Designer Leaves Monkey Business Behind

Times Staff Writer

Paul Frank, who turned the image of a whimsical monkey into the foundation for a global apparel and accessory business bearing his name, has split from the company, it was announced Tuesday.

The 38-year-old designer left “to pursue other interests,” Costa Mesa-based Paul Frank Industries Inc. said in a statement, declining to elaborate. Frank, who began selling vinyl wallets in Huntington Beach in 1995, could not be reached for comment.

Frank will no longer be involved with the privately held business but will remain “a significant stakeholder,” the company said in a statement. The other co-founders -- Chief Executive John Oswald and President Ryan Heuser -- will continue to run day-to-day operations.


Word of the split did not surprise many observers in Southern California’s apparel industry. That’s in part because Frank was never the “face” of his namesake brand in the way that other designers, such as Calvin Klein or Mossimo Giannulli, reflected their companies.

The image most closely identified with Paul Frank Industries has been Julius the Monkey, a character that particularly appeals to teenage and preteen girls.

“It would be a lot bigger deal if they lost him or the giraffe than the founder,” said Eric John, owner of Southern California chain Laguna Surf & Sport, referring to Julius and a character named Clancy.

It is not unusual for the creative force behind a business to move on and launch a new concept, or for a company eventually to ditch its founder, said Ilse Metchek, executive director of the California Fashion Assn.

Industry insiders say the brand has enough momentum to carry it forward without Frank himself, whose full name is Paul Frank Sunich. But Metchek said businesses typically experienced lulls after such breakups, during which there might be confusion about their direction.

“A wait-and-see attitude sets in from the financial community, as well as the retail community,” she said.

Paul Frank Industries, with annual sales of about $40 million, operates 14 stores, including sites in Los Angeles and Costa Mesa, as well as in London, Amsterdam, Berlin, Athens, Tokyo and Seoul.

The company’s products have expanded beyond kitschy items bearing the likenesses of Julius, Clancy or Ellie the Elephant. Offerings include bomber jackets, pajamas and backpacks; one line incorporates lesser-known early works by Andy Warhol.

The brand -- which sells in a few department store chains, trendy specialty stores such as Fred Segal in Santa Monica and at surf shops such as Pacific Sunwear of California Inc. -- is likely to have broader distribution with Frank out of the mix, said Marshal Cohen, chief industry analyst at NPD Group, who said he had known the designer about two years.

“He was focused on fun, innocence and freedom, and not that many people talk about that in their business model,” Cohen said.

Frank has stayed mostly out of view, surf shop owners say.

“As far as Paul Frank the person goes, he might as well have been made up,” said John of Laguna Surf & Sport.

Still, the brand was so popular with young girls that it became “almost a cult thing,” said Dave Hollander, owner of Becker Surf & Sport, a five-store chain based in Torrance. “It had legs that I never understood.”

Brien Rowe, managing director of investment bank Sage Group in Los Angeles, said he knew the three founders well and was not surprised by the split: “Paul is sort of the artistic visionary and I think less commercial than John or Ryan,” Rowe said.

Frank’s “artistic talent and vision are very important to the success of the business,” Rowe added. “I would hope there’s a solid design team they’ve built behind him to continue the magic of the business.”

The company named Maui & Sons International founder Jeff Yokoyama as design director for sportswear in September.

Whatever the reason for Frank’s departure, it comes as the company celebrates a milestone: Julius turns 10 on Friday.