A Barbie outfit like no other

McDonnell is a Times staff writer.

The glittering storefront in this capital’s trendy Palermo district once housed an art gallery and then a Chinese restaurant. Now it’s a haze of pink: all Barbie, all the time.

Inside, girls face a dazzling constellation of Barbie-labeled outfits and trinkets, watch Barbie DVDs on a flat-screen TV or choose their preferred Barbie hairdo (“Butterfly,” “Princess,” “Fashion Fever”). A rear door leads to the high point: the Casa de Barbie, complete with life-size Barbie bedroom, Barbie costumes and makeup counters, even a catwalk for showcasing Barbie couture or staging a Barbie disco.

And, everywhere, of course, are dolls. Lots of dolls.

“This place is fantastic,” said Michelle Blanchard, 37, accompanying her wide-eyed daughter, Francisca, 4. “For little girls, it’s a place of dreams.”


Welcome to the world’s only stand-alone Barbie store, an “experiential marketing” experiment deemed such a runaway hit that the mercantile temple to Barbiedom may be replicated on a global scale. Coming soon: a five-story Barbie emporium in Shanghai.

Feminists may cringe at the busty, narrow-hipped figure, and intellectuals may bemoan her portrayal of womanhood, but as she approaches her 50th birthday next year, Barbie remains, like Coca-Cola and Levis, a made-in-the-USA original with seemingly irresistible appeal the world over.

“She’s an emblem of consumer capitalism and a global brand,” said M.G. Lord, a writing teacher at USC and author of “Forever Barbie: The Unauthorized Biography of a Real Doll.” “She both reflects the marketplace and has changed it.”

Barbie has long been a bestseller in Argentina and much of Latin America. This summer, “Barbie Live,” a Broadway-style musical revue showcasing a blond Barbie look-alike, was a sensation on the Buenos Aires stage and later toured Latin America.

“Every Argentine woman wants to be Barbie,” Ramiro Mayol, the producer of the show, told the newspaper Critica.

Not quite. Here, as in the United States, many have questioned the message Barbie conveys to young girls. Eating-disorder activists worry about the doll’s impossible figure.

“I’ve heard people criticize Barbie because she’s supposedly anorexic, gives off a negative image,” said Clara Aynie, 13, who was spending time at the store recently with two teenage friends. “But I always liked playing with Barbie and wanted to be like her.”

Stepping inside the Barbie store is a true immersion experience.


Girls can shop for clothes, have their nails and hair done, peruse the latest dolls and buy Barbie accessories such as wristwatches, two-way radios and play laptops. Entry is free, though admission to the Casa de Barbie, the fantasy-land in the rear, is about $10. A manicure runs about $6, hair braiding costs as much as $20, and an elaborate “Barbie Full Style” hairdo can set Mom back $38.

“My daughters always have a great time in the Barbie store,” said Araceli Bras, 40, mother of Guillermina, 9, and Lula, 4. “Everything’s very expensive, but it’s worth it just to see how they enjoy it.”

The only surprise, perhaps, is that someone didn’t think of it sooner.

The shop was the brainchild of Roberto “Tito” Loizeau, an Argentine marketing executive who collaborated with Mattel, which owns and jealously guards the rights to its doll. Loizeau had noticed the exuberant response to a Barbie-themed area set up inside a suburban mall as an advertising hook.


He pitched the Barbie store idea to Mattel, which had long experimented with beyond-the-doll commercial ventures -- fashion shows, Barbie boutiques in department stores, Barbie-logo clothing stores in Tokyo. Mattel approved all aspects of the Buenos Aires venture, including the design, and the store opened in September 2007.

“We used Argentina as a laboratory to really understand what it is to run a retail store,” Richard Dixon, general manager for Barbie, said in a telephone interview from El Segundo, where Mattel is based. “It is truly collapsing five decades of history and product legacy into a four-wall experience.”

The Barbie store is the latest marketing incarnation for this singular, never-static franchise: an 11 1/2 -inch plastic diva who has had more makeovers than a Rio Carnaval queen.

Barbie has evolved from a mid-20th century plaything in a zebra-stripe swimsuit to a 21st century retail and digital colossus, transitioning through myriad phases: 1950s teen fashion model, mod hipster, first female astronaut, Olympic swimmer, NASCAR racer, basketball pro and recurrent presidential candidate. She sprouted her first bellybutton in 2000, at age 41. Four years later, she survived a breakup with longtime beau Ken. (The couple “decided to spend some time apart,” Mattel explained.)


The recipe for success? Probably her capacity to adapt to changing times, fashions, cultural shifts and lifestyles, without losing her essential Barbie-ness.

Widely disparaged as a bimbo goddess of shallowness -- a Barbie Slumber Party set came with pink scale set at 110 pounds and a book, “How to Lose Weight,” that advised girls: “Don’t eat” -- Barbie has also been hailed as a kind of proto-feminist: a glass-ceiling-busting, forever-single career girl who always manages to look chic.

“My whole philosophy of Barbie was that through the doll, the little girl could be anything she wanted to be,” Ruth Handler, Barbie’s inventor and a co-founder of Mattel, wrote in her 1994 autobiography. “Barbie always represented the fact that a woman has choices.”

Handler, according to Mattel’s official history, had noticed how her daughter, Barbara (who lent her name to her mom’s creation) liked to dress up paper dolls, imagining them in roles such as college student, cheerleader and career woman. At the time, dolls tended to be cherubic infants. Needless to say, they were flat-chested.


On a trip to Europe, Handler came upon Barbie’s improbable forerunner: Lilli, a German-made doll based on a risque comic-strip femme fatale. The Lilli character was the voluptuous embodiment of a new postwar German woman who wasn’t above using her sexuality. In one strip, noted Barbie biographer Lord, a naked Lilli, her private parts barely veiled with a newspaper, pouts after breaking up with her boyfriend: “We had a fight and he took back all his presents.”

Lilli was soon consigned to the collector’s market. Barbie became a worldwide sensation and cultural touchstone, an art subject for Andy Warhol and a cash cow for Mattel. Today Barbie generates more than $3 billion a year, mostly in overseas sales of dolls and related products.

The Buenos Aires store has the feel of a Beverly Hills boutique. Along with the de rigueur dolls and accessories, girls can choose from an array of clothing for themselves, mostly outfits for everyday use. A bulletin board posts Barbie facts (full name: Barbie Millicent Roberts, from Willows, Wis.). Parents can have a pastry at the stylish Barbie Tea House while they wait for their kids.

A steady stream of girls, including teenagers, crosses the threshold. Birthday parties are sold out weeks, sometimes months, in advance.


The mothers readily recall their own Barbie experiences.

“Mom, what was the first Barbie you bought me?” Silvina Gonzalez, accompanying her 6-year old daughter, Lucero, asked her mother on a recent three-generation outing to the shop.

“Wasn’t it the Crystal Barbie?” responded the grandmother, referring to a 1980s version.

“That was it!” said Gonzalez.


Most visitors are Argentines, but many foreigners -- especially Brazilians and other Latin Americans, but also Europeans and Americans -- make the pilgrimage as well. Word of mouth and articles in the domestic and international press have generated considerable buzz.

“My daughter loves it here, especially the beauty center,” said Analia Gonzalo, whose 9-year-old, Luna, said she owned 32 Barbies.

Gonzalo said she and her husband strive to communicate the point that Barbie, however beloved, is just a toy. “We try to make her understand that Barbie is . . . a doll, and that clothing and hairstyles are not as important as studying. That’s the role of parents: to let kids enjoy themselves but know there are limits.”




Andres D’Alessandro of The Times’ Buenos Aires Bureau contributed to this report.