Now that Toy Fair is over…I am drawn to the memories of Toy Fair past. Attending as a non-exhibitor was a very different experience as was when working for the doll industry. Gather around the bonfire, puddings…Tommy has a story to tell…
This story is something that happened…so I don’t really care how much of it you believe (and I’m not going to even suggest any word of it is true)…decide for yourself, thank you.
The American International Toy Fair arrives generally after the world wipes its drool away from the fabulousness of New York’s Fashion Week. Hailed as one of the most important trade shows in the toy world, it used to mean something very different for the subset of doll makers that co-existed within the toy industry alongside children’s toy makers. Staged at the impossibly large and ugly Jacob J. Javits Center in New York City, Toy Fair used to span all levels, all halls…not so much anymore. The sheer existence of Toy Fair has always been a generator of fun memories for me, even before I began actually working for a doll maker. You see, getting in Toy Fair was no small feat – it is a trade show, and as such, it is not open to the public. So anyone with a friend who worked for the press or a retailer would have top ticket access to see the latest and greatest in toys. If you’ve never been to Toy Fair, saying you don’t know what you are missing is an understatement. First and foremost, it’s huge. Second…it’s toys! What more could my inner child desire?
From the collectible doll industry’s perspective, Toy Fair is a nuisance, which is why hardly any doll maker shows there anymore. It is a an unbelievably expensive show to attend for any company – the larger you are, it only exponentially increases in cost. You must first secure your space, which is driven by seniority, whether or not you are a TIA member, and in more recent years, by the type of toys you make. This is really important, because it wasn’t always like that. Doll makers could be nicely dispersed amongst other toy makers, capitalizing on sheer foot traffic as people would pass your booth on the way to a scheduled appointment with another exhibitor – they might even be interested enough in your booth to stop and take a look, and voila! You might have picked up an new client.
Well, it’s supposed to work that way; but all too often, buyers have so much to see, so little time and budget, that it almost becomes easy to deliberately overlook new vendors. Collectible dolls? They are already priced out of the range of most toy stores, and most gift stores are attending the Gift Markets. It also didn’t help that some self-righteous assholes in the doll industry were instrumental in moving doll makers into one consolidated area in ass-back-corner of Javits…far, far away from the traffic and action. If you wanted to be located elsewhere, only seniority and money could make that happen, which precluded new doll makers from showing at Toy Fair, unless you wanted to be with the other doll people on the dark side of the moon.
Some doll artists were clever. They used the timing of Toy Fair to host a gallery type show elsewhere in Manhattan – still expensive, but nowhere near as herculean an effort as Toy Fair. As the (now defunct) IDEX show matured in its then-new home of Orlando (shutting out San Francisco and the West Coast), more and more doll makers gave the finger to pissing money away in a New York February, and shifting its focus to sunny Orlando, FL in January. A few remained, namely Tonner, Madame Alexander, Sideshow Toys, Mattel and Integrity Toys (some showing both at Javits and off-site at the Toy Center). For all, news of their collectible lines would trickle in and out, and with the coming of the Internet, they would debut almost exclusively online.
Let’s use our way-back machine to see a snap shot of Toy Fair as it was in the hype and heyday of Gene Marshall and the late 1990s. It was a much more glittering event then; with much more prosperity to shower embellishments upon your floor space. Richard Simmons and Marie Osmond would float by, as would other celebrities associated with some toy whoring here or there. What? That’s exactly what it was (and still is). And with it, shitloads of money poured into an ugly glass building to see who could piss the farthest. Upstart media outlets like G4 didn’t help, either – with their rising popularity, they would turn the toy show into a circus of things that they would christen ‘cool‘. But I digress…
My first Toy Fair was magical. Not only am I a big doll collecting queen, but I also love toys – and just about any kind of toy there is: Radio Flyer, Lite Bright, Major Matt Mason, Green Ghost, Easy Bake Oven, well, you get the drift. Oh…and then there’s Lego…(sigh). Everywhere you turned in this cavernous erector set, was a toy – of all types, shapes, sizes and costs – and every single vendor in that building is just dying to tell you about its toy. Hell, I was about like that little mental kid opening his Nintendo on Christmas morning, except mine lasted for 9 hours – I can’t even imagine an orgasm coming anywhere near that, let alone 9 seconds, but that’s exactly what it felt like – utter ecstasy.
