Barbie’s New Look Isn’t "Just Party Dresses and Glitter"


Mattel just announced that Barbie’s getting an (overdue) makeover for 2016—and she’s got curves! But in addition to rolling out three new body types, the brand is banking on Barbie’s new, real-girl outfits (buh-bye, “pink, sparkly, frilly” dresses, hello denim and “boho-chic Coachella looks”) and edgier hairstyles (blue streaks and undercuts are now options). We sat down with Barbie Design VP Kim Culmone to ask all of our burning questions about the 57-year-old doll’s new look, from “So…can the new Barbies share clothes?” to “When are we getting a Dad Bod Ken?” (Re him: “explorations” are “happening as we speak,” Culmone told us).

Why now? How did Mattel decide that it was time to give Barbie a new look?

It’s such an exciting time, culturally. We at the corporation hear from our fan base in a more real-time way than we ever have before. The expectation that’s arisen from consumers is that how Barbie looks and what Barbie does should be reflective of the times.

I’ve worked on the brand for 17 years, and I’d say that these past two and a half have been the most open and risk-taking of my career. And I think we have a design team who knew how important this significant change to the brand was, and who could articulate it in a way that made sense for a brand with a 56-year history.

You can say “this is how something should be,” but with a corporation as large as a Mattel, and with a brand as historically significant, those things aren’t easy to do. You have to have the right alchemy of inspiration and support and the willingness to take on the challenges that come with a change as big as this.

A lot of the new Barbies are wearing outfits that look very fashion blogger-y! Where does the inspiration for their clothing come from? What’s on your designers’ mood boards?

The inspiration comes from life. Our design team is passionate about consuming media—reading magazines, looking at runway shows—I don’t think there’s any one designer in particular who we’re inspired by, especially for a brand like Barbie. We don’t have a linear narrative—Barbie can do and be anything, especially when you’re talking about fashion relevance. So we have street style, glamour, relaxed denim—the brand’s designers have an opportunity to express lots of different styles.

We need to look at it through the filter of what’s going to trickle down to girls ages five through seven. We can’t be too forward, it has to be accessible to them and aspirational for them.

How long have these new Barbies been in the works?

Barbie is a brand that has a history of evolution. The idea of making changes in her body isn’t new. These changes in particular probably started about two years ago. When I became head of creative I started asking, “Are we really walking the walk? Are we truly being reflective of our times? Is this how Barbie should look? Is this what girls look like, what they see around them? Are we reflective of culture and fashion and trends?” I challenged my team to think about, if they could start Barbie over today—if they didn’t have any rules—what would they have the brand look like? And they got to explore everything from hair length to body type.


Wait, what other changes has Barbie’s body gone through?

Barbie’s had wings, she’s been as little as a couple of inches tall in our Mini Me line, she’s been stylized. The basic fashion doll body has evolved over the years, going from the original 1959 body to the twist and turn body, which had an angle cut in the waist so Barbie could simulate doing the twist in the ‘60s. In 2000, her figure became slightly fuller and her breast size went down.

Will standard Barbie ever be phased out?

The original body isn’t going away. It’s still part of the line.

How did you land on the three new body types: curvy, petite, and tall?

These new body types—these girls—need to look like they have a relationship to one another. When you say curvy, what does curvy mean? Curvy is curvier than the original. So the first step that the designers took was to look at the world. If you go back to elementary school, to biology, there are different body types—endomorphs, ectomorphs. We needed to have as much variety as possible without getting too complex. What you have to understand is this change presents real challenges to our design team and real layers of complexity to our system.

Are they customizable?

They’re not customizable yet to the consumer, but there’s such a vast variety. We’re starting with between 33 and 50 varieties of the new dolls. When you think about all the four body types, with the 18 skin tones and 22 different eye colors and 24 hairstyles, the combinations are seemingly endless. Our first course of business is to represent as many types of people as we can as rapidly as we can. The brand was founded by a woman who wanted her daughter to see that there were choices in the world for her, and differences in the world.

Barbie is a toy brand. It’s about fun and joy. But imagery matters, and providing variety of imagery is something we take very seriously. We feel a sense of responsibility to the parents and kids to keep evolving and expanding our offerings.

Are there plans to make them customizable eventually? Will girls be able to go to a website and say, “I’d like a tall Barbie with this skin tone and short hair and freckles,” American Girl-style?

