Blanket bears

blanket bears

Rohland, Pamela

IN THE BLEAK YEARS FOLLOWING World War II, the German people displayed what seemed to be an unusual yearning amid their struggle for recovery: They wanted teddy bears.

But, then again, maybe it wasn’t unusual at all to want something soft and familiar and reassuring to hold on to in a world turned upside down.

Hans Clemens, an entrepreneur who ran a shop selling china, glassware, and gift items, decided in 1948 that he would try to fulfill his customers’ longing for teddies, since they were not available on the open market. And so began a new company, Clemens Spieltiere GmbH, and its 50-year journey to become one of Germany’s leading teddy bear manufacturers. Today, the business has grown from two employees to 35 and the company sells its line of 280 different plush toys in Germany, the United States, the United Kingdom, Japan, and, most recently, South Africa.

In the early years after the war, when fabric was scarce, customers provided Hans with scraps of material for his sister, Sofia, to sew by hand into bears. Old army blankets found themselves put to a friendlier use– Sofia created a unique teddy from each one.

One of Hans’s first bear customers was a woman who brought fabric from her old beige suit and a flowered jacket to be made into a bear for her nephew. The piece has since become a collectors’ item, with bear lovers around the world buying replicas of that early design.

As the German passion for bears steadily increased, so did Hans’s business. A factory was added, then expanded, as was the number of employees. When fabric became more readily available, Hans retired the old army blankets and began to create bears from mohair, Dralon plush, and artificial silk, which was also being used by British bear manufacturers. Consumers’ appetites for other types of plush animals grew, so Hans extended the product line to include snuggle toys, wildlife animals, handpuppets, and musical toys, as well as collectibles.

Along with the steady growth of the business came an increasing reputation as one of the country’s highest-quality teddy bear manufacturers. But a change in strategy in the 1970s brought Clemens products into the mass market, with disastrous results.

Throughout Europe, inexpensive imports were putting domestic toy companies out of business. Concemed for the company’s survival, Hans and his son, Peter, who joined the business in 1953, responded by producing budget-priced plush toys that were sold in supermarkets and through mail-order catalogs.

“There was no way to be competitive against suppliers from the Far East,” explains Dirk Clemens, the company spokesman. “And, at the same time, our excellent reputation for high quality and top-notch design began to disappear.”

In a bid to save his father’s company, Peter, who took over as managing director in 1985, decided Clemens needed to “go back to its roots” and concentrate again on the high-quality end of the market. That meant making carefully crafted traditional bears rather than inexpensive cuddly toys, and selling them at specialty stores rather than at supermarkets.

The plan worked. Clemens regained its reputation, and collectors began to notice the classic designs and high-quality mohair.

As far back as the late 1970s, Clemens made some bears with the collector in mind, although the specialty market was still quite small then. By the early 1990s, however, the demand for collectibles was impossible to overlook, and Clemens introduced its first limited editions. “The teddy bear market in Germany is very sensitive to quality, tradition, and excellent design,” Dirk says. “Collectors are willing to spend a good amount of money for their passion. More and more people are getting to know the real worth of a collector’s teddy bear-not only the material worth, but the emotional worth.

“Another reason this market is growing is that this generation has the money to spend on the kind of limited editions which the previous generation could not afford after the war.”

Initially, Clemens created only a handful of limited editions. This year, about 18 new limited editions are being offered, bringing the total number of limited editions to 100.

Collectors prize the quality and design of the bears, as well as the mohair, which once was imported from English weavers but now is more often coming from German suppliers. They also are pleased by the small numbers of each limited-edition run. The largest editions are 700 or 800, with the average run being 400 to 600. Some editions, however, are restricted to 200 or less.

The Clemens family believes it has an edge in the high-end market because the company does not employ a full-time design team but instead contracts with a variety of freelance artists. Among the best-known are Claudia Wagner-Weinstein, Birgit Diedrich-Drobny, Anja Fohmann, and Martina Lehr. “That enables us to provide new designs all the time from different wellknown artists, and so the teddy bears do not all look alike,” Dirk says. “All artist bears are limited editions, with no more than 500 pieces per edition, which makes them very attractive to collectors.”

The bears range from classic jointed mohair bears to cuddly stuffed toys in synthetic fabrics; a few are made from cotton or alpaca, but most are in mohair. Some are dressed, while others aren’t-their accessories are sold separately. Some are standing or sitting at desks or on swings or are crouched on all fours.

Clemens sees a great deal of promise in its character toys, which are used as promotional items for well-known companies, including Nestle, Avon, and the German department store Breuninger. In addition to the bears, a beaver was created in 1991 as a mascot for horticultural shows. Today, it comes in various sizes as well as a hand-puppet style. Promotional toys comprise 40 percent of the company’s production.

It is a very different world-and a different business-than when Hans Clemens started out more than 50 years ago. But the company believes that, since it pulled back from the mass-market strategy, it has regained its position in the industry.

And Hans, now 93 and living in the south of Spain, continues to keep a watchful eye on the enterprise to make sure it stays that way.

Copyright Cowles Enthusiast Media Sep/Oct 1999

Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning Company. All rights Reserved.