The soft-art category is a fascinating one, because it encompasses so much potential. At Toy Fair 2018, there certainly were tons of plush possibilities. And if variety is the spice of life, then this year’s gathering at Javits Center was a zesty and tasty Italian super buffet.
What I liked most about what I was witnessing was that the soft toys could be animals, hybrid animals (half person/half creature, like mermaids or mermen), jungle creatures, or actual people! Yes, there were a lot of plush human characters, including heroes of novels and films (the very touching, very moving August from “Wonder”), as well as villains from video games. (The stealth horror game, “Hello, Neighbor,” had an enormous presence in soft, squishable versions. I imagine playing that scary game requires something to hold on to in a tight, comforting way!)
Navigating my way through all of the booths and showrooms, I was impressed by the versatility that the plush manufacturers exhibited. It is a marketplace that has to continually reinvent and re-evaluate itself. As children and collectors become more specific in what they want to acquire, the plush companies regroup and reassess what they are offering.
One of the largest trends at Toy Fair 2018 was the combination of licensing characters—cartoons, TV shows, book franchises, movie rights—and their soft incarnations. This has been steadily growing over the years, and it was in plain sight at Javits. Folks like to commemorate the experiences they have, and keep souvenirs from moments that are significant to them. That’s the foundation of so many collectibles (Precious Moments and Hallmark, just two obvious ones). Becoming a fan of a movie is no longer just a one-shot deal. There are undeniably going to be sequels and prequels, spin-offs and remakes. Saying you like “Star Wars” no longer includes just the three early films; it is now a never-ending galaxy that shows no sign of stopping its expansion.
That’s why there were so many recognizable entities among the plush debuts and returning commodities. In the case of plush collectibles, familiarity breeds content, not contempt. Collectors like to have a motif or a theme to pursue, and pursue it they will!
Amid all the famous, fabulous faces, there were also an ocean’s worth of mermaids and a couple mermen. (Mermen, not Ethel Merman, the Broadway belter!) Yes, mermaids were all the rage, and every company on the floor conjured one up, it seemed. In addition to the mermaids with their flowing locks, there were also unexpected renditions. For instance, Gund’s Pusheen property popped up as a mercat. (Mercat? Merkitty? Merfeline? Merv Griffin??)
Whatever you name it, there were half kittens and half mermaids floating everywhere. Bolstering that trend, young girls lounged all around the convention hall, dressed up in fin-tail leggings. With a clever leg-binding pair of pants, any person can easily transform into Daryl Hannah from “Splash.”
Another movie that seemed to hold center stage, at least at the FAO Schwarz booth, was the Tom Hanks classic “Big.” If you remember, much of that movie’s charm occurred at the big, elaborate FAO Schwarz department store in glitzy Manhattan. That onetime giant in the upscale toy industry has reorganized and rebranded itself as a brand/curator of quality toys. It’s no longer that tourist attraction it once was, beckoning wealthy New Yorkers and tourists to come in, rubberneck, and buy. But it honored its past as a major plush player with some brand-new plush animals—big and small—and also with some props from the Hanks film. The piano keyboard that can be danced upon was there, and so was the fortune-telling machine that granted a young boy’s major wish. It was a big attraction!
Whether a plush critter was very big or very small, they were all meticulously and beautifully designed and made. Bonikka had lovely creatures that were showcased in the most delightful way. The mice and elephants, foxes and bunnies, bears and cats, of Bonikka were placed inside hot-air balloons and appeared to hover in their exhibition space.
Looking up at soaring critters is just a natural way of wandering through Javits. By craning one’s neck upward, there was an opportunity to see huge renderings of Pokémon characters. It was akin to having a Pokémon Go game being played in the sky above. Quite surreal!
That is the selling point of Toy Fair. There is an element of surrealism wherever one turns. To stroll through so many miles of creativity is an honor and a responsibility. The designers have spent so much time crafting the imaginary creatures that an attendee feels obligated to touch the pieces, talk to the sales reps, and appreciate why and how the offerings have come about.
Yes, there were mice and men, mermaids and yetis at Toy Fair 2018. However, the Yeti in My Spaghetti, which is a very popular board game, had a large yeti at the entrance to their booth. It stopped me in my tracks. When I asked if the yeti was for sale, and if there were different sizes for collectors to buy, I was told it was just there as a display model. There was no plush companion to the game.
All I could think was that’s the reality for 2018 Toy Fair. Give it a year’s time, and give it a year’s worth of requests. I am hoping a plush Yeti in My Spaghetti makes its Javits debut at next year’s surreal celebration.