Sunday, May 11, 2014

Helen Ratkai is THE Steiff Couturiere!

A Ratkai Steiff Elephant
Hey good looking! Of course, that refers to all Steiff collectibles... and collectors, too! Steiff has a long tradition of dressing their fine creations in lovely and well-tailored attire since the turn of last century when the company introduced their first felt dolls around 1903. In the 1950's, a series of glamorously dressed Steiff animals began appearing in the fine toy and department stores like FAO Schwarz and Lord and Taylor. But they were not costumed by Steiff, but by a New York City artist named Helen Ratkai. Let's learn a little bit more about her creative work, and how it continues to inspire Steiff lovers - and even philanthropy - even today!

Helen's Steiff creations were gorgeous, one of a kind treasures. Although each one was distinct, most were based on standard line 1950's era small or medium sized Steiff animals, including dogs, cats, horses, zebras, monkeys, lambs, and other familiar farm, forest, and jungle friends. Ratkai hand dressed each Steiff treasure to the nines in elegant and designer-quality skirts, dresses, blouses, or other clothing; all were made from the finest silk, velvets, laces, and fabric ribbons. Many had hats, handbags, jewelry, and other fashionable accessories, often detailed with flowers, sequins, and beading. Perhaps the only commonality between Helen's items were their identification: each bore a tag reading "Helen Ratkai is my couturiere" stitched somewhere unobtrusively on the item's outfit; a sample of this tag is pictured here on the left.

An article published December 20, 1957 in the Sarasota (FL.) Herald Tribune featured a profile of Ratkai and her elegant animal creations.  It read in part...

A Ratkai Steiff Lamb
"FAO Schwarz, the fabulous toy store on Manhattan's Fifth Avenue, sells toys for grown-ups which include a smoking monkey at $295, a drinking bear for $195, and a cat that knits.  Another "adults only" group is the stuffed animal dressed up to look like a person. These are small but "too sophisticated and delicate for children," said Helen Ratkai, an artist who started the line dressing animals for her nieces, aged 5 and 12. The idea caught on with grown-ups, and today she sells these animals in the United States, South America, Bermuda, and Hawaii. The Duchess of Windsor has a Ratkai-gowned rabbit and the Eisenhower's have an elephant. 

A Ratkai Steiff Dog
"People buy the animals because they look like real people - friends or relatives. But no one is offended by the gift. After all, you never think they look like you - always someone else," she said. Mrs. Ratkai's creatures wear creations of French ribbons and Swiss lace, velvet, satin, and taffeta. They sport long, dangling earrings, fur stoles, and giddy bonnets trimmed with birds, bees, and flowers. They carry jeweled evening bags, beaver muffs, and parasols. "I try to follow fashion, mainly in fabrics and hats. Elephants are the hardest to dress because they're so fat and always seem to look best in pink and blue. Monkeys are easiest because they're the funniest. They make a good try at being elegant," said Couturier Ratkai. The inspiration for her designs is "Tony," a black French poodle "who lets me put anything on him and sits in the only chair in the workshop." Why do her animals sell? "Well," she said, "they make people laugh. And nowadays we need something to cheer us up." 

Ratkai's animal fashion plates are "cover girls" to many Steiff collectors, even today. Some even specialize in Helen's unique treasures. One such collector is Cathleen Smith Bresciani, designer, philanthropist, and author of the children's book Sassafrass Jones and the Search for a Forever Home, which features vintage Steiff items in its cast of characters.  Steiffgal had the pleasure of sharing her story with readers awhile back.

A Smith Bresciani Ratkai Inspired Wild Boar
Bresciani has dozens of Ratkai Steiff originals displayed all over her home, and the artist's dressed animals have provided a lifetime's worth of creative inspiration for her. So much so, that Cathleen has just launched a fundraising project for one of her favorite nonprofits - Canine Companions for Independence - inspired by Ratkai's beloved dressed characters. Canine Companions is a national 501(c)(3) non-profit organization that enhances the lives of people with disabilities by providing highly trained assistance dogs and ongoing support to ensure quality partnerships. To help raise money for CCI, Cathleen has created a limited series of vintage Steiff animals that she has personally dressed in one-of-a kind Ratkai-inspired outfits, hats, and accessories.  She has graciously donated her materials, time, and talent towards this initiative, and all proceeds from the sale of these items will go directly to CCI. The first group of these highly collectible treasures has just been listed on Steiffgal's Vintage Museum Marketplace on Ruby Lane, and it goes without saying that Steiffgal is thrilled to partner with Cathleen on this worthwhile and exciting charitable project.  An example of one of Cathleen's Ratkai-themed dressed Steiff animals - a "prom-worthy" piglet - is pictured here on the left.  Take a look at the others when you can!

Steiffgal hopes this discussion on Helen Ratkai's dressed Steiff animals has been a black tie affair for you.

Have a question about one of your Steiff treasures, family or otherwise? Let's talk! Click here to learn more. 

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