More Sylvanians have appeared at Silly Billy‘s, wasn’t a miracle but rather a purchase order from Epoch Toys, our new Sylvanian wholesaler. As mentioned in an earlier Sylvanian Post we have quite a slection of Sylvanian Characters and accessories both old and new. Silly Billy’s is one of the few place to buy Sylvanians in the North of England.
Visit the Sylvanians Online at https://sylvanianfamilies.net/uk/
We have also found a nice article on Sylvanians written in the Telegraph in 2012 which describes the creation and history of the Sylvanians
Since their launch 25 years ago, 40 million Sylvanian Families figures have been sold in Britain. Eric Clark meets the enthusiasts who can’t get enough of them.
It is early Saturday morning in Whitchurch, Hampshire, a postcard-perfect country town 70 miles from London, and a chattering crowd, including some who have driven since dawn to be here, has gathered outside the balloon- and banner-decked Gill Nethercott Centre.
Yards away, trout glide in the transparent waters of the River Test – the birthplace of modern fly-fishing – and just beyond that stands the last working silk mill of its kind in the south of England. But it is what is inside the community centre that matters to these pilgrims as they finally sweep through the doors to be greeted and patted by a 6ft pink rabbit called Renee Ruby Sparkle.
Renee is one of hundreds of characters that make up Sylvanian Families, a nostalgic toy range that has attracted a passionate and loyal following since its launch in Britain 25 years ago: an estimated 40 million Sylvanian figures have been sold in Britain, and recent sales have been growing at the rate of 50 per cent a year.
This gathering is the annual weekend shopping jamboree for the country’s most die-hard Sylvanian enthusiasts. Thousands of 4in-tall anthropomorphised bears, squirrels, mice and other furry animals – together with accoutrements from caravans and cars to department stores and country mansions – line the walls, are stacked on floors and trestle tables, or tumble from boxes.
Over two days 2,000 jostling, excited children and adults (not all of them accompanied by offspring) will come to see what’s new and to seek out rare items, to admire and to buy. Karen Bailey and her daughters Gemma (10) and Megan (who looks 14 but won’t reveal her age lest people think she’s too old to play with toys) have driven almost 200 miles, from Congleton, Cheshire. Within an hour they have collected enough items to fill a table: last year they spent £300 at this event. They say they own more than 60 per cent of everything in the Sylvanian range, and plan to convert their loft to accommodate their collection.
‘We’ve already given over the spare bedroom to Sylvanian Families,’ Karen says. ‘The girls save all year for them. They’re not the cheapest toys but they can play for hours.’
On the surface, the Sylvanian world is quintessentially English. It is pastoral and blissfully low-tech (all lacy aprons, mob-caps, Morris Minors and caravans), defiantly at odds with the modern world and unrecognisable not only to today’s children, but even to their parents. Despite its olde-worlde Anglo Saxon charm, the product was born in Japan in 1985 (and, like most toys, is now made in China), after Epoch, a successful toy and games company better known for its video games, came across a new technical process for simulating animal fur. Gradually the idea emerged of a world inhabited by families of tiny woodland creatures that dressed and acted like humans. It would be a sort of wonderland, Michihiro Maeda, Epoch’s globe-trotting president, explains when I catch up with him as he changes flights at Heathrow.
It was decided that the setting would be woodland (‘sylvan’ meaning of woods or forests), Maeda says, because city-dwelling Japanese yearn for the countryside of their ancestors. It would all be set in the past because ‘the old days are always beautiful’. The houses and props would be Westernised because that made the toys seem more exotic – in the 1980s travelling abroad was only a dream for most Japanese. Maeda tells me that the actual setting, like the period in time (a little bit 1950s, possibly earlier), is deliberately non-specific. ‘It is indefinite – somewhere in this world, but no one knows where or when it is.’
