For the first time since he was fired in November, designer Paul Frank Sunich walked last week into the Los Angeles store that bears his name and took stock.
The co-founder of Paul Frank Industries Inc. touched T-shirts decorated with whimsical characters he created -- including Julius, the cheeky monkey, and Clancy, the world's smallest giraffe. He pointed out a clock he had made by hand and a purse stitched from vinyl upholstery from a pickup truck.
A look of delight, and something close to wonder, brushed over his face.
"See the grain?" he asked, fingers glancing over the handbag. "That was one of the last designs I worked on."
The slogan above the sunglass case seemed to mock Sunich's situation, the placid scene on 3rd Street contrasting with his falling-out with his two former partners:
"Paul Frank is your friend."
Much has gone sour since Sunich, 38, worked on the wares on display. A nasty battle is underway between the artist and the company he began nudging to life 11 years ago, selling monkey-faced wallets from a newsstand in Huntington Beach.
Sunich filed two lawsuits last month against Paul Frank Industries, alleging that he was fired without cause and that the company was using Julius, a copyrighted character, without his permission.
The Costa Mesa-based company, for its part, said that in terminating Sunich, it was exercising its right to buy him out according to a shareholder agreement that the three founders agreed to in 1999 and that was amended in 2002.
As attorneys on both sides sharpen their pencils, the questions that arise are as quirky as the company that traces its origins to a child's sock puppet:
* Might Sunich force the sale of a business that raked in $40 million in revenue last year?
* Must he settle for the $611,378.35 the company is offering for his nearly one-third stake?
* Will he be barred from using his own name in future business ventures?
* Can he keep designing if it means competing with Paul Frank Industries?
* And who will get custody of Julius, the monkey that launched a global enterprise?
As far as some retailers and young shoppers are concerned, the primate is the key character mired in this mess.
"It still is about that darn monkey," said Carol Nielsen, a buyer for the Hermosa Beach-based Becker Surf & Sport chain. "That's what sells."
Sunich's former partners, Ryan Heuser and John Oswald, declined to comment on their dispute with the artist beyond a written statement: "The company has treated Mr. Sunich very fairly and continues to do so. We hope that Mr. Sunich will come to realize this."
Preparing for battle, and for his future, Sunich has enlisted high-powered help in the form of Daniel Field, a prominent talent manager from entertainment agency the Firm, and public relations company Sitrick & Co.
"He was in a position where he had to have help," said Field, who manages rock bands such as Weezer and Audioslave. Like many creative types, Sunich is less skilled in business than in his art, Field said, adding that he has known his friend and client for about six years.
"Paul doesn't want to have these PR guys; he doesn't want to have a litigator," Field said. "It's completely against his nature." Field said his main role was to protect Sunich and to help him realize goals such as creating projects involving animation, including television shows or movies. And Field can imagine Julius as the star of a future production.
"Paul owns the copyright on Julius so, yes, I think there's a great possibility that he could wind up with the monkey," Field said.
Sunich says Julius is his -- and he wants to protect him.
"I'm concerned about the integrity of that character -- and all my characters, frankly," said Sunich, who first sketched Julius in an art class in 1995, inspired by a sock puppet made by his grandmother (and named, in part, after a favorite childhood treat, an Orange Julius drink). "I would like more control of how he is represented."
To some girls, the names of the monkey and its maker are interchangeable. Asked about Julius, they will respond: "Oh, you mean Paul Frank?"
"Oh, I love Paul Frank," said Kiara Walker, 13, at the Grove shopping center in L.A.'s Fairfax District on Friday. She has the robe and the pajamas and the T-shirts and the jacket and the slippers, Kiara said. "Oh, yeah. And the blanket."
But whose name is it?
The company, which owns the Paul Frank trademark, recently won a temporary restraining order to keep the artist from using the name Paul Frank Design on a website. Another hearing on the matter will be held Wednesday.
Sunich, at a restaurant down the street from the 3rd Street store, seems perplexed at the strangeness of his situation, especially the question of his name.
"I mean, I'm Paul Frank," he said. "I don't want to make up another name."
Frank launched the business from his parents' home in 1995, sewing monkey patches onto wallets. Heuser, who was skilled at marketing, came aboard that year. Oswald, providing business expertise, joined two years later, according to court records. Each came to own almost one-third of the company.
Together, they built Paul Frank Industries into a business that expanded beyond kitschy products with whimsical animal characters to include bomber jackets, backpacks and bicycles. The company operates 14 Paul Frank shops, including locations in London, Amsterdam, Tokyo and Seoul, and its products are sold in more than 1,800 stores worldwide.
Although his creativity provided fuel for the enterprise, Sunich might never have gone so far without partners who were astute at business.
"That's what all those artists lack, is the business sense," said Nielsen, the buyer for Becker. "I think there has to be a businessperson and an art person, and that's the marriage.... That's the golden scenario."
Still, Sunich was no chump when it came to his products, said Barbara Fields, a trend forecaster who visited his trade show booth early on.
"He's a very smart guy; he's smarter than everyone thinks," she said. "He knew he had something" and was very particular about whom he would sell to.
"He didn't even like the word 'department stores,' " she said.
Sunich doesn't claim that business is his strong suit. But even as a designer, he says, he felt increasingly marginalized through the years.
In one of the more bruising incidents, Sunich alleges, he returned from his honeymoon in July to find that his artwork and personal effects had been moved so his office could be turned into a marketing department.
"My 10 years of work was outside in the hallway where everybody could walk by it and walk around it," he said. "I really think that somehow they thought they could do that kind of stuff and get away with it."
On the day he was fired, Sunich said, he and fellow board members gathered on the phone to discuss the matter. His was the lone dissenting vote, he said.
"I voted no," he said. "I wasn't going to vote to fire myself."
Sunich, who says the company gave no reason for his termination, is saddened and perplexed more than angry.
"I'm not going to lie to you, I'm still sad," he said. "I think anybody would be sad in this position."
But he's still optimistic about his future, and what he hopes will be the chance to "create new things." He donates time to his alma mater, Orange Coast College in Costa Mesa, as an unpaid design instructor and is eager to get on with other projects as well.
Others in the Southern California apparel industry say they too are saddened that a match that seemed made in heaven slid somehow into corporate hell.
"They were happy, friendly, attractive, smart; they had their act together," said Jennifer Uner, co-producer of the L.A. Fashion Awards, referring to Sunich, Heuser and Oswald. "It was so light and happy and free. And now, to see this become dark and ugly, that's why it's so disappointing."
Times staff writer Tanya Caldwell contributed to this report.