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Going Glam With Barbie

A Designer Gets His Muse All Dolled Up

January 19, 2003|MATTHEW TEMPLE

Robert Best is one of Barbie's best friends. For the last five years, the L.A.-based designer has been creating chichi outfits for Mattel's up-market Barbie Collectibles series, a line of dolls aimed at adults who happily pay hundreds of dollars for, say, Capucine Barbie, who "radiates opulence balanced by sheer sophistication" in a "creamy cappuccino-coloured evening ensemble" replete with strapless taffeta bustier, mermaid skirt and taupe organza evening jacket.

You won't find much in the way of haute couture in Bountiful, Utah, a small town north of Salt Lake City, where the young Best fueled his nascent design urge watching old Hollywood movies and poring over the work of Dior and Givenchy. It paid off. Best attended the Parsons School of Design and landed a student designer of the year award and a job with New York designer Isaac Mizrahi. Prompted by design school pals who compared his sketches to Barbie ensembles, he approached Mattel and was hired for the Collectibles line, joining design luminaries such as Christian Lacroix, Bob Mackie, Gianni Versace and Alexander McQueen in creating outfits for the doll.

The Collectibles aren't "designed with children in mind," Best says. While the main line's young buyers want Day-Glo colors and Britney Spears-style outfits, Best creates for collectors who understand the allure of the little black dress. "Small girls would think it's stupid or boring," he says. As Best explains, Collectibles clients don't want to comb Barbie's hair, they want to display her--and, in some cases, to be her. "There's a lot of aspirational feelings."

Best says he approaches designing for Barbie as he would for any other woman. He insists he doesn't imprint a personality onto the plastic icon, but concedes, "I don't think she's from the Midwest." He admits that, for him, Barbie will always be a blond. Best says he focuses on a classic Barbie look ("very girly, very feminine and high glamour"), then tweaks it. But this is Barbie, after all, and there are ground rules. "It can't be too slutty" or cutting edge, he says. Barbie, it seems, isn't cool.

But it's not all understatement. One of Best's creations, for the fifth "Lingerie Barbie," is a sheer black robe over a merry widow bustier with "pink bow accent," high heels and stockings. For last year's Fashion Model Collection, Best created a pearl-gray satin slip and thigh-high stockings for the sixth "Lingerie Barbie." Sequined embroidery notwithstanding, Best says the key is simplicity: good fabrics, classic lines, feminine details and "a touch of whimsy."

In September 2001, Best launched his own collection for real women. He describes his designs as giving a "modern edge to an unabashedly pretty aesthetic." And for Best, who favors pencil skirts, shantung jacket combos and Rita Hayworth evening dresses, that aesthetic clearly began in the 1950s. "Pretty is a good thing," he says.

While Best sees similarities between his real-life designs and the dolls', the fact that someone's going to wear his clothes tempers his more flamboyant excesses. "I can exercise my insane fantasies on the dolls."

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