Epoch, which still owns and controls the product, decreed that Sylvanian Families should have two unalterable features: every character and product would be rendered in great detail and would look expensive – ‘the quality had to be more than toys,’ Maeda says – and the Sylvanian world would be a utopia. So Sylvania has a policeman – but no crime. A hospital – but no one gets ill. A post office – but it is never in danger of being closed down.
It was a hit from the start in Japan. The Elysian atmosphere and attention to detail attracted an Englishman touring the Tokyo Toy Fair in 1986. Peter Brown was the managing director of the UK arm of the Japanese toy firm Tomy. ‘I happened to see the little faces of a grey rabbit and a brown bear in what looked like a dolls’ house with a huge amount of detail. I’d never seen anything like it. I just knew it would appeal to young girls,’ he says.
From the beginning the input of Brown and his English colleagues at Tomy went far beyond being the Sylvanian Families UK distributor. They began to come up with their own ideas for figures and accessories, a pattern that continues. Brown is fervent about the range and its emphasis on family: ‘With mothers and fathers and sons and daughters and grandparents, it shows the importance of relationships. It’s what everyone imagines families used to be like. Ought to be like.’
Launched in Britain in 1987 (the same year as a short-lived American television show based on the toys), Sylvanian Families won the Toy Retailers Association’s Toy of the Year Award in each of its first three years – still a record. By the late 1990s, however, the toys were losing ground, in part suffering the natural backlash that hits any successful toy, but also, industry insiders say, because Tomy lost its passion for the brand and cut down on product development and marketing.
By this time Brown had left Tomy, and in 1999 had started a new British company, Flair. Short of money to launch new brands, Flair rapidly built up a reputation for taking on established toys considered past their prime. Sylvanian Families was soon returned to Brown’s care. ‘We had to breathe new life into it,’ Brown says. Development and marketing was stepped up with fervour. Some of the original families and accessories that had been allowed to disappear from the shelves were brought back; new products were introduced. Retail turnover since 1999, when Flair took over as Epoch’s Sylvanian UK arm, has grown from £500,000 to £40 million.
Sylvanian Families has become a toy range loved not only by collectors but by retailers large and small. John Lewis in Oxford Street has a permanent display (it has a bespoke Sylvanian department store complete with miniature John Lewis carrier bags). ‘It’s one of our key lines, a real core brand,’ Rachael Larkman, one of the store’s toy buyers, says. At Langleys, a small independent toy shop in Norwich, the owner John Fielding is enthusiastic. ‘It is enormously important to us,’ he says. ‘We always have a large area in a prime location dedicated to it, and it is the only toy range for which we offer our own loyalty card.’
Last year Flair produced 2.7 million Sylvanian figures for the UK alone. Thirty new items are introduced at the London Toy Fair every year, and there have been approximately 2,000 characters. There are the Snow-Warrens (white rabbits), Puddlefords (ducks), Brambles (hedgehogs), Billabongs (koala bears)… Every character has a name and biographical description, carefully composed to leave enough unwritten for children to be able to use their imaginations. The Cottontail rabbit family is headed by the father, Aaron, a ‘down-to-earth and hardworking furniture maker’ (rural occupations and traditional gender roles figure heavily). His wife, Sorrel, runs their beautiful home. Their naughty daughter Willow is always forgiven, thanks to her winning smile; her cricket-playing brother, Cromwell, has the untidiest bedroom in Sylvania; the twins, Comfrey and Angelica, play with their teddies for hours. Many of the names are pure genius: Emma Dale (sheep), Hugh Grunt (pig), Beatrix Spotter (meerkat), Roger Waters (beaver), Douglas Furbanks (squirrel).
With them come trappings, large and very small – from a bakery, school and treehouse down to old-fashioned furniture, food and cutlery with pieces so tiny only a child’s fingers can manipulate them. The list seems endless. The families can live in Rose Cottage or an aspirational manor house, holiday at the Grand Hotel, ride the Woodland Bus. Sets accommodate everything from ballroom dancing to school dinners (a 50-piece ensemble). Nothing is cheap: the Regency Hotel costs about £140, the Field View Windmill about £90. Families of four cost £16.
