Last Sunday, about 150 people gathered in Washington Square Park in Lower Manhattan to buy, sell, trade and fawn over dolls known as Sonny Angels.
The attendees — mostly in their 20s and mostly female — toted the dolls in clear plastic bags from the Japanese dollar store Daiso or spread them out on blankets for others to admire and haggle over. At least one enthusiast was in search of a doll who wears bok choy as a hat.
Sonny Angel is the name of a fictitious 2-year-old cherub designed to be a tiny companion for working women in their mid-20s dealing with the stresses of adulthood. He was created by Toru Soeya, a Japanese toy designer who lent his nickname “Sonny” to the character.
Each doll has angel wings and colorful headgear. Some wear full outfits, but most are without pants and bear a striking resemblance to a Kewpie doll. The most popular size of Sonny Angel is just under three inches and costs about $10. The dolls are sold individually in themed collections that include animals, vegetables, fruits and flowers.
Sonny Angel dolls have been on the market since 2005 but have become more popular recently. On TikTok, #sonnyangel has amassed over 95 million views. Bella Hadid posted a photo of a wall of Sonny Angels to her Instagram earlier this year.
Jackie Bonheim, a spokeswoman for Sonny Angel USA said: “You see meet-ups, you see fan art, you see them baking cakes.”
Melissa Scott, an owner of the Manhattan children’s clothing boutique An.mé, said the store has already sold more dolls this year than all of last year.
Sunday’s event was the third Sonny Angel meet-up organized by Yunuen Cho, 24, and Erika Saito, 20, who met through TikTok about six months ago. Their first meet-up, in December, had about 10 attendees. The next one, in February, had about 20.
The appeal, fans said, is one part collecting fad, one part dopamine hit and one part subcultural signifier. One New York University student said she successfully quit vaping by waiting to open new Sonny Angel boxes until she had gone several days without nicotine. Another said she rewarded herself for studying by buying the dolls.
Judy Gao, 20, grew up in Beijing and moved to New York to attend N.Y.U. “When I moved to New York, it was like we had the Covid pandemic, Asian hate crime — it was so crazy and overwhelming,” she said.
Finding friends who shared her love of Sonny Angels was a solace for Ms. Gao. “It’s healing my inner child,” she said.
Ms. Cho started collecting Sonny Angel dolls with co-workers while working what she described as an unsatisfying job at a law firm. She began documenting her Sonny Angel shopping expeditions on TikTok.
In a TikTok video she uploaded from the previous Sonny Angel meet-up, Ms. Cho narrated footage of attendees unboxing their dolls in a New York City park.
“We laugh for each other, we cry for each other, we cheer for each other,” Ms. Cho said in the video. “We literally live for this. We also know it doesn’t matter to our lives, but obviously, it matters to our lives.”
At the Sunday gathering, some attendees were looking for specific or rare dolls. Many wanted to find “Robby” figurines, a mouse-like character occasionally included as a bonus item in Sonny Angel boxes.
Keke Sanders, 33, who works in fashion, had finally tracked down a Sonny Angel watermelon doll. “I don’t like to eat watermelon, but I like how watermelon looks and I finally got one today,” she said.
At about 5 p.m., the meet-up moved to a private party at the An.mé boutique. Inside, Ms. Scott, the co-owner, displays her own collection, some of which she has customized. She painted pants onto one of them to appease her son, who does not like the nudity of the dolls.
“He was like, ‘They can’t be naked!’” Ms. Scott said. “’Cause he’s 12, you know?”
Some adults are also put off by the nudity. In response to Ms. Hadid’s Sonny Angel photo, one Instagram user commented: “I think we should stop putting pictures that look like kids naked.”
Ms. Bonheim, the spokeswoman for Sonny Angel USA, said she believes people understand Sonny Angel is a cherub. “Someone could not like it, but the people who are offended I would say are few and far between,” she said.
Inside the boutique, many grabbed new Sonny Angel boxes from a wall and then settled into a long line to buy them. A hum of conversation was regularly punctuated by cheers and applause when a customer unboxed a particularly coveted doll (the box packaging did not indicate which dolls were inside).
August Huey, 18, found a pink bunny doll she had been looking for. “Obviously I’m very themed after bunnies today,” she said, pointing to her bunny ear headband.
Others were not happy leaving it to chance. “I’m trying to go for a Robby,” said Domenica Arrunategui, 20, a student, as she shook package after package. “I’m trying to hear if there’s two sounds.”
As Saint Luv, 24, waited in line, he pulled out a doll whose head was adorned with jelly beans. “It reminds me of me,” he said, beaming at his prized doll. “Just a colorful boy.”