From the time word dropped about the “Barbie” movie that’s finally out Friday, there’s been a frenzy of all things pink and a close watch of the cast as they got dolled up for a global press tour that catapulted Barbiecore into its current craze.
And while Barbie may be setting style trends for the moment, she wasn’t always the influencer she is this summer; back in the day, she was following what was on the runways.
“We paid complete attention to what was happening in fashion,” said Carol Spencer, who started designing fashion for Barbie at Mattel in 1963 and outfitted her beloved doll until 1998, and whose book, “Dressing Barbie: A Celebration of the Clothes That Made America’s Favorite Doll and the Incredible Woman Behind Them” was just republished in paperback in time for the movie. “When I started in ’63, it was still what I refer to as Barbie’s couturier period, where fashion would be in houses of Europe and then come down to the United States…When Mary Quant came out with the mod, we did our mod fashions first for Francie [positioned as Barbie’s “MODern cousin”] and then for Barbie. The Francie doll was a closer body model to Twiggy, who was doing a lot of modeling at the time.
“Through the years we watched what was happening in fashion and we made sure that it was understandable to a child and had play value linked to it. And then that is what we would put into the line,” Spencer said.
When Oscar de la Renta partnered with Mattel in 1985 to shrink pieces from his collection into play-size versions for Barbie, the doll officially stepped into high fashion. Four pieces from his signature collection were adapted for her and shown in their full-size versions at a dinner presentation with the designer. He told WWD at the time, “The little girls who are going to be buying Oscar de la Renta for Barbie will be my future customers.”
Zooming in on that collab, Spencer said de la Renta himself didn’t craft Barbie’s clothes. Spencer and her two other co-designers — Janet Goldblatt and Kitty Black Perkins, who added diversity to the Mattel staff and designed the first Black Barbie released in 1980 — were competing with each other for a chance to create the luxury label designs.
“Oscar de la Renta was a designer who did not design for his licensed product. Rather, he accepted the designs of others,” she told WWD from her home in the Westwood neighborhood of Los Angeles. “And so we designed several fashions, each one of us, and the company took them to New York, put them up on his conference table and, at a point in time, he joined his representatives in the room and took a look at the fashions on the dolls, and he looked up and then back down and then he nodded at certain fashions that he would put his name on and left the room without another sound. That was Oscar de la Renta.”
One of Spencer’s designs for de la Renta made the cut. “I did a blue brocade gown. I think it was a one-shoulder gown, and then I had a cape with it, because he did some wonderful capes. And it had rosettes in different places on the gown,” she said.
Some designers partnered with Mattel in the same manner as de la Renta, and others were more involved.
“Bob Mackie was a hands-on designer,” Spencer said. “He would actually have his people do the beading, make the garment and so on, because he wanted it to be just so. Every designer does something a little bit different.”
Though she may be better known for her dream house, Barbie, in fact, had a fashion lover’s dream closet.
Paris-based designer Billy Boy and model Bettina Graziani at one point convinced Paris’ top designers to create pieces for Barbie, leveling up her wardrobe in the most luxurious way.
“Nearly 50 of them complied and had their ateliers whip up exact, minutely detailed, Barbie-size replicas of their favorite classics. Emanuel Ungaro provided a tiny version of his erotically draped cocktail dress, Jean Paul Gaultier came across with an ice-cream-cone-breasted dress for Barbie and a pantskirt for her boyfriend, the unflappably handsome Ken, and Yves Saint Laurent delivered a whopping 16 pieces that represent a YSL retrospective en precis, from the famous trapeze dress of the late Fifties to a hooded minidress from his recent pret-a-porter collection,” a 1985 article in WWD read. Dior also made the doll a dupe of a dress worn by Princess Caroline of Monaco. Pierre Cardin and Courrèges added to her ensemble, too.
Over the years, Barbie gathered looks from designers like Givenchy, Donna Karan, Zuhair Murad and Tommy Hilfiger, to name just some, and for her 35th anniversary, Bill Blass, Todd Oldham, Christian Francis Roth and Nicole Miller designed outfits for her.
