Imagine launching a Kickstarter campaign with a goal of $15,000 and winding up with pledges of more than $160,000. That was the landslide response when a Brooklyn product-design firm, FCTRY, proposed creating an Elizabeth Warren action figure last June. The six-inch doll, wearing the Massachusetts senator’s trademark red blazer and “comfortable slacks to stand up for democracy,” is expected to start shipping this month to backers and customers (retail price $19.99).
In a toy-industry category that usually features characters like Batman, Buzz Lightyear and Wonder Woman, FCTRY has carved out its own niche with its line of real-life political action figures, including Barack Obama, Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton and, yes, Donald Trump. And with an array of other clever products including glittery goo called Unicorn Snot and Gummy Bear night lights, the Gowanus-based mom-and-pop company has turned whimsy into a mass-production business.
The company began with an artist tinkering with sculptures outside his day job. Jason Feinberg, now FCTRY’s CEO and creative director, had graduated from Wesleyan University with a degree in visual arts, but was working as an English teacher at the Brooklyn Public Library while sculpturing on the side. Not the kind of art you might expect to see in the sculpture garden at MoMA, but small, inexpensive creations. He first named his budding venture Jailbreak Toys, a reference to his hope of escaping from his paycheck job. The first product line: Little Giants, Smurf-like dolls based on intellectual heroes. “I made figurines of Einstein, Shakespeare, Picasso,” said Feinberg. “When you’re a kid, you collect toys of your heroes, characters from Star Wars. So as an adult, now you can collect them of your grownup heroes.”
The business started slowly, but Feinberg finally found a breakout product: a Barack Obama action figure. “It was before he was president,” recalls Feinberg. “He was my hero and he was supposed to lose to Hillary in the primaries. I watched him in Iowa, and made this action figure thinking that he would be a quick one-and-done candidate. But then all of the madness happened, and we were the only shop in town that had a fully functioning Obama product.”
He formally launched FCTRY in 2008 with his wife, Alyssa Zeller Feinberg, who studied industrial and product design at Carnegie Mellon and serves as the company’s chief design officer. (The company name is pronounced as if the word had its original vowels intact.) FCTRY now has ten employees at its Gowanus design studio, creating products for sale via e-commerce and wholesale distribution. Of his hiring policy as the company grows, Feinberg says he favors variety. “It’s a liberal-arts hodgepodge. When I find good artsy people that need a job, I’ll hire them.”
The company’s hottest item at the moment is the Unicorn Snot, which has grown into a whole product line. “It started as glitter gel. And then it was a lip gloss. And now we have a glitter sunscreen. It’s become a festival thing,” says Feinberg. Another growing line is Hipsterkid, which started with a pacifier that, when used, makes babies look like they’ve grown a mustache. The line now includes bandana-style bibs and baby sunglasses. “We’re basically making accessories for our kids and selling them to everyone else. It’s very Brooklyn. We’re taking fashion inspiration that we see on adults and turning it into clothing for children,” said Feinberg.
Before the last Presidential election, FCTRY rolled out a Bernie Sanders action figure, which was a hit. A customer named Sam commented on the company’s website: “Superman might be able [to] fly but this action figure can give you free college and he can speak the truth!” Said Feinberg: “There’s a certain enthusiasm that people feel about [Elizabeth] Warren and Bernie that people don’t feel about generic candidates.”
The one FCTRY product that makes Feinberg cringe is the Donald Trump action figure, and the toymaker’s feelings clearly show through. The Trump figure has a permanent scowl, a middle finger raised in contempt, detachable hair, and “sturdy & durable shoes for stepping on people,” says the production description. “We’ve turned Donald Trump into an iconic villain in our action figure line-up.” Said Feinberg: “I’m a little bummed that we had to make a Trump figure. I was bummed with this last political cycle.” All of the profits from the Trump figure go to the ACLU. “Now that the election cycle is over,” said Feinberg, “it’s back to the formula that I prefer, which is [making figures based on] who we’re most passionate about.”