Photo by Jeanne Rice (Author's note: In the interest of full disclosure, I am compelled to say I never found Susan Dey, TV's Laurie Partridge, overtly foxy—i.e., hot. While I honor Ms. Dey's craft, she never did it for me the way, say, a Linda Purl, Kay Lenz or—for reasons best left unexplored—Bobby Sherman did. It will no doubt be confusing to the reader that I confirm Ms. Dey's foxiness in this story. Please be advised this was done solely for reasons of continuity and flow.)
Years ago, probably seven or eight, we told you that Paul Frank would be the next big thing, but geez, c'mon, who could have guessed? Frank is huge. He has stores in New York, Tokyo and London; celebs in haute magazines wear his clothing and accessories—they were even given away to presenters at the Academy Awards. What's more, company symbol Julius the Monkey has become an icon of Mickey-esque proportions.
Back when we first hooked up with Frank, he pretty much was the creative side of the company, and Ryan Heuser held down the business end. The two are still there, but now there are 120 employees at Paul Frank Industries' Costa Mesa headquarters with various projects in the works—purses, wallets, watches, dolls—not only for PFI but myriad companies, ranging from Barbie to John Deere, eager to be in business with them.
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Still, the company is probably best known for its T-shirts, arguably the most recognizable T-shirts on the market today, featuring the ubiquitous Julius and a cast of friends ranging from Bunny Girl to Clancy, the world's smallest giraffe, to Worry Bear, Vic the snail, Shaka Brah Yeti, Mr. Owl, the Hot Cocoa Rapids Riders and many more.
I talked to Paul about how his T-shirts—and characters—come about. Turns out a lot of thought goes into them. And, then again, not so much. Also, history teaches us that braces sell well but one should steer clear of people's heads in elephants' butts.
OC Weekly:Why do you think Julius has become such an icon?
Paul Frank: I don't know, I never thought of it that way. I think it's because chimps and monkeys are so similar to humans. We share, what, like, 97 percent of the same genetic characteristics. They're too similar to us to ignore. Plus, I've said it before: just saying the word 'monkey' makes you smile. You know, 'Come here you little munk-kee.' How do you come up with the other characters?I try not to think about it too much because that ruins it. Like, I tried drawing a wiener dog because you figure a wiener dog has to work. I did it over and over, but eventually I had to admit there was nothing fun about it. Clancy, on the other hand, is fun because he's the world's smallest giraffe, and Clancy was an accident. A lot of the characters started as accidents. Clancy came about when I was doodling and started thinking what would happen if Julius was wearing one of those Halloween costumes where only your face shows. So Clancy is actually Julius wearing a giraffe suit. Worry Bear was also a doodle. I was flying back from Seattle, and I don't like to fly, so I drew this bear with his hands up in the air, all worried and the eyes were all long, and that became Worry Bear. Do you still draw Worry Bear when you fly?I let other people fly now. Do you get a lot of people suggesting you do something new? Do people come up to you at parties and say you should do a platypus?All the time. People want you to draw their dog. I get so many requests from people to draw their dogs. And then some people are like, "Why don't you make a character out of me?" How long does it take from concept to manufacture to produce a T-shirt?Well, to give you an idea, right now we're working on our line for Spring 2005. You have to conceive it, draw it, get feedback which is usually me saying, "Fix this part. Change this color." We'll have a T-shirt meeting, where we talk about how we feel it will sell. We don't have any big arguments. We kinda trust one another's intuition. We've been here so long we're like a family that watches The Simpsons every Sunday. No one in the family would ever think about saying, "Hey, I wanna watch MythBusters." We're all pretty much on the same page here. When you're coming up with T-shirts for a season, it sounds like a band putting together an album. Is there a lot of competition between designers to get their T-shirt included in the collection? We have to fill orders for four seasons a year, and a certain amount of those shirts have to be Julius, probably about a quarter of that at least—customers request that specifically. So we'll have like 80 T-shirt ideas, but maybe we can only make 50 of them, or 40. Feelings do get hurt. I pretty much know that if it involves Julius and he's doing something or wearing braces, it's going to be cute. The Julius shirt where he had braces was one of those shirts that everyone said, "Oh, Paul, you're not going to put braces on Julius." I said, "Yeah, why not?" Of course. Every 14-year-old girl has braces.Well, I didn't think of it that way; I just thought it would be cute. And it became our all-time best-selling shirt ever. Seems like a no-brainer.Happy ending to that story is that we got so many letters from kids with braces that said the shirt helped their self-esteem go up. Where did the idea for that shirt come from?Remember The Partridge Family when Laurie got braces? Yeah.But Laurie was still a fox, right? Absolutely.I rest my case. Braces worked, but how about one that you were certain would work and didn't.I was all excited about this character—his name is Sir Randolph, he's a gorilla, he's named after an English earl who discovered him in the jungle and named him after himself. I made this gorilla, and no one understood that it was a gorilla. They thought it was an elephant with a person's face sticking out of its butt. So, silly me. Almost as well-known as your characters are the little sayings you put on the shirts or on labels. "Paul Frank is your friend" is the best known. They seem innocuous enough at first, but because of their simplicity, they are almost subversive to the point that you ask, "Is Paul Frank really my friend?That's because I grew up watching Cal Worthington commercials and A Dee Do Plumbing. They're corny and kinda sentimental, but they're always trying to sell you something. It kinda messes with your mind, and a lot of our stuff is like that—it gets you thinking. So you're messing with us. Where does that come from? Uh, being a passive-aggressive? It's one of those things, you know, when you're little, you can't really speak your mind, so you have to find ways of giving sarcastic answers to things. I still follow that today. If it sounds funny, we use it. It doesn't necessarily have to be funny. You know, one of our shirts says, "I'm not a Beaver, I'm an Otter." I didn't mean that to be funny; it just sounds funny. Getting back to the characters, I imagine there are a lot of companies that would be interested in making full-blown cartoons out of them.We get a lot of interest. The problem is they just don't want to do your cartoon—they want to sell everything. They want to turn Julius into SpongeBob. We kinda like the idea that our stuff is kinda hard to get. Smaller quantities is what makes it special. In order for a production company to make a cartoon, they're going to want to sell your characters all over the world, do every liquor-store candy dispenser they can. We don't want to go there yet. We're afraid we might jeopardize our whole brand. We're not in this for the money. We could have sold out long ago. That's not why we do this. Then why?For the satisfaction of making stuff that make people go, "Woo, that's cool!"