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In the pared down, geometric lines-and-succulents aesthetic of the mid-to-late 2010s, some of the most fun, rule-breaking collections come from an unexpected source: toys. From My Little Pony and Manish Arora to, of course, Jeremy Scott’s Moschino and Barbie, designers interested in bright, poppy, colorful looks turn to their childhood for inspiration. But when the toys dress us, who dresses the toys?
Fashion is way more fun when it’s too much, and the world of dolls is one of excess, of prints and layers and fabrics, of pinks and neons that only exist exquisitely in the lives of six- to 12-year-olds. But who creates these worlds? Who’s behind Barbie as an intergalactic space traveler or the sensible rainforest exploration outfit of Lea, American Girl’s 2016 doll of the year? Three designers from Barbie, American Girl, and Project Mc2 (a new line of math and science-loving dolls from the makers of Bratz; tag line: “Smart is the new cool”) tell us how they got into this niche of design.
Kim Culmone, the vice president of Barbie Global Creative, didn’t come to Mattel with a toy design background. After studying interior design in college, she started The Design Garage, a textile design studio in Los Angeles, with a friend. They shut down the studio after her partner left to get her masters in architecture, and Culmone found herself, around age 26, realizing she needed a “real” job, or at least a recognizable corporate name on her resume. After returning to FIDM, her alma mater, she took a nine-month stint at Mattel in the textile department.
“I thought, ‘that’s perfect,’” Culmone says. “I’ll do this for about nine months, then I’ll move to New York, and I’ll get a job at Knoll working on fabrics or at some really tony, sophisticated interior design company that only uses the textile Pantone book and never deals with bright colors — very serious, right?”
Culmone was obsessed with Barbie as a kid — even having a somewhat fortuitous Barbie-themed 21st birthday party. Walking through the Mattel doors for the first time was a love-at-first-sight experience.
“When I walked into this building and started to see the level of design excellence and the number of creative avenues that there were — and the fact that it was the home and birthplace of Barbie — I kind of lost my mind a little bit,” she says. “I completely fell in love with the team dynamic and the really supportive, collaborative nature and process that it takes to bring these products to life. I knew I wanted to stay. I set my sights on a particular role in design that I wanted once my temp job was over, and I think it was probably within a day or two of my assignment being over that I landed a permanent spot.”
Shelley Cornia, American Girl’s lead designer for its BeForever historical line, had a similar experience. She’s been with the company for 13 years now, starting with its contemporary line (i.e. the dolls girls can customize to look just like them — or, at least, have vaguely similar hair, skin, and eye colors). After three years there, she switched over to the historical line, where she’s the sole soft goods designer on the team, meaning she works with the dolls and their outfits, and partners with the hard goods designer (books, furniture, etc.) to flesh out the full character. Cornia, who grew up in New Orleans, went to Louisiana State University for fashion design with a minor in theatre. She combined her two interests and started designing costumes for university theatre and opera performances. This eventually turned into a job as a costume designer with the Ohio Light Opera, a repertory opera company that operates during the summer.
“I worked there for four years, then I went to grad school and got an MFA in costume design,” Cornia says. “I did my MFA here at U.W. Madison, and, while I was here, I learned about American Girl for the first time. I hadn’t grown up with the doll so it was all new to me, and I was fascinated that they did historical dolls as well as contemporary. It was while I was working at another design firm in town that designed picture frames, someone said ‘Oh, there’s a job opening at American Girl — that would be perfect for you!’ and I was like ‘Yes! That would be perfect for me.’ I can’t say that I was like, ‘I want to grow up and design clothes for dolls’ — that would not be genuine — but my background in fashion and historical fashion really put me in a good spot for my interview [with American Girl].”
It makes sense that designing for dolls and toy companies would be a career decision that someone would tend to stumble upon instead of start out their career paths wanting to pursue. As ubiquitous as Barbie or Bratz or American Girl is, we rarely think about the sheer amount of people behind a single doll on a Target shelf, from the accessory detailing on a dress to the makeup on Barbie’s face. “The thing that might surprise people the most is the number of people involved in the process. To bring a doll to life, a feature doll, one that walks or talks or flies, there’s a number of artisans behind every single aspect,” Culmone says. “There are people that paint the faces, that create the patterns for the clothes, that sew the samples for the clothes, sculptors, electrical engineers, packaging designers, graphic artists. There are so many human beings behind each and every doll just to bring the concept to life. I think, oftentimes, it’s seen as an individual effort, that there’s [one] designer sitting down and designing this doll.”
Michael S. Anderson is the director of design development at MGA Entertainment, the same company that’s produced Bratz dolls since 2001. Project Mc2 is its more 2016-friendly, S.T.E.M.-inspired line that tells the story of, as Anderson describes, a “group of teen genius secret agents on an undercover mission posing as average high school students.” The line — accompanied by an Emmy award-winning Netflix spinoff — has received a lot of positive buzz for introducing the toy world to something it hasn’t seen a lot of: girls who are into math and science, and are also cool (not just relegated to nerdy friend side narratives). Yasmin, Cloe, Jade, Sasha, and Raya have given way to McKeyla, Adrienne, Bryden, Camryn, Devon, and Ember, and the characters retain Bratz’ street-style sensibility — crop tops, mini skirts, and doll-sized Doc Martens are some of their staples. Anderson collects inspiration for the dolls in much the same way a designer would in, well, the human side of the fashion industry.
