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Hot new T-shirts, with icing on top

Johnny Cupcakes' funky designs smell like success

Hull’s Johnny Earle, holding up a picture of himself mugging for the camera, produces clothing under the brand of Johnny Cupcakes, a nickname given to him when he worked at Newbury Comics. Hull’s Johnny Earle, holding up a picture of himself mugging for the camera, produces clothing under the brand of Johnny Cupcakes, a nickname given to him when he worked at Newbury Comics. (Michele McDonald/Globe Staff)
Email|Print| Text size + By Sara Mason Ader
Globe Correspondent / November 15, 2007

Hundreds of fans queued up for hours in front of 279 Newbury St. recently, waiting for the 8 p.m. arrival of Johnny Cupcakes and the unveiling of his latest creation. That they were there in droves, some as early as dawn, was just the latest testimony to what one creative, rules-breaking, 25-year-old college dropout from Hull can do when he puts his mind to it.

Johnny Cupcakes - aka John Earle - has enjoyed sweet success by creating a line of cupcake-decorated clothing and watching it become an international hit.

"Everything I see is in cupcake vision," says Earle, with the mock seriousness befitting someone whose wildly successful venture began as a joke.

His cupcake designs are quirky plays on pop culture. There are cupcakes over crossbones (now the company's logo), baseball cupcakes, Boston skyline cupcakes.

Think T-shirts that say Make Cupcakes Not War ($38.99). Think hoodies decorated with a cartoon-style cupcake baker ($84.99). Think success.

As a result of his multimillion-dollar cupcake-themed empire, Earle has become an internationally known persona who routinely attracts crowds of customers and autograph-seekers.

His market? Let's just say there is a reason that he has been profiled by MTV.

No one seems more stunned by his success than Earle himself.

"I never expected it to get this big," he says. "Who would have ever thought I'd be able to employ my entire family and all my friends?"

Earle started the business seven years ago in his parents' attic. After graduating from South Shore Charter School in Hull in 2000, he attended college for a few days, then decided it wasn't for him. ("I have ADD, so focusing was always an issue," he says on his website.) So he picked up a job behind the counter at Newbury Comics to pay the bills - it beat his earlier jobs washing dishes and selling greeting cards - and toured with a heavy metal band called On Broken Wings.

A Newbury Comics co-worker was forever giving him random nicknames, and Johnny Cupcakes was one of them. Johnny - always the prankster, he was nearly booted out of high school for a silly trick with itching powder that went awry - made a few cupcake-themed T-shirts and began wearing them to work.

To his surprise, co-workers and customers began requesting the T-shirts in such great numbers that he began selling them out of the trunk of his beat-up Toyota.

Eventually the T-shirt business became so big that he quit his band and other odd jobs to create and sell them full time. By 2002, the Johnny Cupcakes website and online store were up and running. Orders started streaming in from all over the world, Earle says. It's only grown since then.

Earle's mother, Lorraine, has been the company's full-time business manager for the past two years. Earle says part of his original motivation was drawn from seeing her go off to a boring 9-to-5 job all those years, and figuring there must be a better way to make a living.

Earle's father, Michael, built out his son's store, storage warehouse, and office space in Hull, as well as the Newbury Street location.

The shop's decor, like his Newbury Street boutique, is a practical joke in its own right. The clothing is displayed on baking trays and in glass pastry cases. The air is scented with vanilla. Employees wear aprons.

It was while attending his first trade show in 2004, Earle says, that he was hit with a revelation that changed the course of his business. He realized that people want to wear things that no one else has. He came to think of his T-shirt creations as "wearable art" and began the limited-edition phase of his business.

For a time, Earle considered opening additional retail stores in London and California locations. But with the Newbury Street store open since May 2006, Earle says he has no current plans to expand beyond his current locations and the online store.

He reports that October sales were roughly double those of March. A good sign.

"I'd like to keep it just a local thing," he says. "That way I can focus more on the customer experience."

So does Earle - the young man long determined to avoid the 9-to-5 job trap - consider what he does now as work? Yes, he does.

"I work very hard," he says, "and I enjoy every minute of it."

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