And it was Nicole Miller’s doll that got Byron Lars interested in having his own Barbie moment.
“I don’t even think it was quite a week from the time that I saw her doll to the time that I was approached to make a doll of my own,” Lars said. “And I was like yeah. Heck yeah.”
He was to make Black collectible Barbies in his designer clothing, and when he introduced the first doll at New York’s Fashion Café in April 1997, WWD wrote what she was wearing.
“Lars put his first Barbie, which is part of Mattel’s runway collection series, in a satin opera cape over a chocolate brown sheath with faux fur collar and cuffs and rhinestone [brooch],” the article read.
Though he had wanted her in a luxe sportswear look, Mattel wasn’t going for it.
“There was a lot of the old guard at Barbie who had probably some outmoded ideas about who she was and what she did and what she could do and who she could be and all those possibilities for exploring that in the retail end,” the designer told WWD in an interview this month.
Despite somewhat mismatched initial visions, the doll sold well and Lars did another and another and another. In all, he created 15 Black collectible Barbies, pushing the envelope on what Mattel had ever done in terms of skin color and hair texture.
His favorite was the Treasures of Africa collection, which included three dolls named Moja, Mbili and Tatu, the words for one, two and three in Swahili.
“Mbili was the first Alek Wek [complexioned] Black Barbie in existence. It was the first one and it took some doing because I tried to get it earlier and they were like, OK, we don’t know how to [create her color],” Lars said. “It was really successful, and since then they have made many mainline dolls of that color and that’s probably the thing that I’m most proud about is shattering that glass of the skin tones.” By the time Mbili was in development, Mattel had also developed the technology to give her true kinky hair, which Lars had been seeking since he started designing for Barbie. These evolutions of Barbie allowed him to design true to her individual beauty.
“All the colors were designed for this particular skin tone of the doll that I selected. Every design choice was made with her in mind. It’s almost like toy couture. It’s made for her,” said Lars, whose current work with partner Sheila Gray includes a new collection for his In Earnest label set to show at Designers & Agents in September.
In between designers making garb for Barbie, the doll often influenced real-life clothing for her human counterparts, as has been the case this summer. While the beloved Patricia Field was doing costume design for “Sex and the City” in 2007, she was also working on Barbie-inspired clothing for Barbie Luxe. “I love Barbie as an inspiration — it’s uplifting and it’s pop — components I am drawn to,” Field told WWD that year.
When Barbie turned 50 in 2009, Mattel brought Christian Louboutin on to be her “yearlong godfather” to rethink her wardrobe and physical attributes, as well as to design his sought-after red-bottom shoes for her.
“It was a natural for Barbie, not only with her fashion heritage, but also because of her passion for shoes. She has a billion shoes and we needed to do something special for her shoe collection,” Mattel’s then-senior vice president of marketing Stephanie Cota told WWD at the time. The dolls came packaged in Louboutin shoe boxes, each with four petite pairs of the high-fashion heels. In pink, of course.
The color, which has already been trending in recent seasons, is everywhere now. And the hue has been Barbie’s thing since the ‘70s, Spencer said.
“Pink has been known as a color for children in Japan since the Edo period [1603–1867] because every period has their color. And so we found out that pink was really favored and then there was just a pink explosion,” she said. “It was at that time that I had to make sure my house had colors of beiges and blues so I could rest my eyes at night from all the pink!”
Whether in house or at the hands of high fashion creatives, Barbie had a lot of designers’ attention, and their own backgrounds influenced what they created for the doll.
“It was the interpretation of each designer, of how she sees Barbie. And each designer interpreted fashion and play value I think based on their background,” Spencer said. “Janet Goldblatt, who was from probably the New York area, she loved to do high fashion, things like that. I was considered the conservative one but I could do high fashion, too. And…Kitty Black Perkins…she was from the Southeast but she had her own spin on fashion, and that was when Ebony magazine had some of the most outstanding fashions displayed in their magazine, of any magazine. We had a nice variety because children are different, no two alike. Parents are different. So we needed designers who came from different backgrounds, and I think Mattel chose very well.”