November 04, 2009
Barbie: the man behind the clothes
Wednesday, 04 November 2009 06:11
Written by Caroline Tylawsky
Robert Best has been a principal designer for Barbie Collectibles for fourteen years, in which he has designed over 200 Barbies, including Pink Ribbon Barbie, Crystal Jubilee Barbie Doll and celebrity dolls such as Audrey Hepburn, Marilyn Monroe and James Dean.
He’s is well known for appearing in Project Runway Season Three, which he admits was extraordinarily difficult. We caught up with him for his first ever interview here in Shanghai for a little chat about what girls want, his belief that body standards are “a non-issue” and his brand new Barbie design - the Christian Louboutin doll.
Have you ever had an idea which you eventually decided was too bizarre for Barbie?
I have personal loves, like I’d love to do a doll of Claudia Cardinale from “Once Upon a Time in the West,” but I’m the only person who probably knows or refers to that film. So I have to know that - “that’s a doll you would like Robert, and not necessarily anyone else would even know or care what that means.” But it doesn’t always need to appeal to everyone. What’s great about the collector line is that we’re able to do small quotas, so we can think about things that are more niche or specific to a collector that might be interesting to them, and it might be a small group.
Where do you get your inspiration for your hundreds of dolls that you’ve designed?
It’s very organic; it can be something like a trip or traveling, or movies. I’m a huge fan of movies of all kinds, especially current releases and classic films. I love classic films and I love foreign films, they are just very visual. You’re always drawn to anything visual and cinema is so much a visual experience, it can really inform or be the first jumping off point. I remember once I was watching the movie Darling, a Julie Christie film from the 60s, and it took me on this whole journey. Then, I was exploring London during the time period. So it can be a little thought like that that can set you off on a journey and that can come from anything, whether it’s traveling or friends or just the environment around you.
Is there any time period or era that you’re really interested in?
Oh, definitely. My favorite era is the early 60s. It’s funny because it’s had a recent resurgence and appeal with the “Mad Men” phenomenon. I think it was an interesting time because it was kind of the end of the 50s where everything was common, it was right on the cusp of where things got crazy. There was a ‘best of both worlds,’ more liberated than the early 50s which were very safe and almost boring. There are so many great looks from that era that have inspired me.
Do you notice different responses to the doll in the different countries?
The response is generally universal, which is that of love and appreciation. There are minor cultural differences. Interestingly enough, places like Shanghai and Japan embrace Barbie in the full scope, from the product to the entire experience. The House of Barbie, Shanghai is an example of this. Where else could you have a six floor mega store devoted to this doll? What’s so great is the opportunity to do these things in almost a new frontier in these countries, because they don’t have the view - “oh it’s just a doll in a toy aisle.” It’s great if it keeps us informed and gives us an insight into the culture.
What’s your personal favorite Barbie?
My favorite doll was a doll I worked on called Maria Therese and it was part of the Barbie fashion model collection. It was based on my sister’s wedding dress that I also designed. It was a personal moment and a really great melding of my personal life and my career life. Also I’m very close to my sister, so it was kind of a little tribute to her and I like that it lives in this Barbie eternity. It’s a nice reminder, and it’s not often that you’re able to have an experience like that and I was very fortunate.
You recently said that Barbie is the ultimate fashion model, tell us more…
I’ve kind of always thought that because I’ve always held up that good designs make clothes that are transforming. I think Barbie is the ultimate version of that because when the doll started out in ’59 there was a very simple equation of doll plus fashion, when you change the fashion you change the doll. When she put on a nurse’s outfit she was a nurse, when she put on an evening formal she became a glamorous debutante. Through the simple interaction of changing clothes, the girl or the person playing with the doll is able to transform the doll and transform the situation. That’s what real clothes do. As humans you put on your most comfy pajamas and you feel all comfy, you put on a really well-tailored, well-made suit and you feel powerful and sharp and ready to take on all customers. I think that Barbie has always represented that. Kids get that, they play with the doll in this way that is no limits, she can wear anything.