On my first Toy Fair, it was 1999 – and it wasn’t ‘Toy Fair’ at all for me…it was the Madame Alexander Doll Club Premiere in Fort Lee, NJ – where club members got to tour the factory and see the new line of dolls around the time of Toy Fair. I was traveling as a member of the Madame Alexander Doll Club (MADC). Now to put all of this MADC-business in perspective, let’s take a brief walk in my garden, shall we?
In 1996 Madame Alexander reintroduced Cissy, I was already collecting Madame Alexander, Barbie, Tonner’s 14″ Betsy McCall, and Gene (but unaware as of yet that a Gene collector audience was out there), so I met some folks associated with MADC in Gaithersburg, MD – this really is its own story, and one day I’ll tell it, but not right now; you only need the footnotes.
In 1997, I attended my first doll event ever – it was a MADC Friendship Luncheon in Williamsburg, VA – I can remember it like the back of my hand. I was asked to bring two Cissy dolls I had re-dressed to exhibit at the luncheon – after all, the company CEO would be attending with his wife. I was just a little unaware that I was to be used as a positioning device, but that will come out in another story (one of my first hard lessons in this often bitchy world of doll business). The friendship Luncehon was also being held adjacent to a doll show and sale, where I ran into a doll artist I had met in 1996 – a man named Robert Tonner (again, an entirely different story – yeah, I got plenty of them).
Upon meeting MA’s executive bunch and club elites in attendance, we all took a liking to each other, and the CEO was very impressed with my designs for Cissy. Cissy was redefined by Alexander as a couture debutante of the coming new millennium (their words, not mine), and I designed two outfits, taking her story further to depict her as a world traveler: Cissy at Ascot and Claire de Lune Cissy at the Paris Opera House. I also displayed story boards and concepts for other Cissy dolls traveling through Europe on the Orient Express, a concept befitting of Cissy’s new storyline. Since I had lived in London for a couple of year in the early 90s, I was inspired by all things European – especially Paris.
MA loved it. Later one company official would actually buy Claire de Lune from me – that was an honor. I expressed an interest to show more designs to him and his team in an effort to possibly work for them as a designer. A couple of months later, before the opening of the 1998 ToyFair, I got my chance. I prepared a full portfolio of designs for Cissy’s Grand Tour of Europe – on her travels, she would travel throughout Europe to London, Paris, Vienna, Venice…and other European cities.
“Pity, really.” These words ring true in my head coming from the then marketing VP. In fact, he seemed to take great pleasure in showing me their Cissy on the Orient Express collection, though they ultimately couldn’t use ‘Orient Express‘ because of trademark threats. What he showed me looked nothing like my designs; quite frankly; they fully embodied the work of the late Alexander designer, John Puzewski (who would pass away in 1999) – sumptuous and over-the-top, as John’s designs were. Nevertheless, I have absolutely no proof they took my idea, and John was pretty proliferate in extraordinary and grand ideas (still wish they would make those perfume bottle-inspired designs I once saw in their design room) – so I make no accusations, whatsoever. Furthermore, I will say the timing was pretty tight, too…to get a collection completed, photographed and catalog printed in a scant two months is not likely. I will however, marvel at the coincidence…so, let’s just leave it as ‘great minds think alike‘ (and fools seldom differ). It wouldn’t be the first time I would see ideas ‘borrowed‘ in some shape or form in the doll world.
Now I know this all sounds like ‘sour grapes‘…it probably is…muscadines, if the truth be known. And even more humbling is that I probably wouldn’t have lasted very long as an Alexander designer – for the same reason my ego wouldn’t let me accept – I just simply didn’t have the experience or training for it. Even before working for Robert Tonner, he had reviewed my designs, and he told me in a friendly and unassuming voice that my inexperience showed in my work; but with the proper training and guidance, I could do it, and (from the looks of things) probably well. Now that is likely…which brings me back the 1998 Premiere.
