A Dress-Up Job : Barbie's Principal Designer Scales Down Glamour and Plays Up Fantasy

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Kitty Black Perkins has her own ideas about dress-for-success: Make it pink and bouffant, and the more glitter the better.

For 14 years, she has been fashion designer to the ultimate material girl, Barbie. And one thing she's learned about the little girls who own all those little dolls is that they think Barbie is pretty in pink.

Black Perkins, who is principal designer for Mattel Toys' fashion dolls, works out of a studio in a top-secret design center in El Segundo. Each year she creates 100 fashions for Barbie, the company's billion-dollar baby.

One recent morning, the designer, who herself is given more to velveteen stirrup pants and an oversized sweater, took time out from preparations for next week's Toy Fair in New York--where Barbie debuted in 1959--to talk about Barbie gowns and Barbie lingerie and Barbie . . .

Picking up a blond Barbie swathed in pink, Black Perkins with a gentle rip of Velcro removes a petal overskirt from Barbie's costume ball gown. Holding it to her face, she demonstrates how the overskirt doubles as a costume mask for Barbie's owners.

"Barbie's clothes are designed to have a lot of play value," she explains.

She holds up another Barbie. This one is wearing a ruffled pink overskirt that, detached and reattached as a hem flounce, converts a short gown to long. Or, Barbie can toss aside the ruffles, Black Perkins points out, tie on her pretty white apron and "she's ready to cook."

If most of those little girls who own a Barbie--and most are little girls--have never seen their mothers in either pink flounces or a frilly apron, never mind. Barbie doesn't concern herself with criticisms from feminists that she is a bimbo, a shop-till-you-drop airhead, a Barbie doll, if you will.

"This is not the way adults dress, and it's not the way they're going to dress as adults," acknowledges Mattel spokeswoman Donna Gibbs. But, she adds, "They live reality. They want to play fantasy."

"If it's pretty," Black Perkins says, "little girls want it." (If it's orange, or green, they probably won't, she has found.)

Black Perkins did not set out to become designer to the superstar of toyland. Growing up in South Carolina, she says, "I never had a Barbie doll." She was 28 before she ever saw a Barbie doll up-close-and-personal. That was one fateful day in the summer of 1976 when she answered a newspaper ad placed by Mattel.

During that job interview--to which she brought six years' experience designing clothes for real people--she was asked to take a Barbie home and to bring her back in a week wearing a Black Perkins creation.

What she created was a floral print voile jumpsuit with full, tiered legs and puff sleeves and matching wide-brimmed hat. "Really stylish," she recalled, "almost like a garden party outfit."

That jumpsuit never went into production, but it got her the job. Black Perkins was incredulous--"I couldn't believe they actually paid people to do that."

Right off, there were a few adjustments to be made. As a student at Los Angeles Trade Technical College and later as a designer for both junior and couture houses in Los Angeles, Black Perkins had never created for a mannequin only 11 1/2 inches tall. (For the record, Barbie also has a 3 1/2-inch waist, a 5 1/2-inch bust and 5-inch hips.)

Although there are seven other Barbie costume designers, and eight more who create her accessories, Black Perkins designs about one-fifth of what goes into Barbie's bulging closets. She scours magazines, snoops through stores, goes to couture shows in Europe.

And sometimes inspiration strikes from the most unlikely of sources.

Take, for example, the 1991 "All American Barbie" fashion segment that's to be unveiled at the annual Toy Fair. While browsing through a store, Black Perkins recalls, "I saw some erasers that were hamburgers, French fries." Through some inexplicable creative process, this led to a kind of stars-and-stripes-forever Barbie segment. (A fashion theme, with appropriate Barbie props for play, is known in Barbieville as a segment.)

Enter Barbie in a denim miniskirt, Barbie in Reeboks--"The first time we've ever given Barbie real hot tennis shoes"--Barbie with her own dune buggy and motor home and hamburger stand.

A Barbie segment starts with Black Perkins putting together a story board and then costume sketches for approval by her boss. She then shops around for fabric and, after draping it on Barbie, makes the paper patterns. Two sample makers, at sewing machines customized with tiny feet, stitch up garments for a 3-D model that goes to the marketing team and the budget people and, ultimately, to the president of the company for approval.

