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At 50 years old, Barbie gets tattoos -- and a megastore in China

Toy maker Mattel hopes an update will help the classic doll appeal to new generations at home and abroad.

March 06, 2009|Tiffany Hsu and Don Lee

LOS ANGELES AND SHANGHAI — Barbie turns 50 this month, and to shake off a midlife crisis she's getting tattooed and opening the doors to her first megastore in China.

The developments are causing a stir on two continents, not bad for a plaything whose global cachet has been sagging of late.

We begin in Southern California, where, just in time for spring, Mattel Inc. has released Totally Stylin' Tattoos Barbie. The doll comes with a set of more than 40 tiny tattoo stickers that can be placed on her body. Also included is a faux tattoo gun with wash-off tats that kids can use to ink themselves.

A spokeswoman for the El Segundo toy maker said it was a great way for youngsters to be creative with their pint-sized gal pal. But some parents are horrified by this body-art Barbie, labeling her the "tramp stamp" queen of playtime.

On her parenting blog, Telling It Like It Is, Texas mother Lin Burress sarcastically predicted that "Totally Pierced Barbie" would be the next to roll off the assembly line. Readers commenting on the blog chimed in with their own fictional "Divorce Barbie," who would take possession of Ken's accessories.

Burress, a 46-year-old mother of six, said she was fed up with companies pushing racy fare to kids to make a profit.

"It's just one more thing being added to the pile of junk, like push-up bras and Bratz dolls, being marketed to these ridiculously young kids," she said. "These so-called toys just create a sense of rebellion."

This isn't the first time Barbie has had some eyebrow-raising accessories. The Butterfly Art Barbie from 1999 had a permanent tattoo on her stomach. In 2002, Mattel released a pregnant doll -- not Barbie but her friend, Midge -- replete with an infant that could be removed from her midsection. Consumer outcry chased the product off shelves.

Mattel said the new tattooed Barbie, priced online at about $20 and up, was selling better than expected. There are no plans to discontinue the doll.

Meanwhile, Mattel this weekend will unveil the House of Barbie in Shanghai.

The six-story retail emporium is the brand's first stand-alone store in China. It's a multimillion-dollar bet that its 11 1/2 -inch plastic toy will appeal to Shanghai's material girls, even in this horrible economy.

"There's no reason why in five to 10 years, China shouldn't be the biggest market in the world for us," said Richard Dickson, Barbie's general manager, sitting on a lattice boudoir bench on the store's fourth floor, where girls can design their own dolls.

The store also contains a salon where moms and daughters can get facials and manicures. There's a restaurant and bar. Naturally it offers thousands of Barbie products, from branded chocolate bars that cost a buck or two to an adult-sized Vera Wang-designed wedding dress for $10,000.

Mattel is one of many Western retailers flocking to China to tap its growing middle class. Apple Inc. and Adidas opened their China superstores in Beijing before the Olympics last summer. Walt Disney Co., Warner Bros. and others have beefed up their investments, even as piracy and tougher local competition have cut into their business.

At the moment, Asia accounts for less than 5% of Barbie's global sales. The doll has been showing its age in recent years; Barbie sales worldwide were off 9% in 2008, hurt by the recession and competition from rivals.

Whether China can give Barbie new life remains to be seen. Mattel's recently opened store in Buenos Aires has been drawing crowds. But there are plenty of doubters who point out that you need only go into a Chinese home. You won't find many girls playing with dolls, let alone dolls with blond hair and blue eyes.

Dickson concedes that China's slowing economy will be a challenge, but to appeal to local sensibilities, Mattel has come up with a Shanghai Barbie -- with bigger eyes, a rounder face and a softer complexion. The price: about $36. The doll has no tattoos.

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tiffany.hsu@latimes.com

don.lee@latimes.com

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