The customization aspect is something that we talk about constantly. Nothing is impossible. There could very well be a day when you can create whatever kind of Barbie you want to create. There’s no doubt that that’s where the world is and I’m sure that eventually it will be part of Barbie World as well.


How is the clothing for the new dolls sized? Can curvy Barbie wear original Barbie’s outfits?

You won’t be able to just go to the store and buy clothes that will fit all the dolls. In the world that we live in, not everything fits everyone. Some of the dolls can share tops, but there may be some issues where some of the bottoms don’t fit all of the dolls.

When we launch we’re offering gift sets that have the new body types plus clothes that fit that particular body type. We wanted to get this line out as quickly as possible. It was time to do this. It’s not all perfect. We’re going to go through a process of figuring out the new system of sizing down the road. But we have fashions that fit the dolls and that are there and available for consumers.

But eventually you’ll be able to buy outfits separately for, say, a petite Barbie?

Absolutely. That’s coming.

Are there any plans to make adjustable clothing that will fit all of them?

That’s definitely something that the team has considered. I don’t know that it’s necessary. The problem that you run into is that it really limits your fashion detail. You have to remember that Barbie is also a fashion brand. If we try to make everything adjustable, the fashion sacrifices for some silhouettes will be far too great. I think we’re going to have to have a flexible system. Some clothes may be adjustable, some may not. Some clothes will be more fitted to the body, some may be one size fits most. We have to explore.

What did you take into account when designing clothing for Barbies with different body types?

From a design perspective, I don’t think anything is different. It’s about creating a variety of styles that look chic and relevant. And dressing these bodies in a cool and flattering way. There isn’t a lot of discussion around “this body type should or shouldn’t have this certain look.” This is the most “Barbie” Barbie has ever been. The kids who play with the dolls are going to have a very different view of the fashion doll landscape.


What about your special edition Barbies? Will those come in curvy, petite, and tall as well? Or is that set aside for standard Barbie?

I wouldn’t say that it’s set aside. Now that the gates have opened it’s under consideration. There are a lot of factors that go into why we would or wouldn’t do it, depending on what the particular line is. But absolutely, within the specialty and collector’s space we’ll eventually be seeing body diversity.

Do these Barbies have flat feet? Or are they permanently on tippy toes?

They don’t have articulated ankles yet, but there are flat feet and high heel options for all three new body types.

Barbie seems like she’s already pretty tall! How tall would tall Barbie be if she were a real person?

We don’t look at dimensions in relation to real people, because the dolls aren’t real. They’re a stylized interpretation of a person. They aren’t meant to be realistic. What we measure is the relationship they have to one another, so that they start to paint a picture of a group of people that could be of the same age range and in the same world.

Besides the new body types, is there anything else that’s making an appearance on Barbie for the first time? New hairstyles, or accessories, or silhouettes?

For the first time in 2016 we have a very chic blond doll with a half-shaved head and an undercut. You’re going to see those types of details. Barbie will have shorter hairstyles than you’ve seen before. There are types of clothing that may seem atypical to what people consider the Barbie brand. There may be ethnicities that we haven’t expressed previously.

Ooh, can you talk a bit about the new clothing? What makes it so different?

There’s a heightened realism and a heightened attention to detail. If you asked someone what a Barbie typically wears they’d say, “a pink, sparkly, frilly dress.” We’re seeing these dolls in clothes that you’d see at retail targeted to teens and twenty-somethings. You’ll see T-shirt dresses and boho-chic Coachella festival looks, as well as earth tones and realistic fabrics and denim. It’s not just party dresses and glitter and sparkle. That’s not how girls dress. By the way, there’s nothing wrong with that! It’ll always have a place in the Barbie line, just like it’ll always have a place in our wardrobes. But it’s not the only thing.

Are there any plans to give Ken a similar treatment? Will there ever be a Dad Bod Ken?

I think all of those explorations are happening as we speak. When they’ll appear in the line, I can’t say. But I can say that any and all types of expressions of variety within the dolls are being considered by the team for sure.

Out of all the new dolls, do you have a favorite?

They’re all like my children! But the things I like the best, out of all that we do, are the things like shorter hairstyles and shaved heads—things that feel slightly edgier. Or things that may make someone stop and say, “I never thought I’d see a Barbie wearing that.” If those dolls sell well, that’s going to be super exciting. That means it’s part of our legacy as a team. It’s not about sameness anymore, and that’s an exciting thing.

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