It's not as simple as what's cute, what's pretty, what's in, what's not. Because children as young as 3 will be playing with Barbie, her glittery gowns must pass what Black Perkins calls "the saliva test." They must also withstand the "five-pound-pull test." Can a 3-year-old pull Barbie's ring off her finger and swallow it, or rip the tiny seam of a Barbie gown?

Although Black Perkins does buy on the open market, increasingly fabrics are custom-spun at Mattel facilities in the Far East, Europe and Mexico, where the doll and clothes are made.

Although seamstresses can fashion two bouffant skirts and 20 bodices for Barbie gowns out of a mere eighth of a yard of fabric, 75 million yards of fabric have gone into Barbie fashions over the years.

The clothes for Barbie and Ken are unisize, to fit all 11 male and female dolls in the Mattel fashion group.

On the conference table in front of Black Perkins stands Christie, Barbie's black friend who was introduced in 1968. She wears a white lace bridal gown with a tiny waist, big sleeves and detachable bridal bouquet. Black Perkins lifts the gown to reveal a tiny lace garter on Christie's left leg.

Christie is a beautiful "bride," but, in designing for Barbie and boyfriend Ken and assorted kith and kin, Black Perkins never loses sight of the fact that Barbie is the star, "always."

Barbie gets a new bridal gown each year, and each year it's her top-selling fashion, with more than 5 million gowns sold. Of course, Black Perkins says, "It doesn't mean Barbie is getting married. It just means she's dreaming about it." Barbie will never get married. That would spoil the fantasy.

Barbie is big business. In 1959, Mattel sold 351,000 Barbies at $3 retail. With sales of 600 million Barbies and friends in 1990, the company estimates worldwide revenue of $700 million--half of Mattel's $1.4 billion annual sales.

A very basic Barbie, with only undergarments, sells today for $6 or less. But Mattel selling Barbie dolls is like Eveready selling flashlights. Flashlights require batteries. Barbie requires clothes. Lots of clothes. To date, Barbie owners have bought 250 million units of Barbie clothes and accessories. A lame gown from Barbie's haute couture "private collection" may carry an $8 price tag, but most are in the $3 to $4 range.

Mattel figures a Barbie doll is sold somewhere in the world about every two seconds. Barbie is even in Kuwait. And she's doing just fine in the Eastern Bloc countries. Here at home, Mattel estimates, 95% of all girls between the ages of 3 and 11 own at least one Barbie. That adds up to hundreds of thousands of Barbie cars, Barbie lifeguard stands, Barbie wet 'n wild water parks . . .

The Barbie phenomenon has fascinated psychologists and other observers of the popular culture. Black Perkins has her own theory. When her 6-year-old daughter, Erika Nicole Perkins, plays with Barbie, she explains, "She's in control. I'm still in control of what she's wearing, but Barbie is hers."

Through three facial "resculpturings," numerous makeup make-overs and ethnic rebirths, Barbie's popularity waned only briefly, in the mid '70s. Mattel was quick to respond to women's liberation by giving Barbie a series of careers.

In her 32 years, Barbie has been a ballerina, an astronaut, a surgeon, a rock star, a pilot in pink, a summit diplomat, all of these incarnations reflecting changes in the status of women.

Barbie may be the ultimate consumer. Still, in a small way, she is a social activist. Barbie would never, ever wear real fur.

When it comes to dressing Barbie, Black Perkins says, there are few other restrictions but "modesty is an issue. We must make sure she's covered." Before a Barbie costume goes into production, it must be checked out on Barbie. When Barbie's legs are flexed, is her derriere exposed?

Sometimes creative inspiration comes from Erika Perkins, who owns about 60 Barbie dolls. Watching her daughter at play, Black Perkins noticed that she loved taking Barbie into her bath.

Presto. The 1991 Barbie segments include a "Bathtime Barbie," complete with "fashion foam" for sculpting.

Also coming in 1991: A pink 1957 Chevy retailing for about $20, a "Benetton Barbie," with fashions adapted by Black Perkins from the look popularized by the Italian retailer. Last January, Black Perkins went to Italy to work with Benetton designers.

Since June, Black Perkins and the other designers have been at work on Barbie's 1992 wardrobe. What will she tell us about it? "Absolutely nothing."

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