All dolled up, just like Barbie

November 08, 2005|By TANIKA WHITE | TANIKA WHITE,SUN REPORTER

They loved to play with Barbie when they were little girls. They'd dress her up in lovely Barbie-sized clothes, miniature versions of the latest fashions, and imagine themselves one day wearing identical outfits - stylish, sexy and all grown-up.

As women now, those same little girls still love fashion. But they've long forgotten about their Barbie dolls.

Mattel, Barbie's parent company, wants today's adult fashionistas to remember their Barbie roots.

But instead of playing with Barbie's clothes, Mattel execs want stylish women to wear them.

"We're hoping women will re-engage with Barbie as a relevant fashion brand," says Richard Dickson, senior vice president of global consumer marketing and entertainment for Mattel Brands.

So the company recently launched a small collection of Barbie-label clothes, high-end pieces created by some of the country's top designers, using Barbie as their muse.

There's plenty of pink, but no plastic shoes.

Instead, you'll find boho-style tops in pink, black or floral patterns, with heart prints and ribbon details, created by New York designer Anna Sui; dark denim boot-cut jeans with pink stitching from Paper Denim & Cloth; and vintage-style jeans with a pink leather patch that says "Barbie" on the back pocket, by Citizens of Humanity.

There are crystal Barbie accessories - such as a $650 compact and a $2,150 evening clutch - by Judith Leiber. And Barbie's face is splashed across a satin eye mask, designed by Anya Hindmarch.

It's that 1997 Aqua song "Barbie Girl" come to life, except there's nothing tongue-in-cheek about it. These are serious clothes for women with serious money - who happen to also be serious about Barbie.

"It's the ultimate fantasy come true," says Dickson. "There's an innate relationship that girls of all ages have with the Barbie brands. And Barbie has always been of-the-moment when it comes to fashion trends."

Barbie Luxe, as the collection is called, debuted last month at Fred Segal Flair, an upscale, trendy boutique in Santa Monica, Calif. Dickson says the company plans to expand the line to fine department stores across the country next year.

A manager at Fred Segal who answered the phone there last week deferred questions about the label's popularity to the store owner, who did not return phone calls.

But Dickson says he's confident the clothes will sell, and sell mightily.

"The women who buy [the clothes], they're back in the Barbie days playing out a fantasy," he says. "And the nice surprise is that it really is high-quality, on-trend products."

A similar line of adult Barbie clothes at a store in Japan sold so well three years ago, Dickson says, that Mattel had to quickly open more stores - for a total of 24 - to keep up with demand.

"It truly is a phenomenon from a fashion perspective," Dickson says. "It has exceeded all expectations."

But the Japanese are known for their quirky sense of fashion. Pink and kitschy Hello Kitty clothes are as popular there as gray Gap sweat shirts are here.

Will women in the United States buy the Barbie label? Not for their daughters, but for themselves?

Some experts are doubtful.

"It's a hard sell. I think they're going to have trouble with it," says Nan Andrews Amish, a branding expert and president of Big Picture Perspective, a marketing consulting company near San Francisco. "It's like Paul Newman [salad] dressing at McDonald's. I understand why they do it, who they're trying to attract. But people don't go to McDonald's for organic fare. If you're really going to spend that kind of money for an outfit, do you really want Barbie on it? I don't think so. It just doesn't seem like a good fit."

But Karen Mitchell, an associate professor of communication at the University of Northern Iowa - who so loves Barbie she wrote a play last year called Barbie Undone, says there are women who would gladly shell out top dollar for a pink satin clutch with a portrait of vintage Barbie in the lining, or a frilly blouse or pink-accented pair of slim-cut jeans.

Older moneyed women, past their parenting prime who want to recapture their youth. Avid Barbie collectors who covet anything Barbie-related. New-money mommies who like to dress like their Barbie-toting daughters.

"There are women who had plastic surgery to get a Barbie look," says Mitchell. "There are people who are very, very serious about this. Extremely serious."

Leslie Ingram-Johnson is a married mother of two in Laurel, and a Barbie collector. She particularly seeks African-American Barbies, dressed in elegant designer clothes. To date, she has 25.

Ingram-Johnson even has a pair of hot-pink Barbie pajamas.

But she says she doesn't think she'd buy designer Barbie Luxe clothes just to have clothes with the Barbie label.

"If it was reasonably priced and something that I thought was really nice, yeah, I would get it," Ingram-Johnson says. "But to get it just because it's a Barbie label, no.

"[But] I think that there's some true diehards out there who would."

tanika.white@baltsun.com

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