Cats have long had to make do with less-than-creative toys than dogs. While pups get to toss around objects that look like just about any type food or object they crave, most cat playthings fall into two categories: mice and fish. Randi Warhol, owner of the cat-toy company Polydactyl, and a graduate of the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT)’s Pet Product Design and Marketing Certificate program, is changing this landscape. Through Polydactyl, she creates organic-catnip-infused cat-toy replicas of Chinese-food sauce containers, sugar packets, popcorn (inside an old-timey movie-palace bag), Valentine’s Day chocolate in heart-shaped boxes and other beloved human treats. Her designs are highly realistic, with cool pop-art feel.
Warhol, who has two cats, Bowie and Elliot Smith, launched Polydactyl in 2009 because she was tired of the lackluster, uninspiring cat toys she saw on the market. “I wanted to make toys out of objects that people see every day, but for cats,” she says. “I wanted to make something you can’t really reproduce, and can’t get anywhere else.”
Warhol grew up with cats, and her desire to entertain them began early. “I was an only child, so I played with my cats.” Her parents didn’t have much cash for toys, so she make costumes for them, along with miniature furniture, including a tiny cafeteria and a fully set Thanksgiving table.
She leveraged this talent for craftsmanship for Polydactyl, custom designing all the toys and, until recently, making everything by hand. Demand for her products has increased to the point, however, where she needs to contract with a company to produce them for her. “In order to make more toys, I had to make the decision to have someone else produce them,” she notes. “The factory that is going to do this is in Hong Kong, and it’s a completely female-owned business.”
She feels she owes much of this success to her time at FIT (she earned her certificate in 2011). “You can learn as much as you want about business, but pet fashion is its own animal, so FIT really opened up a lot of doors for me,” she says, noting that she had tried more traditional business classes and resources, but didn’t find them as helpful. “They just didn’t get it.”
At FIT, she made a point of focusing on a range of courses, from straight design to legal and marketing classes. She especially enjoyed classes by FIT adjunct professor Kris Lynch and adjunct assistant professor Bernard “Bernie” Kahn. “I would recommend any of the classes with [Lynch],” says Warhol. “Anything with pet design and bringing your product to market. She’s just a reservoir of knowledge. [Kahn] is brilliant. He does a lot of factory work. He taught me so much about garment construction, and costing out a garment.”
Not only are Warhol’s orders up, her cat toys are also being sold in close to 30 stores across the country, and have been highlighted in Cosmopolitan and Meow Quarterly. The secret to her success? “You really want to do this, because otherwise you’re going to be wasting a lot of time and a lot of money. It’s not just about working with dogs and cats all day and getting to make cute things. It’s a lot of hard work. But it’s worth it.”
For more in-depth information on the FIT Pet Product Design and Marketing Program at FIT, watch the International Association of Pet Fashion Professionals Hangout On Air with Dana Humphrey, program facilitator and Ada Nieves, first graduate of the program.