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."
In the early 1990s, a Flys scene would be like this: semi-pro skateboarders doing stunts at the brand's Costa Mesa warehouse, followed by a boxing match; if Sublime were in town, they'd be an impromptu concert.
"It was the perfect atmosphere: sun, surf and skate," says Sublime drummer Bud Gaugh of the Black Flys parties the legendary band played between 1991 and 1995. "It doesn't get much better than that. Flys were always known for their debauchery and good, clean filth. There was a lot of skin, a lot of skate and a lot of extracurricular activities going on."
Gaugh remembered Sublime's best Black Flys show being at a warehouse party in Costa Mesa around March 1992. "We played two hours—until we couldn't play anymore," he recalls. The set list included Sublime songs "Greatest Hits," "Get Out" and "40 Oz. to Freedom," as well as reggae classics "Rivers of Babylon" and "Steppin' Razor."
"We started out playing backyard parties," says Gaugh, who currently lives in the Lake Tahoe area with his family and plays with band Del Mar. "It was true to our roots. We were playing for our friends. We were playing for ourselves. It was a jam session, a lot of freestyle dubs; we could have even written songs on the spot there [at the warehouse]."
Few parties were actually scheduled, but if Martinez decided a party would be at his warehouse the next night, 1,000 people would often show up. There was a doorman to make sure the dudes coming in weren't too dangerous. But ladies had no problems gaining entry. They weren't the type you bring home to mother, Martinez remembers. "We were going to strip bars a lot, and we were recruiting the hottest chicks there," he says. "They'd come to parties dressed scandalous—half-naked, huge fake tits."
Like most party scenes, this one was rooted in boredom.
Martinez grew up in Huntington Beach and Anaheim, shaping surfboards, painting, reading Hustler magazine, enjoying punk rock and hip-hop. He got jobs creating art for popular activewear labels such as OP, PCH and Jimmy Z. He appreciated the paychecks, but he could not stand following orders or listening to parents whining about skulls and crossbones being on their kids' favorite boardshorts.
The Black Flys story started in 1990, when Martinez was fired over creative differences at his $65,000-per-year job as T-shirt manager for volleyball brand PCH. His then-wife Melissa, a designer for Quiksilver, supported him during this time. The eyewear field seemed wide open to Martinez and his friend Flecky, a former pro surfer who worked as a printer and a silkscreener and ran action-sports line Burning Snow.
There was little competition in eyewear back then. But these new contenders needed a name. A friend and surfwear innovator Jeff Yokoyama—who created brands Maui & Sons, Modern Amusement, and Generic Youth—suggested something wild. "Who has the craziest eyes? Flies have crazy eyes," Yokoyama remembers saying aloud. "That's where the name came up."
A little research found the name Flys was trademarked. So Flecky and Martinez tried Black Flys, which seemed grittier.
For a year, they passed out brand stickers designed in a hot rod-style, red oval with the words "Black Flys" in Gothic lettering. They scrounged up enough money to buy some outré-looking sunglasses with green camouflage-printed frames. They slapped the Black Flys logo on them and sold the glasses out of their car trunks. Within three weeks, they had sold the inventory. By 1992, they'd purchased their own injection molds, and with a palette of bright colors, they began producing boxy frames with big eyes. Lenses were yellow or blue; the sides of the eyewear would carry insouciant mottos such as "Me, Myself and Fly."
Strangely, at least for a company of party animals, mornings started early at Black Flys. Hungover or not, the crew reported to the office at 8:30 a.m. One morning, Eric Lamph, an art designer and Flys sales guy, started work by drinking coffee, smoking weed and listening to voice-mail messages with Jonathan Paskowitz, the Black Flys sales chief and scion of the Paskowitz surfing clan. One of the messages was left by someone with an English accent: "This is Simon Le Bon. My wife gave me one of your glasses, and I was wondering if you could send more?"
* * *
As the brand's fame began to spread beyond Orange County, more celebrities wanted to meet these gritty, surf royalty Jay Gatsbys. Former NBA star and party hound Dennis Rodman invited them to his Newport Beach house. Dexter Holland of punk band the Offspring would drop by the offices to pick up shades. LA-based porn stars Jenna Jameson and Candy Apples would drop by company parties to put their own mark on Orange County highlife.
