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Building a Better Barbie: Stuck to Baker's office refrigerator is a snapshot of her taken when she was two, living in Chad with her Peace Corps-volunteer parents.
Building a Better Barbie: Stuck to Baker's office refrigerator is a snapshot of her taken when she was two, living in Chad with her Peace Corps-volunteer parents.
Stuck to Baker's office refrigerator is a snapshot of her taken when she was two, living in Chad with her Peace Corps-volunteer parents.
A Doll's Life
Underfunded, overworked and fighting industry conventions, Jenny Daker tries to build a better barbie.
by Neil Gladstone
On a cold, clear afternoon in early February, the small team of women working on the G5 project is scurrying around a third-floor loft space in a converted North Philadelphia warehouse. Last-minute phone calls are being made, specifications double-checked and the plan of action reconsidered. Tomorrow, the troop sets out for the American International Toy Fair in New York to unveil a toy that's been five years in the making.
Approximately 6,000 new products will be previewed at the convention this year, including the Jerry Springer Game, Sea-Monkey Aquarium Watch and Giga Monsters (the more violent alternative to Giga Pets). Among the acres of other playthings vying for the attention of 20,000 buyers will be Jenny Baker's G5 collection—a series of five ethnically diverse dolls with a whole lot more on their minds than moving into Barbie's dream house.
If you thought the headquarters of a doll company would be covered in pink, lace and unicorns—think again. The walls of Baker's company, The Get Set Club, are adorned with shiny posters of Björk, Jamiroquai and Ani DiFranco, making the office look like an MTV outpost. A collage of cutting-edge design—assembled from Wallpaper, Vogue and Cutie clippings—is taped on the back wall. There are also colored illustrations of the dolls that suggest what the G5 line will look like if adapted into an animated cartoon.
Stuck to Baker's office refrigerator is a snapshot of her taken when she was two, living in Chad with her Peace Corps-volunteer parents. The blond, blue-eyed girl hugs a black doll to her chest. At age 33, with a barrette in her ear-length, flaxen hair, it's still easy to imagine what the spritely Baker looked like as a teenybopper. Though she remembers little about her toddler years, the reverberations of that time can be seen in the G5 doll line. Baker's mother and father went out of their way to buy such a racially diverse selection of dolls, it wasn't until Jenny grew into a teenager she realized the marketplace was dominated by an 11-and-a-half inch, blond, blue-eyed, busty girl with impossible proportions named Barbie.
The shelves displaying Baker's doll line look like a pint-size Benetton nation: there's an African-American, Asian-American and Latin-American as well as a blonde and redhead all playing and working together. Unlike Barbie, these figurines have realistic, sculpted bodies and facial features based on living, breathing human beings.
Like their plastic counterparts, the members of the Get Set gang are a racially diverse crew, with three out of the seven employees of Asian descent. Vice President Soheila Nikpour was born in Iran and moved to the U.S. at age 15. Right now, they're all scrambling around like art students on the night before final crit. Two check in with Baker and hurry out the door, headed to the printer to pick up catalogs and fliers. Since the $250,000 loan required to put the G5 doll into production wasn't approved until January, much of the work scheduled for fall '98 has to be pushed into the last few weeks.
Even if all of the details of the G5 project come together perfectly, which it seems they will, there's a much larger concern waiting in New York at the Toy Fair—Mattel, the manufacturer that made Barbie a $1.9 billion-a-year business. According to the company, the average American girl owns eight versions of the elfin bombshell. Though the G5 dolls are made with higher-quality materials than Barbie and geared toward the education-minded specialty market, every female doll must hold her own against the gal who has a history of stomping out her competition. Given that Mattel has annual revenues of $4.8 billion, you'd need to be working with the GNP of a small country to make the fight fair.
"We're like the Third World compared with Mattel," says Baker. "What I've spent on my entire company they could probably spend on a party." In addition to the $250,000 borrowed from Jefferson Bank, Baker has also used $120,000 of her mother's money.
