Ugly is the New Beautiful

If you’re like me and you take a trip to the toy store on Church Street once in a while just to check out all the cool stuff, then you may have seen the Ugly Dolls. But chances are that you don’t frequent the toy store, so let me explain the new plush phenomenon: the Ugly Dolls. Ugly Dolls are produced by a company with some unique ideas and an interesting history. The Ugly Dolls themselves are plush characters that look a bit like gremlins, but are loveable in their own way. The nine Uglies – Wage, Babo, Jeero, Tray, Ice-Bat, Target, Wedgehead, OX and Cinko – are colorful little guys who look a little like mutant teddy bears. Whether one, two, or three eyes, two or four legs, fangs or no fangs, the Ugly Dolls are all marketed as having one thing in common: a quirky personality. Each Ugly Doll comes with a short biography, explaining itslikes/dislikes, hobbies, and favorite foods. These biographies are an effective marketing tool and are what make the Ugly Dolls so appealing. There is no doubt that these stories are what sell the dolls. The company produces a variety of “ugly” products. According to the biographies, one doll, Wage, is an orange creature that wears an apron and works at the local Super Mart. He is a hard worker and just wants to please his customers. Babo is blue with short, skinny arms and two huge front teeth. Although Babo is not very smart, he is loyal. When something scary happens, he will send a greeting card from wherever it is he runs away to. Jeero, a green little guy who looks pretty “normal” compared to the rest, is a tad bit spacey. He doesn’t know how to answer any questions and likes to just hang out, eat snacks, and exercise. Tray, the only girl of the group, is “the brain.” It’s not that she’s particularly intelligent, but she has three brains. She is also the hungriest of the Ugly Dolls, always in desperate need of blueberry pie. Ice-Bat lives in an ice-box inside an ice cave and has extra pointy ears so he can hear the ice cream truck coming from miles away. Target is the oldest of the Ugly Dolls, which is why he has extra legs and hair. He bails the others out of trouble, but gets them into more sophisticated kinds of mischief. Wedgehead, who is bright blue with a flat head, sees the world just as you do, but only when he balances on his head. Wedgehead is on a mission to prove that humans really do exist. OX is lime green, with long droopy ears and an X for a left eye. He is best friends with Wedgehead and is great at magic. He loves turning your stuff into his, but Wedgehead calls it stealing. And Cinko, with three eyes and flipper-like paws, is the only Ugly Doll from the deep. The problem is that he is afraid of water. Are tears water? The funny thing about ugly dolls is that they are the result of a globalized business world and the mixed-up human relationships which can emerge. These days business can be done seamlessly though fiber optic cables and telephone calls. Even small firms can operate on an international basis, managing world-wide human resource pools and product development processes with just a few clicks of a mouse or a cell phone call to set up a global video conference. The creative genius behind Ugly Dolls taps into the global business networks and results from the fact that in today’s world people can be simultaneusly so close and so far apart. For example, Ugly Dolls is a company that got its start from the international love letters of a couple in a long-distance relationship. David Horvath and Sun-Min Kim met while attending Parsons School of Design in New York City, but after September 11, Sun-Min’s family wanted her to move back to Korea to be with them in a less volatile environment. Horvath, who was living in Los Angeles, and Kim sent frequent pining love letters back and forth. An illustrator for Japanese market animation and video games, Horvath drew one of these little characters at the end of each letter. That Christmas, Kim surprised Horvath by sending him a plush, hand-sewn version of Wage – the first character that Horvath created. When Horvath received the hand-sewn doll, he showed it off to Eric Nakamura, owner of a shop called Giant Robot in L.A. that sells books, toys, and t-shirts made by artists. “He thought I was pitching him a product,” Horvath said, “He said, ‘Yeah, man, that’s great, I’ll take 20.'” And so, in 2002, the handmade Ugly Dolls began selling batch after batch. Eventually, the sewing got to be too large a job for Kim to do; she stopped hand sewing them and they are now handmade in China by a Korean company. Today, Ugly Dolls are sold at stores that usually would not carry toys – Urban Outfitters, Barney’s New York and the Whitney Museum, among others. “There’s a reason that the dolls sell in places more suitable to a fashionable bit of home d??cor than Hokey Pokey Elmo,” comments one New York Times reporter. The question that everyone seems to be asking is why are these dolls so popular? They don’t even fit our conception of “cute” or “cuddly.” David Horvath told the Los Angeles Times, “we’re kind of taking away from the modern-day meaning of ugly.” In an article that appeared in the New York Times in 2004, the writer explains, “Early interest in the stuffed toys came from hipsters who were into design and ambivalent about adulthood.” In fact, it turns out that the primary demographic of Ugly Dolls customers is not even children. About half of the people buying Ugly Dolls are adults who have no intention of giving the toy to a child. It looks as if the reputation of the Ugly Dolls has spread more like a fashion designer or hip-hop artist than like a toy. The reason that the Ugly Dolls have caught on with the twenty- and thirty-something crowd is that they have the aura of fashionable chic, without the fashionable chic price-tag.