The money the company made was small change by the standards of a successful activewear company. In its first year, Black Flys earned just $70,000. In 1995, it made $5 million; by 1998, company earnings peaked at $11.9 million. But it was enough money to spread the Black Flys message.
Women's line Flys Girls was introduced in 1993, and Martinez, et al. recruited a crew of OC beauties to rep the shades. The House of Flys boutiques offered the brand in spots such as Costa Mesa, Mexico City, Amsterdam, Tokyo and Rio de Janeiro. By 2001, there were 13 such boutiques, and the company chronicled its lifestyle for the world via a house magazine, Hot Lava, which published 29 issues in the mid-1990s, and a 45-minute Jackass-style video show, Flys TV.
But partying was only one thread of the story, Lamph says. "Everyone earned their money at Black Fly; no one was bullshitting [his or her] way into a good salary," he explains. "There was a huge flexibility there. If you could prove that you could do something well, you should try that thing. There was an ability to pull the trigger on things and react fast. Making money and making fun out of having money, not doing it corporate-style."
It was a boys' company, but sometimes the best man for the job was a woman. Caia Koopman was hired as the house designer for Fly Girls and Hot Lava. Drinking beers and surfing was a crucial part of their lives, but they wanted to make a statement—a manifesto of raunch, laughs and a commitment to new style.
They were lucky to arrive when the culture was ready to try their point of view. The crude jokes of such TV shows as Beavis and Butthead and Married With Children fueled small talk at every office and school. Extreme sports such as snowboarding gained grudging respect. A snarling punk attitude was seemingly on the curled lips of every musician. Black Flys wanted to prove itself badder than the baddest boys in the nominally outlaw world of surf and skate.
"It was so boring. Surfing was more of an athletic thing," Martinez says of the industry at the time. "We wanted to show the rock & roll side of surfing."
And then there were the the strippers. In 1993, Black Flys raised the hackles of religious and feminist groups with ads featuring strippers in porn poses. Magazine publishers often printed black bars over parts of the ads deemed too risqué. The company considered that an invitation to a duel. It put together an image that showed artist Bill Wall hanging on a cross, with fishhooks tearing apart his mouth and flesh. He looked like a crass saint, if there is such a thing, being tortured for wearing Black Flys.
Surfing's Zeldin remembers how it all started. Martinez and Paskowitz submitted a generic-looking ad featuring surfers tearing up waves. On the day of publication for the October 1993 issue, Black Flys notified him the advertisement was going to be changed at the last minute. Zeldin felt as though he was being primed for a heart attack; last-minute changes are bad news. For a long time, there was no word from the Black Flys guys, just another jolt for an oncoming coronary. Then, an hour or so before the mag was to be sent to the printers Black Flys delivered the Wall ad.
The Surfing editors examined every sick inch of it.They cringed, laughed and cringed again. They did not want to run a house ad, and they could not face a blank page in the mag. It was late, and Martinez's defense of the ad was beginning to make sense. No foul language was used, and he promised to pay for a bunch more ads in the future. The editors decided to slam Black Flys' Kool-Aid.
"We caught an insane amount of heat," Zeldin recalls. More than 16 skate and surf shops run by religious people said they would no longer rack the magazine. But a little controversy never hurts in the media biz: People were talking about Surfing magazine, Zeldin says. And after the issue was sent to Europe, Black Flys signed its first European distributors.
For Martinez and his friends, turning business as usual upside-down carried a certain performance-art thrill. At the Action Sports Retailer (ASR) trade show in San Diego, the Black Flys crew set up a booth, spread sunglasses over the floor, and then left just as people started walking through the doors. The ploy worked: panicked retailers were so worried they'd lose out on a chance for Black Flys' merch they hounded the company's salespeople, who ended up taking orders from their hotel rooms or poolside.
* * *
Sometimes, though, the Black Flys boys forgot to reel in the anarchy.
On the first day of the August 1998 ASR show, a rowdy crowd gathered at the Black Flys booth to get smashed. Burly security guards demanded Martinez stop the party and throw out the liquor. He refused, throwing his drink in the air and trying to run away, dressed in nothing but black ski gloves and ridiculous, red, 1970s-style, bell-bottom jeans. The company president was picked up by four security guards and hauled out of the venue as though he were a battering ram.
