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Wed, Mar 23, 2011
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French giraffe sinks teeth into US baby market
by Romain Raynaldy

LOS ANGELES - A cute toy called Sophie the Giraffe, chewed by French babies for decades to quell the pain of first teeth, is now taking a huge bite out of the US market for teething aids.

And all thanks to a California-based Frenchwoman who saw an opening for the diminutive rubber plaything - and secured some celebrity help.

"When my daughter was born in California in 1994 I looked for Sophie, but she couldn't be found," recalls Helene Dumoulin, describing how she hit on the idea of importing the Gallic toy.

Made from natural rubber, Sophie - smiling, red-cheeked and with brown spots - was born on May 25, 1961, and has been a staple of French babies' bedrooms and cots for half a century.

But while being a must-have early parenting aid in France the toy, made by French firm Vulli from the eastern Haute Savoie department, was never seen outside its natural Gallic habitat.

Persuading Americans to embrace Sophie was not easy. "To be honest I hadn't figured out how to sell it. And then US$20 (S$25), it's expensive. Stores that I visited showed me teething toys for five dollars," she told AFP.

"Then I thought, why don't I try selling it in upmarket areas. So I went to Beverly Hills," she added, explaining how, after knocking on lots of doors, she met Teri Weiss, owner of a luxury toy store - who fell in love with Sophie.

What she didn't know was that Weiss created "gift baskets" for a number of Hollywood stars, from her Elegant Child boutique.

"She came with a duffle bag full of clothing from France. I looked through all the clothing and I really said 'No' to everything," Weiss recalled. "But in the bottom of the bag there was this little toy and I asked her: 'What is this?'

"She said: 'I have six in the car.' I took the six. You know, I make beautiful baskets, and it looks so beautiful in my baskets."

But then came the real stroke of luck.

"The thing that really changed everything, I think, was Kate Hudson," Weiss said, referring to the Oscar-nominated US actress. "Her son just loved it so much and then the press picked it up," she said.

Photos of celebrities' babies clutching their Sophies began appearing in magazines, and the Gallic giraffe became a must-have accessory for Hollywood's smart set.

"I offered it to all the high-end boutiques, all over. And then I contacted moms' blogs, I sent them sample giraffes so they could test them," said Dumoulin.

Despite the success - she sold more than 400,000 giraffes in 2010 in some 3,000 outlets across the United States - Dumoulin only works part time in the evenings on Sophie, after her day job as a real estate agent.

"The packaging was in French, so I had to make the labels myself. It was a painstaking job. Lots of people think it happened overnight, but it didn't. It was a huge amount of work, with lots of tears and frustration along the way!"

The watershed came in 2007, when toy giant Mattel was forced to recall millions of toys due to health concerns.

"Moms threw all their toys away, and wondered what they could give their baby. Sophie was the answer, recommended from blog to blog," she said.

Made in France with natural rubber, and decorated using food paint, Sophie was welcomed as a no-risk alternative for babies in need of something to chew on to soothe their aching gums.

"Babies love it because it's very light-weight. It's very easy for them to grasp as a newborn. And they love that the little head has bumps. They love to squish it," said Weiss.

"They feel, I think, the sense of power, that they can squish it and crunch it. And the mothers love it because it's made with food paint. It's natural, they are not afraid of it.

"It's a little expensive, but I have found that a mother is very willing to spend US$20-US$25 for her baby," she added.

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