Barbie gets real(ish)
Hands up if you’ve ever felt uneasy letting your child play with a blonde, busty, impossibly-tiny-waisted Barbie. Well, the girls’ favourite as we know her has had a dramatic makeover. Anna Hart is granted rare access to Mattel HQ to meet the next generat
We’re seated in a Pantone 219-pink-walled boardroom at Mattel HQ in a retail park in El Seg undo, Los Angeles. Two wallmounted clocks relay the time in LA and Hong Kong, and posters of Barbie campaigns and fashion tie-ins adorn the walls: Barbie’s recent collaboration with Moschino, the 2014 Karl Lagerfeld Barbie (currently fetching $4,000 on eBay after originally retailing on Net-a-Porter for $200), plus doting portraits of Barbie in various guises, from astronaut to presidential candidate. But all eyes are on a 12in stand on the boardroom table, draped with a candy-pink veil. What I and four other journalists are about to witness is the culmination of a highly secretive 18-month operation codenamed Project Dawn: the design and manufacture of 33 new Barbie dolls that mark a radical departure from the blonde-haired, blue-eyed, improbably-proportioned doll we know and love – or hate. Or love to hate. Kim Culmone, vice president of design for Barbie, and senior design director Robert Best admit that it has been tough concealing Barbie’s new look from their friends and colleagues at Mattel, transporting prototype dolls around the building in sealed containers. We fve reporters have signed non-disclosure agreements and surrendered our smartphones; the security measures at Mattel HQ make getting into MI6 resemble crashing a student party.
Blonde bombshell Barbie is so much more than a pretty face. She’s a multimillion-dollar empire; over a billion of the dolls have been sold worldwide in more than 150 countries, and Mattel estimates that three Barbies are sold every second. She’s a cultural icon, painted by Andy Warhol in 1986 ( Barbie,
Portrait of BillyBoy*), starring in the Toy Story movies, and inspir ing collaborat ions wit h fashion designers from Oscar de la Renta (1984) to Christian Dior (1995) to Diane von Furstenberg (2006). And as a heritage toy brand, Barbie is perhaps the most universally recognised 11.5in of plastic ever assembled, with Mattel claiming 98 per cent brand recognition globally. ‘Right now when you say “Barbie” to someone, a very clear image of a blonde-haired, blueeyed, slim doll comes to mind,’ says Culmone. ‘In a few years, this will no longer be the case. We’re exploding a system that’s been in place for 56 years and a heritage that’s been passed down from generation to generation.’ Tampering with this winning formula was an exercise that could only be undertaken behind locked doors.
As the satin veil is whipped of, there’s a gasp in the room. It’s a line-up of black Barbies, tanned Barbies, white Barbies: seven diferent skintones in total. There is afro hair, curly red hair, tousled blue hair and jet-black straight hair; 30 colours and 24 styles and textures. There are blue eyes, green eyes, brown eyes. Plus there are three new body shapes or ‘archetypes’: a smaller doll, a taller doll, and the one everyone reaches for frst – a Barbie with solid thighs, a waist able to accommodate vital internal organs and biceps meaty enough to beat Ken at arm-wrestling. I pick up bigger Barbie by her gratifyingly sturdy waist and surreptitiously nudge up her skirt. Barbie has had her most radical makeover ever – and I can exclusively report that the thigh-gap is ofcially gone.
Nobody at Mattel would argue with the fact that at the ripe old age of 56, Barbie needed to have some work done. She kept a pink-lipsticked smile plastered on her plastic face, her hair remained immaculate, and stress never took its toll on her skin, but in recent years, Barbie had let herself go. In 2014 she was unceremoniously ousted from the top-selling girls’ toy spot (by Frozen’s Queen Elsa) for the frst time in over a decade, and although she remains the market leader in the fashion dolls category, sales are down for the third consecutive year.
But Barbie – charmed as her life of pink Corvettes, designer garb and plastic mansions may appear – is no stranger to adversity, and comes from humble beginnings. Mattel Creations was founded in 1945 by Elliot and Ruth Handler, from the garage of their
I pick up bigger Barbie by her gratifyingly sturdy waist and surreptitiously nudge up her skirt – and I can exclusively report that the thigh-gap is ofcially gone
The shape – and size – of Barbies to come: dolls petite, curvy and tall fank regular Barbie (second from right)