Have you ever had to deal with criticism of Barbie’s original body?
You know, the funny thing is that conversation is constantly coming up and it’s such an adult conversation. When you see little girls play with the doll, I don’t think they think about that at all. We bring the baggage and want to put it on top of them. Kids don’t have that baggage, they don’t come into the world thinking about things like body image, they just play with the doll and their imagination is what fuels and directs the play. Whether we target them or market them that, this is a princess doll, they’ll cut the hair, they’ll pretend she’s in the army, they’ll do whatever they’re going to do. I think the whole conversation about the body comes down to that, it’s a non-issue and it’s not important. It’s something they don’t think about. It’s something adults want to talk about and discuss, to have media create a big firestorm, and it’s not something interesting to me. The interesting thing about it is that the body has changed several times since her debut in 1959. It’s changed to reflect popular culture. In the 50s the ideal was a very curvy Marilyn Monroe-esque body type. By the 60s it was a Jean Shrimpton, Twiggy, younger, thinner body, the 70s was more athletic. If you charted the progress of the doll over time it is a rational reflection of what is going on in popular culture. But people don’t ever want to do that, they want to have this one kind of conversation about unrealistic stuff and never look at the progression. The face has changed, the legs have changed, there’s been a variety of bodies whether it’s because she’s a gymnast and she’s more flexible, she’s got Skipper which is a younger looking doll. You know, it’s a conversation that will never go away. I don’t have any answers and there will always be critics. With any social lightning rod, and Barbie will always be one, with the good will come controversy and questions.
You were on Project Runway. Did that experience change your design strategy?
It freaked me out a lot. And it made me grateful to be able to design in a normal, healthy, rational environment. If anything it was really interesting to me because it was such a challenge, and the good part of it was that it forced me to think about designing under these incredibly intense situations, and you really have to go from your gut. It’s freeing in some ways because it helps you. It’s easy to get into a comfortable rut, designing for Barbie or real clothes, we in life go to our comfort zones, and sometimes it’s good to have something completely different to really knock you out of it. Project Runway did that in spades because you’re being filmed 24/7, so to live your life under the glare of an intrusive movie crew is an experience like no other, and it is not one I enjoyed much. Then just the pressure cooker atmosphere of being in this intense environment and being creative. I don’t think you can force creativity, I don’t think it’s a good way to come up with the best idea. It’s about the challenge. It comes down to who’s good under those situations and whose not, but not who’s the best.
How do you know what girls want?I don’t know, I have no idea, I just guess. I’ve gotten by on a lot of luck. I tend to think of basing it on the response, you hear good thing. I’ve certainly worked on things that people thought, that’s ugly, or that is a mistake. You take it in stride and try it again. In terms of learning about yourself, you try to learn from things you’ve done. Definitely I have tons of girlfriends, tons of women I know, you listen, you’re intuitive, you talk to them and get a sense of what women are interested in. Then of course you know, being in fashion, you’re always aware of the trends. I read tons of fashion magazines and look online. I want to know everything, you don’t ever want to feel like you’re behind or you missed something. Like, yeah shoulder pads are back. What? Where was I?
Do you have an upcoming project that you’re excited about, or has this been your main focus?This has been my main focus, but there are a few projects, one I can talk about that’s very exciting that we’re launching in December. Christian Louboutin, the French shoe designer, has done a Barbie with us. We partnered with him to do a line of three dolls debuting in December, so Barbie is getting a proper high end shoe designer. Each doll comes with four pairs of new shoes, so that’s exiting.
Do you ever miss designing for people?I miss designing real clothes sometimes when I see certain other designers. Certainly when I see a show that looks really beautiful, or clothes that are really incredible, I think it would be fun to do that. That’s me being honest, it doesn’t make me like my job any less or feel wistful, because I did it. I don’t feel like I missed anything. But it’s a completely different expression of creativity. It would be fun to do from time to time.
Posted by fashiondoll at November 4, 2009 07:51 PM