ELLINGTON, Conn. (AP) — When Nordstrom's wanted to order Jennifer Vallez's handmade dolls for 76 stores, she turned down the luxury department store chain.
"I was heartbroken, but I knew I was making the right decision," said the Ellington resident of the $21,000 order last April. Vallez also had to refuse an order from The Land of the Nod, a Crate & Barrel subsidiary that sells children's products, for the same reason: she can't find a factory that can make quality reproductions of her cloth dolls.
"It would have been incredible to be in those two stores," she said, "but I didn't want to supply them with a mediocre-quality product."
Finding that factory has been a recurring problem for Vallez since she started her business, Sophie & Lili LLC (named after her two great-grandmothers), in 2004 as a children's clothing line, then converted it into a line of boutique dolls three years ago. Everything else has been easy for her.
Coming up with fresh product ideas was never a problem. Vallez, who started out with five different 12-inch handmade cloth dolls three years ago, now has a line of 30 different Sophie & Lili dolls, each with her own distinct look and personality. There's Olive, who's a tomboy; shy Mabel; and Lola, the rebel. There are 8-inch tall baby dolls for newborns and do-it-yourself kits for girls who want to color in their doll's outfit with fabric markers on a pattern, then sew the doll together.
Last year, Vallez designed Japanese doll Tamiki after the earthquake in Japan, and donated all proceeds to the American Red Cross.
Recently Vallez's daughter Sophie, 9, helped her mother create a new line, Best Friends Forever, or BFF dolls, which allows a girl to choose a doll from several different styles for her best friend, all with "BFF" on their chests, and get a matching doll for herself.
"I am always designing new dolls when I have the time," said Vallez, who juggles a full-time job — she's an interactive web designer for Glastonbury-based Cronin & Co. — with the needs of her husband, Kevin, and two young daughters, Sophie and Lola.
Selling the Sophie & Lili dolls wasn't hard, which was a surprise and relief for Vallez, who describes herself as shy, "not a pushy sales person." She contacted various websites to see if they would include a posting about her dolls. Once the website Daily Candy featured the Sophie & Lili dolls, she was flooded with hundreds of emails from buyers, stylists and magazine editors along with plenty of potential customers.
From the beginning, customers loved to order customized Sophie & Lili dolls with their choice of hair color, skin tone, outfit, even hairstyle. Vallez designs black, white, Hispanic, Asian and Indian dolls. Special requests for freckles or glasses are fine.
Sophie & Lili dolls are not meant to be replicas of children, however.
"My dolls are pretty simple though, so they're just a 'suggestion' of what your child looks like," she said.
For the past three years, Vallez has sewed close to 3,000 dolls herself during the evenings and weekends, even though she says she is like most women with full-time jobs and a family: stretched to capacity. "Oh, I'm maxed out," she said with a laugh. But she continues the labor-intensive business because it fills a special need for self-expression.
"When I design a website for a client, a lot of people touch it and at the end of day it's the work of many people," she explained. "But when I design my dolls — they're me. They're my voice on paper."
Vallez's line of dolls was inspired by a female character she'd sketched since childhood. "I've been drawing this girl forever, and just put her in different clothes with different hair," Vallez said. "I started thinking I could do something with these designs that I do all the time."
She has always wanted to design fashion. She vividly remembers watching an episode of "Style with Elsa Klensch" when Klensch interviewed designer Betsey Johnson. "Behind her were all of her fashion sketches, and it burned into my mind that is the coolest job," said Vallez. "I didn't fully understand what she did, but I thought, 'I want that.'"
She attended the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City, where she studied fashion and accessory design for three years, then in 1994 transferred to Central Connecticut State University in New Britain, where she earned a degree in graphic design/ information design.
When the Nordstrom order came along last spring, Vallez said, she knew not even she could sew 1,500 dolls in a short period of time.
Unfortunately, she said, she found that the Arizona toy factory contracted to fill the order sent some shipments of dolls that were stuffed unevenly or not sewed properly. Vallez said she knew it would be hard to find another factory because she had faced the problem in 2007, when Sophie & Lili was a clothing line.
That time it was Saks Fifth Avenue that ordered $54,000 of clothing for 26 stores. She filled the initial order working with a factory in India that, unlike the previous
factory in Hartford she'd worked with, did everything from print the fabric to supply the buttons.
For three years, she also sold her clothing line to 100 to 200 boutiques, with each order between $200 and $1,000.
It was only when she became pregnant with daughter Lola in 2007 and received a small follow-up order from Saks that Vallez decided the combined stress of her job, family and business was too much. She called Saks, cancelled its order, and closed her business.
When Lola was 2, Vallez decided to reopen Sophie & Lili as a doll line. Vallez is currently looking for either a factory in the U.S. that can make stuffed dolls or a circle of seamstresses, preferably close to her Ellington home.
"I would be interested in talking to people who love to sew and are interested in good quality," she said.
Information from: Journal Inquirer, http://www.journalinquirer.com
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