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Slightly more demure Bratz dolls reappear on store shelves

MGA is relaunching the once-hot brand, which was crippled during the toy maker's long legal battle with Mattel. But it's unclear whether the dolls can regain their former popularity.

September 18, 2010|By Andrea Chang, Los Angeles Times

The outfits are less sexy, the makeup and hair a bit more demure and the heels not as sky-high, but the saucy Bratz dolls are strutting their way back onto toy shelves.

During the last few years, a legal tug of war between Bratz maker MGA Entertainment Inc. and rival toy company Mattel Inc. over the ownership rights to the dolls left the brand crippled. After a trial jury ruled in Mattel's favor, the wildly successful dolls all but disappeared from stores as MGA pulled back on manufacturing and retailers kept their distance.

But when a federal appeals court in July overturned the 2008 ruling and ordered a retrial, MGA's outspoken Chief Executive Isaac Larian triumphantly declared that he would be releasing a new line of Bratz dolls for the fall.

Updated versions of Sasha, Cloe, Jade and other popular Bratz dolls began to reappear on toy shelves in recent weeks, and 10 new characters are scheduled to be released Oct. 10 to celebrate the brand's 10-year anniversary.

Yet the road to recovery for financially and morale-weakened MGA, which built its toy empire on the Bratz dolls, is fraught with challenges.

In a recent interview at Larian's Van Nuys office — where dolls were displayed on his desk, perched on the windowsills, lined up on the bookshelves and stacked in boxes on the floor — he spoke candidly about the difficulties of relaunching the dolls whose edgy style and sassy personalities shook up the toy market and once posed a major threat to Mattel's Barbie empire.

"It's going to take a long time for Bratz to become what it was before because of the damage that's been done," Larian said. "But it still resonates with kids."

At their peak, annual U.S. wholesale sales of the Bratz dolls and related products were estimated to be more than $500 million. Meanwhile, U.S. wholesale sales of Barbie dolls and related products fell every year from 2001 to 2005, from $825 million to $470 million, according to estimates from Gerrick Johnson, a toy analyst at BMO Capital Markets.

Getting retailers back on board has been an arduous process, and Larian recalled his frustrations at having to re-pitch a line that had already proved to be a hit among young girls. With continued uncertainty surrounding the brand, privately held MGA is releasing a limited number of different Bratz products this year compared with hundreds in the past.

Those retailers he has persuaded to sell the dolls again — including Toys R Us, Target and Kmart — haven't embraced the brand wholeheartedly, Larian said. Bratz orders for the fall were about 10% of the level they used to be at the height of the dolls' popularity five years ago.

"Literally all of them were hesitant because of the legal issues," he said. "Retailers don't like to get involved with competitors' disputes. I don't blame them."

Longtime fans might be surprised to see the Bratz characters a bit toned down from a few years ago.

Unlike the bare midriffs and tube tops that were popular during the "age of Britney Spears" when Bratz first hit the market, today's styles are more modest and understated, Larian said. So MGA's designers worked to make the new dolls "more preppy than sexy," which meant downplaying some of the traits that had made them unique in the first place: skimpy outfits, pouty lips, dramatic makeup and bling jewelry.

For example, an earlier version of the Yasmin doll, named after Larian's daughter Jasmin, sports a long, thick mane of Goldilocks-style curls, oversized pink sunglasses and a skimpy gold swimsuit with pink ribbons crisscrossing her slender waist.

In a 2010 version, Yasmin wears a pink baby-doll top over gray leggings, a fitted navy-blue cropped jacket and studded black boots. Her earrings are smaller, her lips less Angelina Jolie-like and she has almost no exposed skin.

Sean McGowan, a toy analyst at Needham & Co., said relaunches could be tricky, pointing to subsequent releases of Cabbage Patch Kids that weren't as successful as the original dolls. Some retailers may have asked for "significant concessions" from Larian to make shelf space available for the line, he said.

"Sometimes brands can come back and sometimes they can't," he said. "I think that retailers would say it's a safer bet that Bratz will sell better than something that's unproven. But right now, there's no shortage of proven dolls."

That was the case at a Toys R Us in Culver City recently, where two aisles were dedicated to fashion dolls including Bratz, Barbie, Disney Princess, Wizards of Waverly Place, Monster High, Liv, Moxie Girlz, Best Friends Club Ink and iCarly.

Even with all the choices, Bratz made an impression on 9-year-old Jasmine Gutierrez, who has owned about a half-dozen of the brand's dolls.

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