"She's given me the equivalent of a wedding and inheritance," says the grateful daughter. Yet, this is more than just a business venture for the young entrepreneur, who, admittedly, "was the kind of person who could have tried harder in school." (She majored in graphic design at Tyler and also took classes in film and sculpture.) This is her chance to prove that even though she's spent much of her adult life concentrating on her sculpture and working on film sets, she can make it in the real world.
Once at the Toy Fair there's no chance to return to the editing room, not on Baker's bare-bones budget. It's not the kind of money she can afford to lose.
"My mother and I our betting our shirts on this one," she says, adding, half-jokingly, that if the doll doesn't do well she'll have to go to jail for bankruptcy. With 18,000 figurines on the way from Hong Kong, she wants to leave the Toy Fair with 10,000 orders.
"It's a make-or-break venture," she sighs. "I'm very scared."
Ruth Handler introduced Barbie to the marketplace in 1959, a time when children only played with baby or toddler dolls. Handler noticed her daughter Barbara liked to play with paper dolls modeled after adults. The mother, who worked at Mattel with her husband Elliot, encouraged him to manufacture a three-dimensional, full-figured, adult doll. On a trip to Germany, she discovered a scantily clad "floozy" doll named Lilli that men hung from their rear-view mirrors and brought it back to Mattel to use as a prototype.
"Little girls have difficulty adjusting to their own breasts," explains Handler in the documentary Barbie Nation, "I thought if they got a grown-up doll with breasts it would ease their feelings about their own breasts."
From the beginning, parents hated the bodacious Barbie, but Mattel used the power of television to get children excited about the doll. Parents bought Barbie to make the children happy, yet its lewd figure has long been a point of contention.
"Barbie brings a very sexualized body into the sanitized world of childhood," explains Barrie Thorn, professor of sociology and women's studies at the University of California and author of Gender Play. "It manages to transgress the hypersexualized media world and other spaces that are trying to keep these images out."
The subject of Barbie's image as a passive woman defined by her appearance often arises in Thorn's classes. Critics point to the doll's angled feet, ever waiting to be smushed into high heels, and unusually small hands as examples of the doll's outdated embodiment of 1950s female sexuality. In Barbie Nation, protesters accuse the doll's cleavage of inspiring a generation of women to get breast implants.
"The problem isn't Barbie, but femininity, a set of rules that have been around much longer than the doll," counters M.G. Lord, author of Forever Barbie. The ideal of female beauty has almost always been unattainable, she adds, but people use Barbie as the scapegoat.
Then there's the suggestion of racial hierarchy implied by this blond, blue-eyed doll. Even when Barbie depicts another race, most of her features maintain the Anglo-Saxon ideal: a tiny button nose, straight hair and razor-thin lips. Thorn recalls several stories of children trying to alter the doll with magic markers or paint, attempting to get its skin tone to match theirs.
For Baker, the last six years have been punctuated by long nights and difficult decisions. She's hired and fired designers, worked freelance jobs to pay the rent and pleaded with banks for financing. At this point, it's impossible to say if the effort was worth it, though some industry veterans are impressed with the results.
"These dolls look like they could live in your neighborhood," marvels Jill Bilzi, editorial director of Playthings magazine. "They're hip, they have neat hair and women's curves." Bilzi plans to put one of Baker's dolls on the cover of the April issue of Playthings, a trade publication that covers the specialty toy market.
According to her, the G5 line is part of a new trend toward more ethnic dolls with natural bodies and updated wardrobes. No cheerleader outfits for the G5 gals—they come dressed in hip-hugger pants, baby-Ts and funky sneakers.
Of course, groovy dolls need a place to hang and the G5 have playsets (sold separately) that look more like DJ record bags than toys. Yet, as Baker underscores, her settings aren't just about stylish looks, but about being prepared for the real world. Together, the doll and playset have been patented as a learning tool that will teach girls about the working world. The briefcase-style playsets correspond with career choices: science lab, bank, beauty salon, newspaper and artist's studio. There are also instructions on building toy furniture out of household materials and a zeen (her spelling of zine) that tells an inspirational struggle-to-success story for each career scenario.
