'This toy is like candy for babies'


In France, Sophie the giraffe has been de rigueur for decades. Now she's in Canada


SHAWNA WAGMAN
Special to The Globe and Mail


Her skinny neck has been clasped in the chubby, slippery fists of French babies since 1961. Her bumpy head and flexible feet have soothed millions of sore little gums. You might say she's become Hollywood's most homely It Girl. She's a 17-centimetre rubber giraffe named Sophie. And she's coming to a drooling Canadian kid near you.
Krista Williamson, owner of the London Ontario-based children's store Cheeky Monkey (http://www.cheekymonkey.ca), learned about Sophie on an American mommy blog that raved about the toy's timeless appeal. She loved the fact that it has been around for more than 40 years and is still made by hand in the same factory in the French Alps.
The genteel giraffe is fashioned out of natural rubber and non-toxic paint so it's safe and soft. Most important: Babies adore it, Williamson says.
"People come in the store saying they've heard this toy is like candy for babies." She began selling Sophie in May and it has been flying out the door ever since.
Aside from making a happy little squeak when squeezed, the spotted giraffe does little more than stare blankly, smile sweetly and smell faintly of vanilla. So what makes Sophie such a phenomenon?
Entrepreneurial mom Jane Wood says part of the appeal is its retro look. She was living in Britain when she first met Sophie. Her fourth child got it as a gift from friends who were visiting France, where, she discovered, the toy is legendary. "Over there, it's a standard thing," Wood says. "If you have a baby, you have a Sophie."
Wood saw an opportunity to begin importing the toy. She ordered 1,000 from the factory and put them in her garage. "Everyone thought I was nuts."
She now runs the online shop Bug in a Rug (www.buginarug.info) from Rockwood, Ont., and distributes Sophie in the Unite States and Canada.
Celebrity moms and wannabes get their Sophies in stylish gift baskets from Teri Weis, owner of the Elegant Child (http://www.elegantchild.com) in Beverly Hills. "Kate Hudson, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Debra Messing -- you name it, they all have one," Weis says.
"It's like magic," she says of her top-selling item. "It becomes every baby's favourite toy."
You don't have to be rich and famous to test out that claim. Less than 20 bucks buys your favourite bambino his or her very own.


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Published in the Globe and Mail, Style Section Saturday December 16th, 2006