric, Leisure Society and Salt have emerged since Martinez's departure from the scene. Oakley was the dominant eyewear brand during the 1990s and remains a major player, Sadeghi says, arguing that Black Flys "has to compete not only with the action-sports market, but also the fashion arena. It's a fairly aggressive market now."

If anything can put Black Flys back on top in OC, it's Martinez, with his talent for provocation. Under his direction, the brand was about forcing extremes and having a laugh at convention. In a recent interview at his office, located in one of Irvine's countless, anonymous office parks, Martinez says he believes the eyewear market is stale and that the industry—dominated by retailers such as Hot Topic and Tilly's—is ready for a more colorful, wild offering from the likes of Black Flys. But, he concedes, a comeback is far from guaranteed.

"Every day, we ask that question," says Martinez, who now sports a shaved head and gold tooth. "Has the world changed? Can we come back?"

* * *

Some brands gain attention with a captivating model. Others do it with snob appeal and building expensive stores. Black Flys did it with pure punk-rock attitude.

"There's nothing like it now," says Steve Zeldin, a former Surfing magazine editor in chief who will debut magazine and website WhatYouth.com in June. "Some brands have good ads, but there's no brand that is the center of a scene."

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