When Baker decides to produce a "toy maker" playset, the tale of her company will fit nicely in the accompanying zeen. In 1993, Baker was working as a makeup stylist on Tyco commercials when she first considered inventing a plaything that combined elements of the two most popular categories of girls' toys—fashion dolls and arts and crafts. Then she sized up a doll industry ruled by an Aryan princess and figured little girls who don't look like Barbie probably want a down-to-earth playmate with whom they can identify.
"Most people see the dolls and wonder why there isn't already something on the market like it," enthuses Baker.
Depending on how you look at things, there was. In 1991, Cathy Meredig introduced the "Happy to Be Me" doll, a figurine based on the Venus de Milo. Its more natural shape was embraced and celebrated by everyone from The New York Times to People and Allure. Still, the public had little interest in the doll and it bombed. Meredig later said that "Happy To Be Me" couldn't compete because Barbie's manufacturer, Mattel, had a stranglehold on distribution. The company's power in the industry enabled it to dictate product placement on store shelves.
The author of Forever Barbie figures there's another reason for the failure of "Happy To Be Me."
"It was the ugliest, cheapest doll on earth; you could hardly blame children for not wanting that doll," says M.G. Lord.
The history of Barbie and the "Happy To Be Me" doll wasn't lost on Baker when she designed the G5 line. She wanted her doll to have a natural body, but still be attractive.
At first, she planned to make the figurine 14 inches high. But in a market where 11 and a half inches is the standard, it's best to make your doll comparable, so it can play nicely with all of the other ones.
"We call the first prototypes Neander-dolls," jokes Baker, handling the primitive figurines she attempted to sculpt herself. After realizing she didn't have the know-how to craft a doll with a realistic body, she turned to a couple of friends who had experience in the business. The relationship soured after a few months when Baker's demands increased while the amount she could afford to pay remained low. Baker realized it was better for a designer to have a live model on which to base the doll's "healthy, all-American" body rather than attempt to explain it with magazine pictures.
Where did she find that body?
Silk City Diner.
"I was wearing baggy jeans, T-shirt and had my hair in a pony tail," recalls Heather Boyce about the morning Baker asked her to model for her invention. At 5'6" and 131 lbs., Boyce is blessed with a lot of muscle. Though she usually rides her bike to work (these days, she's Rococo's functions manager) and likes to rollerblade, she doesn't consider herself a fitness fanatic.
"I told Jenny that I don't have that Barbie look," recalls Boyce, who was embarrassed by the request, "she said 'I know and I like that.'"
Baker had Boyce photographed from head to toe (well, she was wearing tights), including detail shots of her bellybutton, hands and face. Baker endowed the blond doll named Fiona with Boyce's features; however, each one of the doll faces is based on a different person.
Baker sent pictures of Boyce off to Debbie Barlow, a Rhode Island-based doll designer who's sculpted miniature likenesses of Claudia Schiffer, Naomi Campbell and Muhammad Ali as well as several Cabbage Patch Dolls.
"I've never seen anybody so together," commends Barlow, who also has worked on several projects for Hasbro and Mattel. Barlow has been sculpting dolls for years and her services don't come cheap. Her intricate handiwork can be witnessed in the subtle differences among the five dolls' distinctive noses and jaw lines.
Most mass-produced figurines begin with a general set of guidelines and come together in a few months. Even with several rolls of pictures to illustrate exactly what the G5 doll should look like, the prototype was sent back and forth over the course of almost a year. Baker has two three-ring binders filled with all of the communiqués that went into the creation of her toy line.
As soon as work started on the head, debates began over the size of the eyes. Early, informal interviews with the children of friends quickly showed that girls between the ages of 4 and 6 prefer Barbie's dreamy, doe eyes and soft colors. Baker, however, wanted her doll to have an "intelligent" air.
