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Written by Stephanie Finnegan   
Friday, 01 June 2007 00:00

Stray cats strut...and so do piggies, bunnies and bears. Meet the Bearington Collection’s well-heeled, well-made menagerie.

Getting ready for beddy-bye never looked so sweet! “PJ” is a 14-inch miss that holds her slumbering friend “Patches.” Wearing the most adorable pink pajamas with a matching bow, “PJ and Patches” is $22.  “Ol' Patch,” 12 inches, is a cute chenille bear that wears a bow around his neck, and is priced at $12.One of the most remarkable parts of being a child was the imaginary world we all inhabited. In the confines of our bedrooms, or in the privacy of a clubhouse or a tree-filled backyard, we were free to spin, twirl, close our eyes and pretend to soar.


Even more miraculous was the way in which household items could become magical accessories or invaluable aids to transport us to adventurous landscapes and thrilling encounters. A bath towel was a ringer for Superman’s cape, and a starched, frilly half-slip was perfect for a bridal veil or a princess’s mantle. What fun to play dress-up, and even better, to believe in the power of make-believe.


The Stray family, of Kennesaw, Ga., is definitely all grown-up, but their connection to playing dress-up, inventing pageantry and exploring worlds of wonder has never diminished. In the offices of the Bearington Collection, Betty, Jim, Jamie and Brad Stray spin tales as easily as others spin cloth. In fact, the Strays are weavers of words and of costuming material.


Having founded this line of plush animals in 1997, the family has kept in constant touch with their inner-children. For a decade now, the Strays have introduced bear and plush collectors to a community of charming critters. Their creations are a happy assortment of teddies, bunnies, kitties, lions and mice, to name a few. It’s been bandied about that it takes a village to raise a child—well, it certainly takes a make-believe village to raise the spirits of children and adults alike.


As inviting as a spring garden, both “Gretchen,” 14 inches and $21, and “Gweneth,” 10 inches and $12, wear yellow floral dresses and matching floral hats. Tiny “Gail,” 10 inches, has the cutest floppy ears and wears a pink chenille sweater with a matching spring floral hat. “Gail” is priced at $12.Many of the characters that come from the Bearington Collection reside in a fictional community called Bearingtonville. Twice a year, the firm produces a beautifully illustrated catalog that details the newest inhabitants and also provides a narrative of what the furry folks are up to. Think of it as a “Bearington Home Companion”! The sought-after book is available to retailers and to collectors, and it showcases the outer stylings of the Bearington designers, as well as the interior monologues and personalities that imbue the artistic animals.


Bearingtonville is divided into regions or boroughs, and a critter’s demeanor determines where he or she will live. If a character loves to shop for the latest trends, lunch at the hottest bistro and flash a wallet flush with cabbage to make her dreams come true, then “Central Paw” is where she’ll sign her lease. “Gretchen,” “Gweneth” and “Gail” are three bunnies who have a blast hopping around town! They love to lunch, munch and spend a bunch.


Other Bearington characters have a more heart-grabbing, sentimental storyline. “There’s ‘Iggy, a polar bear’ and ‘Lou, a penguin’ who came from opposite ends of the earth, met and became the best of friends. They brought two sides of the world together.”


“Miss Behave,” 14 inches, $22, and “Miss Chevious,” 10 inches, $12, are Bearington’s newest felines who are bursting with finesse. They both wear pretty pink floral print dresses with matching bows around their heads.  “Miss Swiss,” 8 inches, is their cute little mouse friend who wears a matching pink floral print jumpsuit, priced at $9.The notion of bringing together unexpected sources of inspiration and versatile viewpoints resonates with the Strays. “Although we have enjoyed much success over the past 10 years,” says Jamie, “we are still a small family company at heart. We do rely on input from our friends, family and staff.”


Betty and Jamie, the lead designers, are receptive to ideas that come from outside the design staff. As a matter of fact, one of their recent “hires,” so to speak, is Jamie’s 3-year-old niece. She is the firm’s newest honorary design assistant! She represents the child’s perspective and reviews new products the way an active and alert toddler would. Some of her suggestions have actually ended up in the finished products.


One of the hallmarks of a Bearington creation is that the clothing instantly evokes a specific sentiment or an instantaneous image. The second you glimpse a bunny garbed as a ballerina or a kitten as a prim-and-proper miss, the seeds of a story are sown. The outfits help to project the personality and the background stories of the critters.


The Strays maintain that each breed of animal demands its own unique costuming and embellishments. In Bearingtonville, whether it’s a mouse or a penguin, all animals have an equal shot at becoming a clotheshorse! “For instance, bunnies invoke thoughts of spring and garden settings, so our bunnies are typically dressed in a light-pastel palette and wear flirty sundresses and bonnets,” the designers reveal. “Cats are playful by nature, so their costuming generally has a fun young look.”


She’s hog-wild about fashion! “Fanny Hampton,” 14 inches, is the best-dressed pig in town, and is pictured here with her piggy pal, “Piggy Sue,” 8 inches. “Fanny” is $22, and  “Piggy Sue” is $8.What influences their four-legged fashions? The Strays are quick to share a lively list of the do’s and don’ts for adorable animal-attire. “Our dressed pigs, for instance, have a light spring look, but we add a country flair that is reminiscent of a day at the county fair. Each type of animal does present its own challenge. Different body shapes can limit an animal’s costuming. When we design headdresses for our bunnies, we must alter our hats to allow for the ears. When creating a costume for a cat, we must allow for the tail and for the unique body shape.”


Just as in a real-world fashion atelier, certain physical specimens work better than others as fitting models. At the Bearington Collection, bears and bunnies are easier to enhance than a doggone duck! “It’s difficult to costume a duck’s body,” the Strays confide, “so we tend to focus more on the headdress. These challenges aside, each breed brings with it a unique look and a unique personality. It’s this diversity that helps keep our collection interesting.”


“Donna & Duck” are a cute and cuddly couple. Priced at $22, Donna wears a purple chenille sweater and a matching floral hat. Her adorable little duck is a heart-stealer.Retailers have reported to the Bearington founders that their bunnies are extremely popular, and the demand for them is always multiplying. This makes perfect sense to the Strays: “Bunnies have such a whimsical nature. They possess a charm that brightens your spirit. It’s hard to take life too seriously when you are looking at a floppy-eared bunny rabbit. We’ve found that bunny collectors are particularly passionate about our bunnies. Store owners tell us that they have to stock our bunnies year-round due to the demand of their avid collectors.”


The Bearington Collection is staffed by a devoted team of employees. The Stray family believes wholeheartedly that their success is directly related to the consistent and reliable work of their personnel. They proudly point to the folks who help to make their bears and bunnies a reality, from the first sketch to the final packaging. “All departments at Bearington are integral. The design team is comprised of professionally trained artists and seamstresses, and they produce a wonderful line of plush twice a year! Our sales and marketing departments, along with our customer service department, help to collect and to communicate the customers’ desires for new product. And we listen and learn from what we hear.”


Brad Stray sums up the meticulous nature of his family’s company and their dedication to quality. “At Bearington, the animals that we produce are like members of our own family. We are obsessed with ensuring that each animal is as identical as possible to the original design. We stay in constant contact with our factory and check and recheck shipments when they arrive. Our animals are inspected and, if necessary, are lovingly brushed and groomed before being shipped to our stores. We strive to bring the best quality product to our customers at an affordable price.”


Judging by their 10-year track record, they’ve definitely succeeded in that goal, and so much more!