I had dismissed the Cissy incident as bad timing, but didn’t give up trying to be a doll designer for Madame Alexander. In those days, Madame Alexander had its own showroom in the Toy Center building. The experience was enchanting. Within the lovely surroundings of the showroom, you had a number of buyers and company representatives talking business and dolls. And they were also talking about Toy Fair, and I hated that I couldn’t go because it was trade only. I had also heard Robert Tonner had launched his Tyler Wentworth doll, the highly anticipated competitor to Gene Marshall, despite other offerings such as Daisy & Willow – and I stewed that I couldn’t see her in person (and I wouldn’t actually see her until a few months later). But this taught me a valuable lesson: if you are going to be a part of their world, you had best get your ass in their world. And that’s what I set my sights on…
1999 was a game-changing year for me. And at the close of the year, I had my first Tyler doll in my hands, and the new millennium was erupting with talks of fashion dolls left and right from Susan Wakeen, new offerings from Ashton-Drake…and that 75+ year-old company, Madame Alexander, was launching its very own Alexandra Fairchild Ford doll. Not since the introduction of Barbie had the doll world seen such a cascade of competitors ready to dethrone Queen Gene Marshall, the first doll to popularize the 16-inch scale in collector dolls designed for the adult market. This is going to be one helluva cat fight, and I was going to be there…I wouldn’t miss this Dynasty catfight even if I had to lose a testicle over it. Think of it: Gene, Tyler, Daisy/Willow, Eve and Alex…all bitch-slapping each other for the title of Queen of Everything (get lost Ann Estelle, you’re out of your league here).
Now by this time, I had acquired a fairly important doll collection comprised of all the girls of the age. Not only that, but I had successfully pissed off the Madame Alexander Doll Club, and I found a new group of friends in Gene’s world. With all this newfound love, I pioneered my own website, Always Glow Brightly – a celebration of the dolls I loved. With it, and rapidly climbing the ladder of popularity in online communities, I wielded a stinging wit and sharp tongue that led a group of “I wish I had the balls to say that” folks out of the dark shadows and into a new century. Well, it sounds all noble and confident, right? Yeah…hold that thought…
With my nouveau celebrity status, and a somewhat notorious reputation for standing my ground (even if it was ‘cheerleading‘ at the expense of censorship), I offered my services to a friend and his retail shop to write reviews of the new collections for his new store website. Selling websites were new in those days, and this would be one of the first and best…so I knew it was going to get lots of eyes. Opportunity knocks, kittens…so we headed off to New York, and I squared my shoulders to take on the doll makers -bring it, bitches – I’m a writer, now…
I don’t really know what I expected – most of the people I met didn’t even know who I was (big surprise – after all, who was I, really). But at Toy Fair, you are treated differently…because the public is not allowed. Unlike other doll trade shows, there is no public day. Those admitted into the vast Borg-like structure known as the Javits Center, were the first to see it all. Do you realize how bloody important that was (and still kinda is)? Years later, I would get so annoyed at people I knew to not actually be retailers or real press, so I judged. Those coming in as a guest and snapping pictures for themselves, even when photos were expressly not allowed. This practice can make doll makers who are also licensees convulse when trying to control and/or clean up such images that are leaked online. Big deal, you say? Well maybe. I was always surprised (even today) at all the companies showing prototypes with nothing more than a ‘pending licensor approval‘ tab signs next to it – yet a few precious others would cower under licensor-pressed-thumbs, requesting photos not be taken/released prior to product approval – which is just bullshit in the toy market. This is TOY FAIR, bitch…promoting new products to your industry, customers and media is exactly the reason you are there. (SIGH) Now where was I?
The New Dolls. Oh, yes. Fun, amazing…but a little bit of a let-down, really. A stop by Ashton-Drake’s booth proved to be so much fun with people you actually felt you knew. These were people who were having fun with their jobs. They delighted in the new offerings. They lived the stories they enthusiastically repeated to buyers. They knew the gossip, and who was telling it. They dramatically cautioned over the edition sizes, and confidently ooo’d and ahhh’d over the ones that were projected to sell out first. And why the hell not? Ashton-Drake commanded this audience for 4 years completely before interlopers started sowing competitive oats amongst its collectors (reminds me a little of Cissy’s history before Barbie arrived). They weren’t going down without a fight…and it showed, even though their confidence was a little too convincing…
Elsewhere, a humble Susan Wakeen presented her new girl, Eve, in all her fish-eyed Kate Moss glory. The clothes were lovely, and it was projected collectors would be fairly responsive to Eve. In my head, I thought privately, “Like hell the will.” Why? Because the line just wasn’t realized well. That, and when participating in a conversation about a possible retailer exclusive, I suggested the bride dress could be used – omit the veil and make the gown in black, and you’d have a fairly efficient exclusive that would be an easy variant to manufacture. Smart, don’t you think? After all, Susan Wakeen was riding high on her Wendy-doll knock-off and baby dolls, so this would be good advice to someone who doesn’t really know fashion dolls, right? Oh. My. Dear. Lord. You would have thought I slapped her in the middle of her Pepto Bismol-draped sales booth (no really, it’s blush and bashful). Wakeen looked at me in silence, managed a weak smile…and walked away. I was later told that it was a mistake to suggest one of her creations be made using a different color. Well, I suppose that’s how Mel Odom felt when he first saw repaints of Gene. But color me gobsmacked at the sheer infantility of this artist’s feelings being hurt. Remember…it’s business, right?