"Most dolls just have a stupid expression on their face that looks like, 'Hi, I'm dumb and I'm just here to please you!" she sighs. Though it's hard for Baker to pinpoint exactly what "intelligent" looks like, she knew she wanted to steer clear of industry standards.
In September '96, the dollmaker traveled to Hong Kong for the Gift and Stationery show to search for a factory, unaware of the disturbing news awaiting her there. Since many toy companies use the same manufacturing plants, entrepreneurs with unusual ideas need to keep quiet about their intentions. Larger corporations can get word of a new toy and produce a copycat product before the original has a chance to hit the market. After three weeks of telling representatives from different toy factories about plans to make a doll with a more natural body, Baker came across a Mattel press release stating that the company intended to give Barbie a more normal body.
"I was crying when I found out," she remembers. Baker was sure Mattel intended to pre-empt her invention with their own innovation. Yet, there's a limit to how much Mattel can change Barbie's body and still have all of the Barbie clothing fit. Baker persevered, hoping the quality of the G5 doll and its educational aspects would make it distinctive. Still, such logic didn't stop her from sneaking into Mattel's new product exhibit a the Toy Fair last year, searching for the natural Barbie. A bit of luck—no natural Barbie anywhere. Mattel's press release may have been just a smokescreen to scare off potential competition.
Though Baker wants there to be an alternative to Barbie, she doesn't think Mattel should monkey with the archetype. To suggest that the doll is responsible for making girls anorexically thin is like condemning Fred Flintstone for overweight boys, she says.
"Barbie's a cultural icon, a character," defends Baker. Like most American girls, she played with Barbies as a girl.
Beginning in late summer '97, Baker and Barlow worked earnestly on the doll's body. Unlike Barbie, which has limited movement in its arms and legs, Barlow and Baker developed a doll with a ball and socket in every joint enabling "total articulation."
"It's the best in the business," says Barlow, who adds that she's never seen another doll that can move into so many positions. Not only can a G5 doll stand on its own two feet (which most Barbies can't do), it can stand on its head, kneel down and kick back behind a big desk like a hotshot CEO.
But there were also major concessions made to the body because of cost and the potential market. The first? Elongating the legs.
Fat thighs are the greatest concern of American women, says Baker, basing her findings on the interviews she did with mothers and daughters. Not that Boyce's gams are chunky, but long legs are more aesthetically pleasing. That change didn't turn the G5 girls into basketball players, but they could probably make a good track and field team.
Then there was the trouble with nipples. After several rounds of breast work (the miniature mammary glands were so high and stiff at first you could probably store your lunch bag on top of them, jokes Baker), the toymaker tested the dolls on mothers and daughters. Little girls aged 3 to 6 appreciated the skin-toned, pin-sized nipple that made the doll's breasts seem more like mommy's. But girls aged 7 to 10 were mortified. Mothers also frowned about the areolae. As soon as word traveled through Baker's circle of friends about the doll's breasts, test moms came in asking, "Is this the Nipple Doll?"
"I had nightmares of news reports announcing: 'The Nipple Doll hits the market!'" remembers Baker. She quickly sent a missive off to Hong Kong requesting nipple reduction surgery. Misunderstanding the directive, the factory workers decreased the circumference, but increased the height. When Baker received the update, her doll looked as if it had been caught in a cool breeze.
"I saw it and said, 'Did I ask for this nipple?'" deadpans Baker.
When Baker traveled to the manufacturing plant in December to fine-tune the doll, the workers in Hong Kong tried to convince her to keep the papilla pert.
"We all stood there with files, filing down the dolls' breasts, trying to show each other what a good nipple size would be," she remembers.
By that time Baker already had plenty of experience in nipple filing. She had reduced all of the dolls' nipples before bringing them to banks for meetings with loan officers.
"You don't want to give them one more reason to disapprove of your product," explains Baker.
As painstaking as design development was, no aspect of the G5 project was more frustrating than attempting to get approval for a loan. Initially, Baker intended to sell her idea to a large toy company. Only after presenting the outline of her idea to executives at Tyco did she realize her desire for high-quality design and materials made the doll a prohibitively expensive gamble in the corporate toy world.
