Things are starting to get real for Barbie

Now in her mid 50s, Barbie’s as cutting-edge as ever, inspiring catwalk couture and Kylie’s tour costumes – and even trying out an all-black Lagerfeld makeover.

Barbie Millicent Roberts is having a fashion moment. The flawless 55-year-old stands just 11.5 inches, yet her image loomed large throughout the new-season shows last month.

Karl Lagerfeld’s eponymous brand collaborated with Mattel to create his own doll, which caused quite a stir at Paris Fashion Week. Barbie Lagerfeld sold out globally in under an hour.

Net-a-Porter listed the limited-edition doll on 29 September and sold all 999 at €200 each.

They are still being re-sold on eBay, with bids reaching more than four times the retail price. Images of the doll reveal an extraordinary level of detail. Shrunken accents include the jacquard print of the designer’s cameo on her skinny jeans and glossy lapels on her twill-textured jacket.

Things are starting to get real for Barbie

Jean Paul Gaultier has also had Barbie on the brain, sending Kylie Minogue off on her ‘Kiss Me Once’ European tour with Barbie-esque looks for her stage wardrobe. Designs included strapless mini-dresses with heart-cut busts and crinoline skirts.

The globe-trotting blonde co-sponsored a New York Fashion Week lounge with the Council of Fashion Designers of America. Marc Jacobs had a life-size Barbie-pink house constructed for his NYFW catwalk.

In Rome, Vogue Italia editor Franca Sozzani was immortalized in plastic for Vogue’s Fashion’s Night Out retail event.

Most extravagantly, Moschino designer Jeremy Scott telegraphed his passion for the doll with a Barbie-centric catwalk show during Milan Fashion Week. Models channelled Aerobics Barbie, Rollergirl Barbie and Malibu Barbie to the chorus of Aqua’s Barbie Girl. Guests sitting front row got free Moschino Barbies clad in pink pleather.

Things are starting to get real for Barbie

Spring 2015 proved an especially strong season but fashion and Barbie have a long-held affection for one another.

Conceived as a teen model, collector’s editions of the doll have been dressed by most of the 20th century’s top designers: Armani, Versace, Alaïa, Burberry, Chanel, Louis Vuitton and Prada, amongst many others. Diane Von Furstenberg went one step further and created her Barbie dress in human size for her own customers.

More than 105 million yards of fabric have gone into making clothes for Barbie and friends since 1959, making Mattel one of the biggest apparel manufacturers in the world. She has over one billion pairs of shoes, including many Christian Louboutins.

Barbie has worn wedding gowns designed by Vera Wang, Badgley Mischka and Carolina Herrera. The creation of her clothes even mirrors that of the world’s most prestigious fashion houses.

According to Mattel, designers graduating from prestigious fashion colleges, as well as those who’ve worked under established names, join her design team.

Things are starting to get real for Barbie

They sketch garments and realise them with muslin fabric on Barbie-sized dummies. After several “fittings,” they work with pattern-makers and textilers. As in any traditional atelier, each outfit may be altered several times before a final look is sent to seamstresses.

Mattel has really pushed the fashion angle of the Barbie brand, perhaps to help distinguish her from strong competitors like Bratz and Monster High.

“I think what people pay attention to is Barbie the toy, and what we’re trying to focus on is that Barbie is a brand,” Jessica Dunne, Mattel’s general manager, told Vogue.com in August.

“We have fans of Barbie of all ages, so we really want to put together consumer approaches that reach all ages.”

Barbie celebrated her 50th birthday with a New York Fashion Week catwalk show, which saw life-size dolls including Jourdan Dunn take to the runway in special creations by Monique Lhuillier, Alexander Wang and Rag & Bone.

She worked with fashion media site SHOWstudio during LFW in 2010, when she completed an internship with photographer Nick Knight.

Her 20-day placement was publicised through live blog updates.

Fans can design clothes for her through a specially-dedicated app and she shares her latest looks with more than 320,000 Instagram followers.

Young designers’ experiences with Barbie sometimes inform their careers. Some of the talents that presented human models wearing Barbie looks at her NYFW Fashion Lounge related how their relationship with the dolls goes way back.

“My mother taught me how to sew so I could make clothes for my Barbie,” designer Cynthia Vincent told the Wall Street Journal. She counts a tiny smock top and palazzo pant “in a fabulous paisley print,” among her first pieces.

“Barbie is your first time of playing with what you want adult life to be,” said Whitney Pozgay. “That moulds you a little bit for what your expectations are for life.” This, incidentally, is what Ruth Handler, the doll’s creator, hoped it would do.

A cynic might say that the doll’s image is cheap currency for brands targeting a young market impressed by fun, disposable trends.

The Barbie universe is non-complex and, like the McDonald’s golden arches that Moschino used last season, internationally understood and Insta-noticeable.

Barbie’s shiny appeal is straightforward, yes, but it is unfair to call it vacuous.

“At any given moment in the past 55 years, Barbie could be considered a reflection of the times and culturally relevant,” says Mandi Lennard, her UK press spokesperson. Her early jobs included fashion editing but she broke the plastic ceiling in the ’60s when, as an astronaut, she went to space four years before man walked on the moon.

In the 1980s she took to the boardroom as CEO, just as women began to break into management. In the ’90s, she ran for the US presidency before any female candidate made it onto the ballot there. More recently, she became a palaeontologist and an arctic rescuer.

What fashion’s current Barbie fetish might express about the zeitgeist is a desire for escapism.

“Everywhere you turn, you’re hearing about all these awful, awful things. I become more saccharine sweet when things get more deadly real,” Jeremy Scott told Style.com.

“I wanted to touch people’s memories,” he said of the Barbie connection. “It’s about spreading some love.”

Barbie’s fashion credentials

Barbie has collaborated with more than 75 different fashion designers and has served as creative inspiration to more than 150 well-known couturieres.

US luxury brand Coach created her first genuine leather bag in August. The red duffle was made in the same factories and with the same materials as the brand’s standard bags.

Barbie has been a muse for Andy Warhol and Peter Max, artists who themselves continue to inspire fashion designers.

From designers who have graduated from the top fashion institutions, to professional makeup artists, to the world’s couture elite, it takes more than 100 people to create a single Barbie outfit and look. Milliner Stephen Jones OBE calls her “the most fabulous private client.”

Barbie trademarked her own colour long before Jay-Z tried. Her signature shade is Barbie Pink (PMS 219).

Barbie had a starring role in Italian Vogue’s landmark ‘black issue’, which aimed to highlight to the industry the importance of diversity in fashion.

Her brand supports and sponsors emerging design talent. In the past she has backed Louise Gray, Roksanda Ilincic and Henry Holland, among others.


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