After the guards pushed the convention center's back doors open with Martinez's head and tossed him onto the pavement, he got up, pushed his way back into the convention center and threw a chair at some guards. Then 20 of his sales reps and friends rushed to help him. More chairs and tables were thrown. Martinez remembers taking on three guys before a gang of security guards restored order.
Security guards tossed the liquor, and Martinez's sunglasses displays and all of the samples of Black Flys glasses were stolen.
The Orange County Business Journal published a story about the debacle under the headline "A Black Eye for Black Flys Company President."
"Oh, my God, it was embarrassing. I had to have lost $2 million in sales," Martinez estimates.
But Martinez didn't let that dampen his party mood. After the show, with $500 in singles in his pocket, he returned to Orange County, ordered a pizza and went out with friends to some strip joints.
By February 1999, most was forgiven by ASR management, and Black Flys returned to San Diego. However, Martinez was told he could not step on the grounds of the trade show.
* * *
The company's relationships with musicians were no less antic. In 1990, Martinez and friends hit some waves around San Miguel in Baja, where they caught a band playing on a plywood stage. The trio played ska, but in a much punkier, ruder way than up-and-coming Orange County group No Doubt. Martinez introduced himself to the band's guitarist, Bradley Nowell. "I'm starting this sunglasses brand; you should check it out," Martinez told him.
Soon, Sublime were regulars at Black Flys parties, where the band's legendarily bad behavior was celebrated. During one party, Nowell's dog, Lou, jumped in the mosh pit and reportedly bit and nipped at the moshers. The dog even tore a hole in the seat of the pants of a Flys friend, Jim "Jay Bird" Jones. Jay Bird just laughed it off and kept on skanking.
The Black Flys warehouse was the first place to go when the band was hit by bad times. Nowell used to drop by the Black Flys warehouse after tweaking on meth. With the Sublime front man looking skinny and not smelling that good, and with his pupils pinned, Martinez knew Nowell was in no condition to mix with any kind of society, much less a polite one. So he guided him to the skate-ramp area in back of the warehouse, where he could smoke and drink and not get in too much trouble.
Besides Nowell, Black Flys attracted other lost souls. The talented and troubled longboard-surfing champ Joey Hawkins worked as the brand's surf-team manager in the mid-'90s. Skate star, jailbird for drug dealing and now associate pastor at the Sanctuary church in Huntington Beach, Christian Hosoi hung out there, too. Somehow, despite all the excess, the company continued to succeed. "They could go 90 percent without self-destruction," Lamph says. "We were smart enough to not take it so far so you could not continue with growth."
If there was an epicenter to the Black Flys party scene, it wasn't the stripper pole in Flecky's Newport Beach house, but rather the Corona del Mar home Martinez purchased as a foreclosure. He ripped out the flooring, tore down the curtains and installed a nightclub-worthy sound system so powerful you could hear the bass bump throughout the upscale neighborhood. He painted the house red and black. Some of the walls were lined with images of naked ladies.
Neighbors fled, and Martinez soon paid for acting as though he were a delinquent. He says Newport Beach police arrested him for being a nuisance 20 times. Sometimes, he was taken away while wearing only his underwear or pajamas. After-parties rivaled the craziness of Club Rubber, which was produced by Black Flys snowboard-team rider Damian Saunders. The club ran for 14 years at Santa Ana's Galaxy Concert Theater (now the Observatory). It attracted thousands of people, remembers Dave Audé, a Club Rubber DJ.
Every night had a theme. The most popular was "Naughty Schoolgirl."
"The real theme was girls wearing almost nothing," Audé says.
There was sex in the VIP rooms, some shady characters sold drugs, and some unattractive people scared others by getting half-naked. But there was a lot of eye candy. Lamph remembers visiting the club with his wife, who wore a tight leather body suit, and her friend, who wore nothing but pasties and panties.