A visit to Robert Tonner’s booth, affectionately deemed ‘the palace’ because of its classical Greek architectural notes proved to be a lot more fun. Robert not only had Tyler’s follow-up collection, but he also had his new Kitty Collier, a doll that was vintage-inspired, bigger, and less expensive than Gene (because that’s what it was all about…if it was a fashion doll, every new entry larger than Barbie would always be compared to Gene, until Tyler yanked that tiara right out of Gene’s rooted hair).
Toy Fair continued. We went from booth to booth, reviewing dolls, toys…and some of the most unimaginable playthings the world could offer us in the new century. Madame Alexander had a booth, too – in addition to the Toy Center showroom…but the showroom was where you could see the new Alex Fashion Doll Line before its debut at Le Cirque Restaurant. And that was where we headed. I recalled my first visit to this showroom, and the splendor of it all…it just seemed so important. I can only imagine what a visit to Mattel was like, but in those days, Barbie was not held in the same light as the 16-inch girls, or other doll lines really…largely in part to the way Mattel handled things with its retailers. I would love to say more about this, but I really can’t…I honestly don’t know much about Mattel’s trade show practices other than the little boutique booth they would use to showcase some dolls. They just weren’t a priority until Silkstone came along. Well that, and who could foresee Bratz coming a year later? Poor Barbie…there be choppy waters ahead for ye…
Remember, before the internet became the showplace…companies would hold invitation-only parties at Toy Fair – getting one of those invitations was tough, given the vast number of doll collectors living in the New York/New Jersey area. Virtually everyone was uncorking wine, and romancing their new girls to their collectors. Brands were made, and virginities were lost. Those were the day, my friend…we thought they’d never end…
I wasn’t impressed with Alex. I did not like her elongated face, or the cartoon-like screening of her eye paint (which had little to no ‘optical sentience‘ in my opinion). I did not like her body, but we couldn’t see very much of it from where we stood. Out of respect, I did everything short of gushing love for this new ‘product’. “Isn’t she gorgeous,” touted one representative. Another commanded, “Look at her hair!” The clothes looked interesting, I thought…but that’s about it. I wasn’t clamoring to own one. Not only that, but retailers were being horsewhipped into carrying the new Alex line by holding their other popular doll lines hostage. This company was going to make sure it’s new little beauty-queen-wannabe was in with the in-crowd even if they had to sacrifice a dozen live chickens in the middle of the showroom.
I thought there may be some saving grace in this line if it might evolve into a refined collection of fashion dolls of original concept and uh…oh what? I’m sorry, but say that again…did I notice her storyline? Hmmm…let me see…fashion editor …young, stylish, sophisticated…oh hell, no you didn’t. Basically you are ripping off Tyler Wentworth…and you don’t even have the balls to give her a unique storyline? Fashion Editor? Maybe it could work, I thought…just maybe people will like the clothes…maybe they would customize her into something unique, maybe they…um…no. Stop kidding yourself with your cheerleading…no one was going to buy this bitch. And when the doll shipped with a blinding array of poorly substituted fabrics, Alex’s fate was sealed. Oh sure, some people bought Alex dolls, but when you spoke to retailers, Alex was a loser…a dud…and they were stuck with her. But I get ahead of myself…
Now, you must remember that I was writing reviews for a retailer’s website, so I had to choose my words carefully. The intent was to get people to buy the dolls. There was no place for a truly critical review – that would happily take place on the doll-themed bulletin boards peppering the Internet. So in the end, my review of Alex was polite, if not a bit bland. The one statement I did make about the line that caused the ruckus was that a celebrated Designer, who was brought in to design for Alex, did nice work, but my picks of the collection were not designed by him, they were designed by Alexander’s in-house designers. No, no…wait for it. You hear that sound in the far-off distance that sounds like a wailing banshee that’s been pierced with a golden spear? Yeah…that’s him crying foul across space and time on the floor of Javits over reviews written by this ‘Tom Courtney‘ online. I don’t know the exact words of the exchange, but I am told it was a scene. Sad I missed it, really.