Simon Harwood, who together with his wife, Angela, organises the Whitchurch gathering and owns the world’s only exclusively Sylvanian Families shop, in Highbury, north London – says, ‘It is very, very expensive. You could cheapen the product, but then it wouldn’t be Sylvanian Families.’ Peter Brown says the enormous amount of work that goes into the range justifies the pricing. They are fully poseable and the clothes are handmade. ‘You may only be making a T-shirt for a tiny rabbit but it can take more detailed sewing and stitching than a full-size garment. You spend quite a lot but child-ren will play with it for a long, long time.’
With its inexhaustible number of families and associated products, Sylvania is a marketing man’s dream. The brand has another enormous advantage over other toys. For many, its attraction does not end at the age of eight. As a rule, children – 90 per cent of them girls – play with their Sylvanian families up to about that age, but many continue to enjoy them as displays.
Ben Miller, 31, manages the Sylvanian Families shop. ‘They’re not just our bread and butter,’ he says. ‘We’re all very passionate about them.’ A mecca for the faithful, the shop stands incongruously in a small parade in a residential street. Sylvanian figures and accessories fill every corner, right up to the ceiling of the 200sq ft of space.
A visitors’ book includes praise from enthusiasts in Australia, Sweden and the Czech Republic. ‘I wish I could stay all day,’ is one comment. ‘It is dreamland,’ is another.
Miller thinks one reason Sylvanian Families is so successful, especially with parents, is what it is not. ‘It’s not Bratz. They don’t wear make-up or sleazy clothes. It’s charming. And safe.’
Many children go on to become hardened collectors – one member of the 25,000-strong Sylvanian Collectors Club is 63. Members receive certificates, badges, exclusive figures, a magazine and have the chance to correspond with other members.
Many collectors are now second-generation, introduced by enthusiastic mothers. Collecting can be obsessive. One woman travels to the shop from South Africa every two years to catch up with everything she has missed. That can mean as many as 100 new characters and accessories. (She could pick them out of an outline catalogue, but she prefers to examine each one by hand.)
Avid enthusiasts collect not only every character and accessory, but also identical items from Japan, America and Europe, which come in different packaging. One such collector is Jacc Batch, 26, a choreographer and dance-school owner from Kettering, Northamptonshire. At seven he acquired Brother Hedgehog, and has since added 4,000 more, plus more than 200 buildings and other major accessories. His collection is insured for £25,000. ‘I collect every version of every figure and building. If the content is the same but the packaging is different, I must have both,’ he says.
Batch is not alone. Jonathan Daniel Lau, 18, who lives in Singapore, where he is studying sustainable urban design and engineering, travels the world to satisfy his love for Sylvanians: ‘When I was younger I used to draw all sorts of houses and buildings Sylvanians could live in,’ he says. ‘So collecting Sylvanians actually shaped my ambition to be an architect.’ He loves ‘the whole concept of how they live in their little secret world where nothing bad happens and they live happily ever after’.
Hayley Stower, an infant-school teacher in Derby, has 2,500 figures kept in waterproof crates (which she takes out to display or photograph for her website). She says some friends think her interest is cool; others that she is mad. ‘I don’t really mind what people think or say. I enjoy it and that’s what matters. Most people have an odd hobby in some shape or form anyway.’
Back in Whitchurch even the overflow car-park is packed. Plastic purses, moneyboxes and parental pockets are emptied as queues to pay stretch on to an outside terrace. Apart from fathers and a few brothers, this is girl heaven. But two male enthusiasts have arrived from Gerrards Cross, Buckinghamshire: Jack, eight, in an Avengers T-shirt and Charlie, in a Moshi Monsters top. Jack has two families of pandas and houses, boats and cars. Charlie, who likes the dalmatian family, is about to turn seven and celebrates with a Sylvanian canal boat. Jack has just bought the camper van.
‘I don’t tell my friends about my collecting,’ he says. ‘It’s too personal.’