Empire Labs Honors Its Roots While Putting Fresh Spin on Industry Staple

Empire Labs Honors Its Roots While Putting Fresh Spin on Industry Staple
Colleen Godin

Amidst all the twirling, rotating and thrusting of mechanical parts, it's easy to forget that sex used to involve flesh and blood. While everyone else is looking for the next human replacement, Empire Labs is mostly concerned with replicating particular anatomical parts in neon hues. Clone-A-Willy has been a pleasure industry staple since the late ‘90s, and after a colorful, modern re-branding, Empire is ready to dominate the wellness forum from their home in sex-positive Portland, Ore. Their platinum-cure molding kits are the only route to a completely custom sex toy experience. No bells or whistles necessary when your toy is your partner.

The Clone-A-Willy concept began innocently enough, though rather appropriately, in San Francisco. Joe Hanson and business partner David Claus, a chemist, co-founded Empire Labs in 1996 as a manufacturing outfit for the medical industry. The duo crafted customized parts for prosthetics, focusing on a life-like realism that made them pioneers in their field. “Our methods and materials were completely unique, and our reputation as creators of amazingly lifelike, simple to use molding and casting compounds quickly grew just by word of mouth,” recalls Hanson. It wasn't long before Hollywood took notice and Hanson found himself expanding Empire's repertoire from medical to morbid. Special effects artists enlisted Hanson's realistic prosthetics for horror flicks and gore-filled thrillers. Empire Lab's novel methods allowed for custom body casts and props to be easily and inexpensively created. Only a year after the company's conception, Hanson's team was handed the project that would give the world Clone-A-Willy. “In 1997, realistic penis replicas of varying shapes and sizes were needed for an independent film,” says Hanson. “The first DIY Willy kits were born and they were such a hit on set that a retail version was created.”

Our future is bright and full of colorful penis and vulva replicas as well as meaningful work that we hope continues to bring unity and challenge oppression in many different communities all over the world.

Empire Labs had a running start in the medical and film industries, but oddly enough, the adult market was rather perplexed. The Make Your Own Dildo Kit, as the product was originally titled, confused distribution buyers and had no basis of comparison for projected sales. “The idea was so new and different from anything else on the market,” says Hanson. “Sales numbers and consumer interest were incredibly hard to gauge.” Hanson could hardly give the product away for free, and in a last-ditch effort to bring Clone-A-Willy to life, that's exactly what he did. Joe allowed distributors to give the product a test run by selling on consignment, and the naysayers quickly changed their tune. Orders came pouring in and Hanson knew he had struck pleasure product gold. “Once a few of the larger companies added us to their catalogs, the phone (and fax machine back then) started ringing non-stop,” Hanson fondly recalls. Once he and the Empire team had a proverbial foot in the door, everything fell into place. “We came into the industry as complete outsiders and have felt welcomed ever since,” remarks Hanson.

Often miscategorized as pure novelty, Clone-A-Willy is far more than a gag gift and still more than just a sex toy. Hanson's intent was to bring partners closer together through the shared creation of an anatomical work of pleasure art. “Our kits are really a couples' product,” says Hanson. “We have found that most people make our kits together.” Molding your partner's penis is certainly a different kind of romantic evening. Orgasms and giggles both produce endorphins, and Hanson says that the latter is a great way to lead up to the former. “It's almost impossible to make one of our kits with your partner without having a few laughs in the process,” remarks Hanson. “Our customers have told us they wanted something fun and different to do, and our products are really about the experience.”

The Clone-A-Willy experience has traditionally been exclusive to phallus owners – until now. The Clone-A-Pussy is Empire Labs’ latest addition to the molding lineup. The concept is similar, but with a stronger message. “We live in a society where, unfortunately, women’s bodies tend to often be shamed instead of celebrated,” says Hanson. “Clone-A-Pussy provides a really unique and empowering experience for any woman — to see an exact replica of their vulva and be proud of how unique, beautiful and different it is from the next.” Empire has always been a proponent of body positivity, but the sexual wellness revolution has propelled this mission over the last few years. “We work really hard to use our products as vessels of body empowerment and to start a conversation around sexuality in an approachable way,” says Hanson. The sex education community has since picked up on Empire's good vibes, using products like the Clone-A-Pussy to inspire their audiences. “Many sex educators have been picking up Clone-A-Pussy to help educate about the complex anatomy of the vulva and promote self-love,” says Hanson. As his team innovates and evolves with the growth of all sexual beings, one core value remains the same: “We aim every day to be as inclusive as we can.”

Producing an all-inclusive pleasure product doesn't just lead to the obvious positives of a better society and happier sex lives. For one Empire Labs staff member, the Clone-A-Willy brought a rather unexpected familial closeness — at least once the embarrassment wore off. “We maintain our own in-house customer service representatives who we train to be molding experts,” says Hanson. “‘Jenny’ who worked for us for a number of years answered the phone one day from a customer.” Most adult product manufacturers have stories of varying levels of hilarity and humiliation, but Joe's tale takes the cake for uniqueness. “[The customer] started by asking if our kits are designed to work with a penis that is curved,” recalls Hanson. “As she started to explain that our kits do work with any shape or sized penis, he exclaimed, ‘Jenny?!’ To her horror, the recognition of the voice on the other end was mutual. ‘Dad?!’ They both immediately hung up the phone,” laughs Hanson. “He didn't know she worked at a dildo factory, and they had a good laugh about it a few days later.”

When asked about the future of Clone-A-Willy, Joe Hanson envisions lucent things in the literal and figurative sense. “Our future is bright and full of colorful penis and vulva replicas,” says Hanson, “as well as meaningful work that we hope continues to bring unity and challenge oppression in many different communities all over the world.” Joe's mission is a mighty and respectable one, especially for a company that turned molding your genitals into an act of empowerment. After such lofty, aspirational speak, Joe brings his mission back to earth by reminding us all of what really goes on at Empire Labs five days a week. “We're not selling a sex toy,” remarks Hanson. “We sell the ingredients to make one.”