So imagine my surprise when I showed up at the Le Cirque Debut Party with a few scowls and one Alexander faithful approaching me saying, “I thought you were our friend?” After pulling me aside, two Alexander designer friends explained the whole thing to me. The review had been read by the Designer, and he didn’t like it at all. Later in the evening after talking to Alexander management, I discovered that no one had actually read the review. So all this hubbub was apparently the ravings of a bruised ego. Oh, honey…I’ve been there before on so many occasions, and I’d see it even more after I went to work for the doll industry. I know how it feels. Needless to say, my meeting with MA management to once again seek employment as a designer was unfruitful. If nothing else, it was just a little scary watching my portfolio pages being flipped aggressively with gusts of steam jetting from flared nostrils each time a Tonner doll appeared in one of my designs…and there were many. And then I understood completely…this had nothing to do with me…it had everything to do with Robert Tonner.
It was no secret that my love for Tyler Wentworth was great…and it was quickly surpassing Gene…because Tyler represented today, and I loved fashion dearly. Oh yes, I love vintage fashion, too…but I like them alot better when they are realized in quality fabrics like hand-beaded Italian lace gowns and cashmere coats lined in silk. Say what you will about snobbery, but my delicate fingers were just a little sensitive to the shower-curtain taffeta being used in virtually every soild color outfit in the Gene line-up (which would later be seen in the Tyler line, too…along with mesh and microsequins – hey, no one’s perfect). So I am not certain what my ‘friends’ a Madame Alexander expected when they read my review of the Alex line. Did they really think they had a big winner on their hands with Alex…or worse yet, were they hoping it would be? The latter being worse, because it says you don’t know what a good doll is…you only know what other good dolls are, and you want to replicate their success.
Such was the case with Madame Alexander’s relentless pursuit of Robert Tonner. It didn’t matter what the man did, but somehow Alexander Doll Company was going to one-up it, starting with the ill-attempted Alex line. You can make a murder mystery with her, dress her up as Desparate Housewives, even make her into a Rockette…but you cannot make doll collectors love her…or better yet, buy her. And they are still trying to get some life out of that old plastic bitch (mixing both Wizard of Oz and Steampunk, in re-imagined characters – already done by Tonner, or Wilde Imagination which was always Robert Tonner anyway).
My open message to the new owners of Madame Alexander: give it up. Stick to the pretty playline toy dolls you’re trying to put up against Mattel and American Girl and Lalaloopsy, give us back Cissy as what she was when returning in 1996, and stop making her a hopeless drag queen at the whim of your dying collector audience in an effort to amuse them or make MADC events even remotely interesting.
And this, doll-collecting America, is more on why I hate Alex. Bet you didn’t see that one coming in a discussion of The Ghosts of Toy Fair past, now did you?
Look, I know many of you do like Alex…and I’m happy for you. All dolls deserve love. But this one won’t be getting it from me, so I hope you have plenty of love in your heart and your wallet for Alex and her bevy of friends. And yes, I do suppose there might have been a hint of revenge in my heart after the Cissy incident – but if I had actually liked Alex, I would have played with her, no matter where I worked (at one point, I had over 60 Cissy dolls). What this whole ugly incident did was cement my firm understanding about how callous and pernicious some people in the doll world can be. Really…what can you expect from companies with slogans like, “Love is in the details.” Remember…details matter.
In the Toy Fairs that took place since I joined Tonner in October 2000, I have mostly fond memories. I have personally embarrassed Marie Osmond by placing her on the phone with my unsuspecting sister, who proceeded to scream in Marie’s ear. Osmonds don’t know a good fan when they hear one. I’ve been snubbed by Ru Paul. I almost fell in love…twice. I stood and participated as we dissed a former Tonner employee after he left our booth (which probably happens to me these days <spits> he’s dead to us). I watched Mel Odom walk into the Tonner booth, take one look at the new Théâtre de la Mode collection, and march right out – (Ashton-Drake could have done the same with Gene, but didn’t – well not officially anyway). I’ve walked by the Alexander booth pretending to not notice anyone there, wondering if they noticed me (yes, a bit 2nd grade, I know…but what the fuck – it is Toy Fair). I literally split my pants in front of customers because I had gained too much weight, and apologized profusely because I was afraid it sound like a fart, instead. I was even denied entry to the Lego booth because I was an exhibitor, God forbid…yes, Lego…our tiny little doll company is just poised and ready to rip your plastic block designs off. And I even befriended the guys at Sideshow Toys knowing damn well and good they were studying Tyler up one side and down the other as to how our factory could make those clothes (which they are producing much better these days – coincidence?). It’s the circle of life, really…for a toy…and for a doll.