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The Wizard of Costa Mesa

Trends: Paul Frank dispatches monkey shines that are flying off the shelves.

November 13, 1998|ROSE APODACA JONES | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

In the 1968 cinematic classic "Planet of the Apes," Charlton Heston's astronaut character returns to Earth to find it inhabited by monkey men in leisure wear. Fast forward. Thousands of e-mails sent over the Internet last week goaded readers to don masks to trick senator-returned-astronaut John Glenn into believing he'd met the same fate.

Computer geeks. If they tracked the hip radar, they'd know that monkey madness has already enslaved fashion sects in the form of handbags, socks and wallets.

It's subversive all right, in part because Paul Frank, whose name graces these items, is an unconventional fashion guy. The designer (if he doesn't mind being called that) is more sweet geek than trendy guru.

But the quirky, well-crafted accessories and home products he's created in his Costa Mesa studio and warehouse under the Paul Frank Industries name tag have attracted the attention of fashionistas, famous and not, as well as unexpectedly grossing just under $5 million in its first official year. (Frank has been hawking a limited number of wallets since 1995.)

It Girl Cameron Diaz brandished her Paul Frank bowling-style handbag in a magazine article on her purse collection. MTV's Kennedy is also hooked.

Actresses Claire Danes and "Ally McBeal's" Lisa Nicole Carson get their Paul Frank fix at the Jennifer Kaufman boutique in the Beverly Center, which has been showcasing the line in its window and main display area for an unprecedented eight months.

"We sell out as soon as a shipment arrives," says Jennifer Kaufman, who rings in a reorder almost weekly. "What's more," she adds, "these are the nicest guys ever."

The guys are Frank, 31, and behind-the-scenes partners Ryan Heuser, 25, and John Oswald, 31.

Heuser, former head of public relations for menswear at Mossimo, sunk his savings ($7,000) into Frank's first orders and came on board full time in January. Oswald, a former venture capitalist, joined the team last year with financing from the sale of his import company.

The trio hopes to have the creativity, marketing and finances to turn a cartoonish poker-faced monkey mug into the perfect alternative to the played-out Prada triangle logo and the saturated presence of Hello Kitty and her Sanrio siblings.

Frank wasn't a typical kid, even growing up in Huntington Beach--he preferred to stay indoors, alone. He spent hours drawing and building models. He found commonality among the kids who expressed themselves through art or music.

In recent years, he took art and fashion courses at Orange Coast College in Costa Mesa, where teachers remember him as a perfectionist.

"He never finished an assignment all the way because he couldn't find the perfect materials, or he wouldn't be happy with the results," says Christina Amaral, head of the fashion department. "But his attention to detail is setting him apart now."

Frank's perfection is much like that of his heroes: Muicia Prada, the Eames Brothers and Alexander Calder. "They taught us there's beauty in everyday objects," he says. "The thrill comes in making something yourself."

Why are adults clamoring for Julius the Monkey, Ellie the Elephant, the Blue Dog or any other of the childlike Paul Frank motifs?

For the fun of it. And the irony of it. There's something deliciously absurd about having make-believe kid stuff that's been meticulously assembled. Even the slogan, "Paul Frank is your friend," which is stenciled on bags and T-shirts, is both serious and silly.

Heuser refrains from categorizing the Paul Frank customer. Retailers say males and females, from kids to seniors, are sporting the gear. "It's basically [for anyone] not afraid of wearing a monkey," he says.

That includes the trend-setting rock 'n 'roll set, lured in initially by Frank's custom guitar straps. Fans include members of Stereolab, Blur, Rage Against the Machine, Ozzy Osbourne's band, Link Wray, Devo and the Rolling Stones.

It's a following anyone would trumpet--if they had time. Frank and Co. are just trying to catch their breath in a whirlwind of success that demands 12-hour workdays and most weekends.

"I have to put in the time to ensure the quality is there," says Frank, who cuts and stitches each prototype for precise results.

Frank points to a shelf: A dozen stiff paper models of his handbags in uncommon shapes are perfectly lined up. A local sample maker taught him the old-fashioned way of modeling purses from manila pattern paper and staples.

"With this technique I can make any shape I want. I even made a globe purse recently, and I had to use the formula for pi. Remember in math class when you thought you'd never use pi in the real world?"

To sew his high-grade vinyl, Frank hot-rodded the sewing machine his mother bought him on his 28th birthday. An industrial machine nearby is for tougher jobs.

The vinyl pieces are then die-cut, and the Douglas fir base for his denim bags are branded with the signature logo.

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