Paul Frank, Your Pal and Mine

photo by: Miguel Vasconcellos

Paul FrankPaul Frank may not be your friend, but you wish he was. He's the kid down the street who has the neatest toys and always shares. The guy at the bar who buys his friends a round of drinks because he can. The one person you know who has no idea how talented he is, which of course just makes him that much cooler.

He's also a successful designer who creates characters that give Hello Kitty a run for her money, fashions garments that make Calvin Klein underwear seem dull and builds furniture that outshines anything from Ikea.

"I make stuff," Paul says. "It's weird that people want my autograph. Don't you have to make a movie or hit a home run to do that?"

Apparently not. Everybody wants a piece of him, and luckily his stuff is everywhere: T-shirts, purses, pajamas, furniture. And next year his characters are making their cartoon debut on the web.

Still, ask Paul about his work, and he'd rather talk about the beautiful, boxy quality of old electronics and automobiles, or how cartoons are not as cool as they used to be or why sometimes he'd rather be a sailor. He's definitely not your typical 32-year-old. Hell, he just moved out of his parents' house this year.

Now he lives on his own, in a light blue house with a white picket fence. He plays old records on his 8-track and takes his blue Schwinn Breeze for a ride around the block. He makes eggs on his antique stove and drinks juice straight of the container.

"I spoil myself," Paul says, beaming. "I have orange juice and grape juice and cranberry juice all at the same time, like it's a party!"

It's no surprise that Paul's childhood was filled with whimsy and bursting with creativity. He grew up in Huntington Beach, Calif., in a house that encouraged do-it-yourself resourcefulness.

"We were very lucky," Paul says. "My uncle has a workshop, whereas most families have a screwdriver in their kitchen drawer."

He also attributes a chunk of his creativity to his mom, who took Paul scavenging for vintage goods and bought him his first sewing machine. The two of them would go to thrift stores and switch price tags on merchandise, he laughs.

"My mom always let me be a big kid. She never rushed me into anything," he says.

The summer before high school, Paul got an electric guitar, learned to play the Rolling Stones's hit, "Satisfaction," and was forever changed.

"That was a big deal," he says. "I realized, 'Whoa, there's music.'"

Paul Frank BagEvery day, Paul and his friends listened to bands like the Stray Cats, Madness and the B-52s, studying guitar riffs and memorizing lyrics. They took the next step to be as cool as the rockstars and started to pay attention to the way they dressed. Paul became interested in fashion and began making his own clothes.

"Because I was into music, I was able to meet people and explore being creative," Paul says. "You fall into these things by accident and they turn out to be good things.

"The best stuff happens when you're not trying."

Julius, the red-mouthed, big-eared monkey, was born when Paul made a gift for his then-girlfriend. She, too, was into fashion and appreciated its playful quality. He cut pieces of leather in the shape of the cute animal and sewed them together on the machine his mom gave him.

"I didn't really know anyone else who would wear a monkey on her purse," Paul says.

Little did he know that hundreds of thousands of girls would, too.

Now Paul is the creative director for Paul Frank Industries, which operates out of a grape-stained warehouse in Costa Mesa, Calif. The 28-member staff is a big family that makes a game out of fashion and barbecues on Fridays. Paul leads a team of artists who luckily thinks about design like he does. He can be found in his toy-filled office sketching madly on scraps of paper, drawing inspiration from old cartoons and 1960s municipal buildings.

Sometimes, Paul says, he has no idea how he got where he is. He hasn't gotten used to seeing his mug in the newspaper and still trips out when he comes across people wearing what he's made. Once, he was at a mall food court and saw a girl wearing T-shirt that had to at least be a couple years old.

"That was exciting," he says. "I didn't know that person, and she was wearing a faded T-shirt. I wanted to go up to her and say, 'Hey, I made that!'"

Aside from the occasional spottings and publicity events, Paul says the fame hasn't changed his life much. His stuff may appear in national magazines, but you won't find him bragging about it. In fact, he'd rather people-watch at the Block in Orange, Calif., than attend any industry event.

"I don't want to go to those things," he says. "I don't feel like I have enough black clothes."

On a Friday night, look for him instead attending local rock shows, scouring eBay for old guitars or taking his weimaraner Jasper for a walk. It sounds normal to some, maybe even boring. But that's just life for Paul.

"I never said I was cool."

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