"They don't buy an outside product unless they think it's going to make over $20 million in a year," she says, adding that the larger toy manufacturers have probably considered most of the ideas they are presented with, but already have reasons why they wouldn't make them. To make a profit on a nationwide level, most of the big boys would need to sell Baker's dolls in WalMarts and Toys "R" Us stores and therefore positioning the doll, figuratively and literally, next to Barbie. However, if the G5 line was geared toward the education-minded specialty market, which typically shuns dolls, it might have a chance, she theorized.
However, convincing local banks that such a chance was worth $250,000 proved to be nearly impossible. Almost immediately, Baker realized that Philadelphia loan officers were more used to seeing people try to get loans to open beauty salons and pizza parlors than start toy companies. Most of the representatives the young entrepreneur met were middle-aged men "who didn't want to touch a doll or look at a doll."
Those who did were skeptical: "I had one guy say 'Well, your dolls aren't sexy. Barbie's sexy. Why do you think your doll is going to sell?'"
Baker responded by holding up a Barbie doll in a trashy leopard-skin jacket and asking, "Is this what you want your daughter aspiring to?"
The man cleared his throat and said nothing. Most of the meetings were demoralizing, she says, and few people would give her a straight answer about why they were rejecting the loan request.
"The hardest part is knowing that you have a good product and you've done everything right and people are still saying no to you."
Several of the loan officers didn't think that the market needed another doll and wondered how the G5 could compete when it costs so much more than Barbie. With a retail price of $32, one of the G5 dolls is about four times as much as the cheapest Barbie, which can be as little as $6.99. Baker notes that each of the G5 dolls also comes with a bathing suit and reflective backpack tag. Still, the wholesale price, $16.50, is high for an untested product.
Even Jefferson, the bank that eventually agreed to loan Baker the necessary capital, was doubtful at first. They thought Baker was taking on much too big of a project and the amount of her request was too low to get the company going. They also forced The Get Set Club to consider all the variables, including, "What do you do if you get 50,000 orders and you don't have the money to make them?"
At Jefferson's suggestion, Baker rewrote her business plan, but even when she traveled to Hong Kong in January she wasn't sure if she'd have the financing.
"In some ways I felt like an impostor," admits Baker about her final trip to the Far East. "I was there saying, 'Oh yeah, our factory is going to be up and running and we're going to be making these dolls and then realizing we might not be able to make this doll and what am I going to tell these people 'We didn't get the money to be able to do it?'"
For five days every year, New York's Jacob Javitz Center becomes the biggest toy store in the world. Walking through aisles filled with Simpsons clocks and Teletubby dolls may sound like a hoot, but it doesn't take much time before the fun becomes force-fed.
"Do you want a Hug or a Kiss?" asks a heavy-set man holding out Hershey's chocolates, selling The Game of Sex. Even notable new products, like the fully functional, pocket-sized adaptation of The Mouse Trap Game, are hard to find among the rows of pristine Victorian dolls and AstroTurf mountains covered in action figures.
The G5 exhibit looks like a 15-foot, condensed version of The Get Set Club office with dolls and posters of the dolls almost everywhere you look. Erica David, who wrote most of the copy for the G5 project, planned to help sell G5s at the Toy Fair. Who better to demonstrate how moms like the product better than a pregnant mother? Then just as everyone was gearing up to go to New York, her contractions started. Time to rework the schedule for manning The Get Set Club booth and ask who can work overtime.
By the second day of the Toy Fair, Baker is already starting to feel under the weather, yet her spirits remain high. Along with several other Get Set Club employees, she happily chats up buyers. Hip New York and California types are jibing with the G5's "now" sensibility while less savvy reps are confusing the multiracial dolls in clingy outfits with the Spice Girls.
Baker changes dolls out of their casual wear into their career ensembles such as the scientist's lab coat, banker's pant suit and artist's striped sweater. The Spice Girl references decrease almost immediately.