In 1997, 1998 and 1999, Audé mixed three Club Flys albums for the now-defunct Moonshine Music label. Audé included superstar DJs of the time: Keoki, Josh Wink, Armand Van Helden and Stuart Price, who went on to produce Madonna albums. None of them turned into a big payday, but each made a statement, and that's what Martinez was interested in. "He loved the idea of doing something new," Audé says. "I don't know how much he loved the music."
As Black Flys parties grew even more anarchic, porn stars became part of the party mix. Before one confab, Candy Apples—celebrated by fans for holding the world record for gangbang sex—shaved her head, donned a wig, strapped on a dildo and fucked another chick in front of a crowd of Black Flys label people and their friends. After the woman orgasmed, Apples pulled off her wig, and the crowd gasped at the spectacle of her bald head. Then she and her friend offered the boys $5 blowjobs, claims Martinez. (Apples could not be reached for comment by press time.)
Other porn stars attending the parties typically did not put on such bravura performances, with the possible exception of Jenna Jameson, who reportedly went to one party and peformed a head stand on a skateboard—while topless.
But the parties turned tragic when people overdosed. On Independence Day 2001, a lot of people were drinking, smoking weed, doing Ecstasy and coke during a Malibu event sponsored by Red Bull, Kik Wear Industries and Black Flys. Keenan Milton, a skateboard star, was swimming in a pool choked with plastic cups and other junk. Someone jumped from the house roof into the pool; Milton took a powerful blow to the head and drowned. There was too much stuff floating on the pool surface to see a man was drowning. Milton's body wasn't pulled out of the pool until 30 minutes later, according to a complaint bought by his family.
Martinez missed the party. He was in Hawaii, but Black Flys and the other companies producing the party were hit with a premise liability suit by Milton's family in 2002. It was dismissed in 2004, but Martinez spent $25,000 on attorney's fees defending himself.
Milton wasn't Martinez's first friend to die. He recalls being in Mexico when he learned Nowell had died of an overdose in May 1996. He was in such denial about the death, he says, that he wouldn't accept it as fact until he met with the other guys in Sublime, who confirmed the tragedy.
A girlfriend named Kelly was shot dead after some purported weed dealers lured her and her friends into their car with the promise of getting high. "I was bummed out for a solid year," Martinez remembers. "A beautiful, young girl. It could happen just like that—bad, dumb choices. It happened for no reason."
But, he says, he didn't allow himself to mourn for too long. "I'm not going to lay down and go to sleep, or start going to Bible study and shit," Martinez says. "We always go back to work. It's our style."
* * *
It's fair to say that the company's out-of-control party scene played a major role in the downfall of Black Flys, but there were other factors. The company's sales crested in 1998, just as the market for wild-looking surf and skate eyewear got crowded. Some of the brands that were ostensibly influenced by Black Flys started outdoing them in sales. The result? Flys never became a multimillion-dollar brand.
Martinez and Flecky did not want to give up control to corporate people, even though the suits would likely have guided the brand to a level of higher business sophistication and bigger sales. There were offers to sell the company, but Martinez and Flecky wanted to hold out for the highest price. They waited too long, and eventually, the offers stopped coming in.
Meanwhile, the party-hardy skate-and-surf world had grown up a bit, and more important, it had grown bored—even disgusted—with the label's leering-bad-boy stance and its obsessions with porn and strippers.
And how long can anyone or anything stay edgy? Fashions change. The cool OC crowd wanted to try different looks. The first wave of Black Flys wearers entered middle age, and a bunch of them realized they looked funny, not cool, in gonzo shades.
Despite having been forced to sell his own company four years ago and a decade too late to truly cash in, Martinez waves off grim pronouncements on the passage of time. As the now-Japanese-owned company's new chief executive, he hopes to guide the company back to its former grandeur with this year's designs, which shipped in May and include the Ska Fly, a checkerboard frame design retailing for $100, and the Stinger Fly, a frame that features stingray skin cast in metal, which retails for $200.
"It's not over," Martinez promises, his gold tooth shining, Black Flys shades pulled firmly over his eyes. "You can't tone down Black Flys. We'd look like poseurs. Maybe we don't have ads with chicks pissing on people's faces, but we'll keep it edgy."
This article appeared in print as "Black Flys Is Back! The unexpected rebirth of Orange County's hard-living, hell-raising fashion label."
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