“I’m a big fan of pop culture and get inspired from the ever-changing world around me,” he says. It usually starts with a feeling or visceral reaction but is rooted in collaboration with my team, taking inspiration from a wide variety of places; television, celebrities, New York fashion shows, shopping in LA, or even graffiti on a wall in Hong Kong. The fashion industry itself is so obsessed with all things youthful, so it’s actually easy to take inspiration from high-end designers and make them kid-friendly. Even so, some days our customer is a six-year-old girl, but others it’s a grown-up collector.”
A quick scroll through Toys “R” Us’s site confirms his description of the fashion industry re: youth obsession. Bryden Bandweth, with her transparent ‘90s hacker-green raincoat and emoji sweatshirt, is a decisively on-trend teen spy. Anderson describes his influences for her character as “KPop, video games, and Tokyo street style,” and she wouldn’t look out of place as a Shop Jeen model. When asked the same question as Culmone — what would most surprise people about designing for dolls — his answer is this: “It’s actually exactly the same as making clothing for people, just on a much smaller scale. It’s fascinating to watch the sample sewers work in such miniscule patterns. They pin tiny pieces of cut fabric onto tissue paper in order to pass it through the sewing machine and create a finished doll garment. It’s truly remarkable what can be created with a skillful hand and an eye that can spot the difference of a sixteenth of an inch.”
Cornia confirms what the other two designers have conveyed: Designing for dolls requires the same trend work, design inspiration process, and ability to stay ahead of the curve that any design job would entail. In her realm, contemporary design — and paying attention to what girls and “tweens” would want — has to intermingle with fleshing out an accurate historical character. When developing a new character — for instance, Melody, whose story is based in Civil Rights-era Detroit — Cornia starts looking at iconic, easily recognizable ‘60s fashions that might also be found in today’s markets, updated to resonate with girls.
“Color is also a big part of that,” she explains. “I want to pick a color that was historically accurate for the ‘60s, but I also want to make sure it’s relevant to girls today in color combination. Melody has a fancy dress that has a high-low hem — a pencil skirt with a high-low hem skirt over it — and there’s neon pink in there. Neon’s been huge for the past couple of years, and also the high-low hem is something that girls would respond to. You might have a little more wiggle room with a silhouette. I know a shift dress wasn’t the most common fashion in the early ‘60s, that A-line silhouette was more typical of the later ‘60s, but that’s one of those ‘ish’ areas you can get away with.”
American Girl employs two historians who work with Cornia and her design partner to ensure the characters’ stories are accurate. She laughs when remembering one of the historians told her she couldn’t give Maryellen — a prototypical 1950s character who loves Debbie Reynolds, The Lone Ranger, and had polio — a hula hoop. “Sorry,” he told Cornia, “that didn’t come out till five years after her story.” There are currently 18 historical dolls in the BeForever collection, with Samantha, Kirsten, and Molly debuting as the first three characters in 1986. Each character has a four-door double-wide cabinet where each thoroughly researched historical nook and cranny lives — ”society, geography, weather patterns, clothing, what people might have had in their kitchen, or how to build a teepee for Kaya,” Cornia describes.
It’s hard to envision a comparison to working for a brand like Barbie, a doll just as at home on a Walmart shelf as it is in the hands of Christian Louboutin. “Everyone,” Culmone says, “feels like they own a piece of Barbie.” She’s an omnipresent mascot of extreme, Pantone 219 C femininity, her hair or signature pink copied by everyone from Nicki Minaj to The Blonds. With Sheros, a capsule collection of inspiring women like Misty Copeland or Ava DuVernay, and the recent addition of three new body shapes and 23 dolls with different skin tones and hair colors, Barbie is slowly evolving beyond her unrealistic beauty measurements. Simply put, Culmone adores the brand she works for. “It sometimes feels like a calling and an honor to be part of the tremendous evolution that the brand is undergoing,” she says. Barbie — and Culmone — have seen a lot of places: world-class museums in Paris, Art Basel parties, plenty of runways. It’s near impossible, of course, to pick a favorite designer collaboration. However, working with Jeremy Scott, a designer whose trademark is approaching pop culture with consummate reverence, who has “endless passion” for Barbie, is certainly high on the list.
“The best partnerships come out of mutual love and appreciation for one another’s unique, signature style,” Culmone says. “It would be really tough not to mention the Moschino x Jeremy Scott partnership just because we’ve had a great run. It is hard to be sitting front row in Milan and watching essentially a human-sized love letter go down the runway to the brand you’ve dedicated your career to.”