Revenge of the Misfit Toys

A year ago, three South Florida friends began sewing plush dolls for fun; now they're at the vanguard of a toy revolution

Now the couple's toy company, Pretty Ugly, employs ten people to distribute the dolls from a warehouse in New Jersey and runs a factory in mainland China, where a couple dozen seamstresses continue to sew Ugly Dolls by hand under Kim's careful supervision. "When we say the dolls are made in China, it's not a mass-production assembly line," Horvath insists. It's about making the dolls cheaply, the same reason 70 percent of all dolls sold in the United States are manufactured in China. "Consumers in this country have a cost-value in mind," explains the Toy Industry's Eis. "Were the toys made here they would cost much more than parents would be able to afford."

With no factory connections in Asia and no interest in sewing their own fingers to the bone, the Friends with You trio recruited local immigrant labor by taking out an ad in El Nuevo Herald: Looking for a seamstress with experience making plush. The trio had no idea how to screen a seamstress. And the would-be seamstresses were bewildered by the dolls. "Some of them thought we were making them for retarded children," Sam laughs. Although every applicant claimed to be an expert, most of the samples they produced turned out to be even freakier than the Friends' prototypes. The trio paid the first woman who came to the door $60 to replicate a simple character that Sam designed, a round ball with flaps for eyes. Instead of a sphere, the woman returned with a flat wheel -- with no flaps. Another aspirant, who couldn't actually sew, put her doll together with glue. Fascinated, Sam held on to the rejects. "I like to collect them," he says. Finally, one afternoon in August 2002, Golden Eyes and her mother knocked on the door. Before Yamile Villalobos moved to Miami from Chile three years ago, she and her mother used to pick up extra work during the holiday season sewing costumes and stuffed animals. When her mother insisted on making herself useful while visiting her daughter up north, Villalobos circled the ad for doll makers. "We could see the inspiration in their eyes," Melody recalls. "We thought, all right, you're true ones."

Perched on the silver mesh chairs in Mel and Tury's living room, Golden Eyes and her mother smiled politely when shown the dolls and nodded seriously when given instructions. Yet Villalobos couldn't help looking around for a hidden camera, expecting to find herself the butt of some TV show prank. When the meeting ended, mother and daughter stared at each other on the front porch. "How strange!" the seamstress's mother remarked. "Who would ever buy these dolls?"

Friends bestow magic power: (clockwise from top left) Malfi, Shoe Baca, King Albino, Barby with Spirit Suit, Red Flyer with Pesus, Mr. TTT, Albino Squid, and (center) Poppings
Friends bestow magic power: (clockwise from top left) Malfi, Shoe Baca, King Albino, Barby with Spirit Suit, Red Flyer with Pesus, Mr. TTT, Albino Squid, and (center) Poppings

Although dubious at first, Golden Eyes converted the garage of her comfortable Kendall home into a workshop. On a Sunday afternoon in July, the seamstress stops at a long cutting table across from the sewing machines to straighten a pile of pink vinyl arms that she will use to sew a special "naked" Malfi. "You end up feeling affection for the dolls," she says, carrying a mini Mr. TTT with her to the living room couch. "This little paw is made by hand," she points out. "It's not like making a pillow. You have to give life to the doll." But as seriously as Golden Eyes takes her work, she knows that people buy the dolls precisely because they look so weird. "I understand now," she explains. "It's not the dolls themselves; it's the design."

It seemed like all hands were on naked Malfi at Comic-Con International, the annual comic book and "popular arts" convention held in San Diego last July. Even though Strangeco, the art toy purveyor that commissioned this special edition of the doll, advertised Malfi as "the most feared and omnipotent plush toy" in the Friends with You line, the comic book geeks, Stormtrooper freaks, and Sailor Moon wannabes who stopped at the Strangeco booth at Comic-Con couldn't seem to keep from giving the pink version of the otherwise intimidating doll a hug.

Without a booth of their own, the Friends crew stalked the San Diego Convention Center dragging an enormous army surplus duffel bag stuffed with minis, stickers, and hand-stitched catalogues. "We were like a walking booth," quips Mel. Except that for the inexperienced hype-artists, the first day of Comic-Con turned out to be a promotional disaster. "We'd all talk at the same time and confuse people," Mel recalls. She said, "minis." Sam said, "albino squid." Tury stuttered something unintelligible. Caught in the melee, a guy wearing Yoda ears shook his head and said, "I don't understand." Another guy, hawking Simpsons dolls, gawked at the mini shoved into his hand and asked, "What do I do with this?"

But the trio quickly got their act together, coordinating a plan of attack after a big fight the first night. Now there was no stopping the Friends. "Like we were fucking monsters," says Melody of the last two days of Comic-Con. "We'd say to everyone who even looked at us twice: 'We have stickers. We have samples.' By the third day, everyone said, 'Oh, Friends with You.'" Smiling, Sam adds, "We hustled like we were from Miami."

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