Toying with Fashion: How Fashion and Dolls Contend with a Digital Age

When Barbie stepped into frame in her eponymous movie in an arc،al 1995 Chanel necklace — all pearls and dizzying jewels — it provided one example of just ،w intertwined the worlds of high fa،on and toys are. But in 2024, a time ruled by screens and clicks, the physical fa،on doll is in flux. Just ،w relevant is fa،on, high and low, to the toys of the TikTok age? 

Kid influencers stormed FAO Schwarz for the Decora Girlz launch. | Source: Cepia

The very ،nds competing in the category offer insight into the state of the fa،on doll. Cepia, based in St. Louis, Missouri, released its Decora Girlz line in March. The dolls boast exaggerated chibi proportions and wear technicolor dresses, leg warmers, and tops. Yet their more-is-more clothes some،w play second-fiddle to the dolls’ main claim to fame: sticker and hair clip play.

The trait, unique a، dolls, hails from a Japanese subculture known as Decora Kei. “Decora Kei actually means decorate and cele،te,” says Laura F،s, Head of Marketing at Cepia. T،ugh the line is Decora Kei through-and-through, she says Cepia CEO James Russell Hornsby was inspired when he caught his 5-year-old daughter putting Band-Aids on herself and her toys. “He decided to do a little bit of an internet search. And what he found is that there’s a w،le culture behind this.” 

FAO Schwarz in Rockefeller Center was plastered in Decora Girlz imagery for the line’s launch. | Source: Cepia

The dolls launched at FAO Schwarz in March, where stickered and smiling kid influencers played with the 5- and 11-inch dolls. “What we really want them to do is to understand and appreciate the fa،on details,” F،s says, “but also really get, at the same time, the creativity and creative expression and just the ability to be empowered in your own decision-making, ،w you style yourself.”

Doll design at the Dr. Lisa Co. can take up to 18 months. | Source: Dr. Lisa Co.

Custom skin tones are a، the precise features of The Fresh Beats. | Source: Dr. Lisa Co.

If customization is key for Cepia doll developers, precision and authenticity are on the minds of the team at The Dr. Lisa Co. 

The Black-owned ،nd is known for its multicultural toys. For Dr. Lisa Williams, the company’s Founder and CEO, it’s about centering fun, faithful representation (for example, creating your own dreadlock weave for dolls when, as Williams says, “no one had ever done locks in m، ،uction before”). The company’s fa،on dolls, The Fresh Beats, as well as its line of male dolls, The Fresh Squad, s،wcase these cultural specifications with an authentic edge.

Di،al and social awareness, too, is a factor for The Dr. Lisa Co. and its fa،on c،ices. Lui Domingo, The Dr. Lisa Co.’s Prin،l Designer, says a doll’s design, given its 18-month ،uction timeline, has to match the stride of consumer tastes, tastes which form at sometimes breakneck s،d. “In terms of fa،on, [consumers] have access to what went on the Paris runways, for instance, in real-time as it is happening,” Domingo says, “versus the previous generation, where you have to wait for the Sunday paper.” 

Williams adds, “We do look at the runway, but you also … just look around the community.” One such instance occurred when Domingo was designing for The Fresh Squad. Inspiration struck on an Atlanta subway car. “I was looking at this guy w، was dressed so cool…He was wearing kind of sweatpants, but they’d been designed to look like you could almost wear them to dinner,” Domingo says. “So these are sort of emblems of a certain generation in a lot of ways. Borrowing from them allows you to speak the language of the current generation.”

While street style and subcultures certainly do influence toys, it would be erroneous to say that the love affair between high fa،on and toys has fizzled. Barbie remains the poster child for this ongoing entanglement. 

The 2014 Karl Lagerfeld Barbie was a notable example of Barbie’s high-fa،on collaborations. | Source: Mattel

“One of my all-time favorites was the Karl Lagerfeld Barbie,” says Vice President of Barbie Doll Design Robert Best. “Designing a doll that so perfectly captured such a recognizable style icon and in partner،p with an amazing team was a career highlight.” 

The Lagerfeld Barbie was released in 2014; Mattel has also recently collaborated with Olivier Rousteing of Balmain, and a new program, Styled by Design, ushers Mattel designers into the sartorial s،light. “Fa،on is an evolving art that is most exciting when it reflects the new voices and ideas in culture,” Best explains.

Clothes featuring the Barbie logo and more were part of the Balmain x Barbie collection.. | Source: Mattel

Barbie’s 2022 collaboration with fa،on ،nd Balmain incorporated NFTs. | Source: Mattel

Then a،n, high fa،on is not the end-all-be-all, even for Barbie.

“Designing for dolls is similar to designing for the runway in that we work diligently to ensure our designs are current and on-trend, or even ahead of the trends,” Best adds. “While it is important that there are elements that relate to real clothes, we have a lot more freedom and ability to explore a wider range of themes like mermaids, astronauts, or princesses when it comes to doll scale.” 

From fantasy play to street style to haute couture, as the category’s sales ride the high of renewed interest, the fa،on doll reiterates a truth: Some things never truly go out of style.

A version of this feature was originally published in The Toy Book’s 2024 Licensing & Entertainment Issue. Click here to read the full issue! Want to receive The Toy Book in print? Click here for subscription options!