Real Simple sat down with iconic designer Paul Frank to talk about how creating wallets for friends turned into a mega-brand that’s stolen the hearts of kids, adults, and ‘90s lovers from around the world.

By Tamara Kraus
Updated August 01, 2017
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Paul Frank
Credit: Ramona Rosales

As a Huntington Beach, California, native, Paul Frank has always wanted to recreate the carefree, youthful beach atmosphere that has surrounded him his entire life. And more than anything, he’s always wanted to be different.

While he spent much of his early 20s playing in a band, it wasn’t until his late 20s that the Paul Frank brand was born. Once his mom gave him a sewing machine, and he picked up vinyl at the local boating store, the rest was history. “People would come find me and say ‘Are you that guy that makes the wallets?’ I taught myself how to make bags. I made t-shirts, I went to trade shows, and it just snowballed from there,” Frank said.

Paul Frank officially launched in 1995, and while there’s a list of new collections and opportunities ahead for the whimsical characters Julius the Monkey, Mika the Cat, and Ellie the Elephant (who was actually the first character created, not Julius, despite popular belief) just to name a few—the brand will always stay true to Frank’s core inspiration: the artistry of the ‘90s.

“My favorite ‘90s trend was music because I always had a local band—that’s how I discovered art and design,” he said. “Also, the whole idea of prolonged adolescence. A lot of my younger friends were going to stores like Sanrio and Sesame Street, so it was perfectly normal for a young adult to wear a kid’s T-shirt. All that stuff, the music scene, that totally inspired the Paul Frank brand.”

For pop culture, there’s been a sudden resurgence of the ‘90s, but for Frank, it never disappeared—and the brand has stood the test of time (and location) too. “It’s really cool how my characters resonate with people in other countries, who don’t speak English,” he said. “Even now I’m realizing that listening to some of my friends’ stories about their kids—their kids are responding really well to the characters without any knowledge of the word “Paul Frank” or without being able to even speak.”

So what’s the secret ingredient to Paul Frank’s success? Imperfection. Unlike other characters out there, Frank’s characters are relatable and silly, similar to Disney characters, which is one of his biggest inspirations and is seen throughout his newest home collaboration.

The Land of Nod Collection and the Future

Like most business deals these days, Frank’s new Land of Nod collaboration started with a Direct Message on Instagram. Both brands have been longtime fans of each other, so it only made sense to team up to create a whimsical collection for kids, Paul Frank for Nod, which launches in September.

For Frank, the collaboration was a natural extension of his brand. Frank designs his pieces as if he were making them for himself, and that authenticity is carried throughout in the Land of Nod collection.

“With my collection, I want all the pieces—I’m not (even) a kid. My favorite piece is the Clancy lamp, the giraffe lamp. I was inspired by Danish teak carvings. My other favorite is the wall heads. How often do you see an alligator head on the wall? I always like to throw in an unexpected twist to everything,” he said.

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While this is the biggest Paul Frank launch recently, there’s no stopping this creative house anytime soon. In the near future, Frank hopes to start a how-to video series, teaching people crafting and DIY projects. He also hopes to expand on the animation video that lives on the Paul Frank site, possibly by showing short animation clips between commercial breaks on his crafting show.

When it comes down to it, Frank’s success and appeal is rooted from everyone’s deepest wish: to be young forever.