What Baker can't change is the dolls themselves. One mother wonders if her daughter would want to play with a doll that had such little makeup. A buyer with a southern accent walks by, eyes Vanessa—G5's African-American member—and mutters, "We don't carry that kind of doll."
Still, there's a buzz building from press interest. Magazines such as Glamour, Essence and Latina have already contacted Baker about doing pieces on her dolls. Buyers from catalogs that sell to the Chinese-American community and work with stores in Latin America have discussed placing orders. For some reason that even Baker doesn't understand, several Canadian shops bought assortment packs of the dolls.
"When I ask them why they think Canadians might be so interested in the doll, they just say, 'What's not to love?'" remarks Baker.
Traffic past the booth ebbs and flows. During the low points, Baker rallies to keep everyone focused. Most of The Get Set Club employees have never worked a Toy Fair before. Even Baker, who has helped out Tyco as a stylist at several Toy Fairs, finds sales a little disconcerting.
"The hardest thing is to get your idea into 30 seconds when you've been working on something for five years," explains Baker later. "People don't have to listen to your drama or philosophy.… All they want to know is: 'What is it? When can I get it? How much is it?'"
Then the buyers scurry off. For the most part, even those who are interested in the doll will wait until after the fair to make an order. Each one has to figure out which toys they want and how many they can afford.
A few blocks away, in the Flatiron district, the folks in Mattel's showroom are celebrating Barbie's 40th anniversary. This year another 40 versions of the doll will be released on the market including a Moroccan Barbie, Peruvian Barbie, Lucille Ball Barbie, Erica Kane Barbie and the husky Rosie O'Donnell Barbie.
There's also a new spinoff series of Mattel dolls, called "Generation Girls"—Barbie's teenage "friends," which, unlike their older counterpart, don't have the curves of a Playboy Bunny. It's a new body type, but still Kate Moss-thin. ("They make Ally McBeal look like a hamburger-eating heifer," laughs Baker.) Still, the Generation Girls' hip outfits, which cross Urban Outfitters chic with Mountain Dew X-treme cool, may steal some thunder from the G5 gang.
Also this year, Mattel will host parties throughout the world to celebrate all of the joy (sigh) Barbie has brought to children across the world. In Australia, a 50-foot Barbie will be unveiled at the Melbourne Exhibition Center and a model dressed up as Barbie will drive in a celebrity Grand Prix race. In France, there will be a fashion show of 12 Barbie dolls wearing necklaces and other baubles created by world-famous jewelers. Of course, baby boomers everywhere will get all gushy about their childhood memories and collectors will plunk down thousands of dollars for Barbie rare editions.
On a Thursday night, two weeks after the Toy Fair, Baker still isn't feeling 100 percent. Too many late nights and long days before and during the convention left her bedridden with a fever and even she had to take a few days off from work.
"You know you're going to run up a hill," she figures, "but you don't really feel the pain of running up the hill until you're on the hill."
Though the entrepreneur acknowledges that her dream of selling 10,000 dolls was unrealistic for such a young company, she remains optimistic. Her sales rep has been pounding the phones since the end of the fair and orders are streaming in steadily.
Wynnewood, PA-based specialty toy chain Zany Brainy passed on the G5. It doesn't want to carry any dolls, says Baker, regardless of their intent. But the Get Set Club is still negotiating with other specialty chains such as Noodle Kadoodle and Learningsmith.
In late March, she'll travel to Hong Kong to oversee the doll's final production run, making sure all of the sneakers fit on the feet and the dolls lie correctly in their boxes.
Even with all of the physical exhaustion and fried nerves, Baker holds onto her high-minded goals: "I hope I make a difference in a girl's life and they'll be able to say to me one day, 'Hey, I grew up with your dolls and they made me excited to become something.' These are the kind of things that inspired the whole product line."
At 9 p.m., Baker has to return to work and contact Hong Kong about eleventh-hour details of the production run. The last month hasn't exactly been a doll's life, but it's certainly prepared her for the real world.