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Good Old Barbie

Collectibles: Entrepreneur moves thriving vintage-doll business to Laguna Beach. She's already making a pretty penny.

May 01, 1997|LESLIE EARNEST | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

LAGUNA BEACH — Don't bad-mouth Barbie, at least not around Kitty Stuart. The self-described "radical feminist" has built a thriving business around the leggy, doe-eyed doll.

"I have a real hard time with people who don't like Barbie, because I think she's been a wonderful role model from the beginning," said Stuart, who is relocating her Kitty's Collectibles business from Colorado to Laguna Beach. "Throughout time, she's been a teacher, an astronaut. . . . She ran for president a little while ago."

Stuart can serve as a role model herself. The 45-year-old entrepreneur has created one of the nation's largest vintage Barbie dealerships. She said her business will have at least $1 million in sales this year, largely from a mail-order catalog that generates orders from around the globe.

"I've done all this in five years," said Stuart, whose success follows a circuitous career path that included acting, singing, selling houses and conducting self-improvement seminars for women. "Barbie is a $1.2-billion-per-year business. Every second, somewhere in the world, two Barbies are sold. It's amazing."

Her store, which will open in middle of this month, will feature a staggering display of dolls, clothing and accouterments, including dolls from Barbie's "Golden Era" (1959-1972) and pint-sized ensembles with eye-popping price tags, such as Barbie's $1,500 "Roman Holiday" outfit. Also in stock will be Barbie's longtime boyfriend, Ken, as well as pals and relatives--Francie, Midge, Skipper, Allan, Tutti, Ricky and Skooter.

Laguna Beach resident Karen Norris, who is helping Stuart establish her new business and whose husband, Tom, is Stuart's business manager, said she was amazed by the calls that began even before the moving vans arrived from Colorado. One woman rang from Germany with what sounded like a serious problem. She had a Barbie head and needed a Barbie body.

"I thought, 'What is this, 'Toy Story'?' " Norris said. "The collectors take themselves very seriously, and it's a big dollar volume these people will spend."

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Indeed, the ranks of Barbie collectors are growing, said Karen Caviale, editor of Wisconsin-based collectors magazine Barbie Bazaar, which has seen its list of subscribers mushroom from 500 in 1988 to 90,000 today.

"The vintage business is very hot right now," Caviale said. "Who knows how large it will get?"

Experts say the interest in Barbie collecting has broadened because the doll, who is 38 this year, is now wooing a third generation of girls and because El Segundo-based manufacturer Mattel Inc. launched a collector series in 1994 to entice adult buyers.

The collector Barbies have heightened interest in the vintage dolls, said Caviale, whose magazine is published under license from Mattel.

"All these people who specialize in vintage dolls, their business is booming because more and more people are getting into the vintage part of the hobby," she said.

While Mattel is not involved in the secondary market, the company is protective of Barbie and her world-famous name. Last month, Mattel filed a lawsuit against Miller's, another magazine for Barbie collectors, alleging trademark and copyright infringement. Mattel contends the quarterly publication is using the doll's name and image without permission.

Dan Miller, who produces that magazine with his wife, Barbara, has said they will fight the suit.

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Vintage Barbies cost from $85 to $13,000 and the outfits go for $5 to $3,000, said Stuart. In addition to selling vintage dolls and accessories, Stuart has assembled a private collection that she estimates is worth about $500,000.

"For a few hundred dollars you can start a beautiful vintage collection," Stuart said. "Purchasing a $10,000 doll when you don't really know if you're going to be into this really isn't that good."

To bring top dollar, a doll or outfit must be "Christmas morning beautiful," Stuart said. "The value is in having all the pieces and it being fabulous."

Most highly prized are the NRFB--Never Removed From Box--items. A notch down in value are the MIB--Mint In Box--items that were removed, then returned, to their containers.

Sometimes the differences are subtle.

While a row of dolls made in successive years may just look like a blur of Barbies to the untrained eye, Stuart is quick to point out the differences, noting the black eyes and sharp arch of the eyebrows in the first and second versions and the blue eyes and paler skin in the third edition.

Barbie's "Golden Era" between 1959 and 1972 was a time, Stuart said, when the dolls and clothing were manufactured in Japan and there was exquisite attention to detail. "They have like wonderful little zippers and little buttons." she said.

The first five models--all with ponytails and curly bangs--came in striped swimsuits and black high heels. A Barbie from the "mod" era--1967-72--has long, straight hair and rooted eyelashes and may wear a miniskirt and go-go boots.

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