By Allen Voivod
There had been African-American dolls in the Mattel line dating back to the 1960s, but never one named "Barbie®" – until Black Barbie® Doll, designed by Kitty Black Perkins, debuted in 1980. Four decades later, Bill Greening has designed the 40th Anniversary First Black Barbie® Doll in honor of his mentor and friend.
To celebrate this milestone, both Kitty Black Perkins and Bill Greening spoke with Barbie® Signature about the original and tribute Black Barbie® Dolls. Excerpts from these conversations appear below.
[Platinum and Gold Status members – there's even more to these conversations! Click here to read the full interviews with Kitty Black Perkins and Bill Greening.]
Kitty Black Perkins
How did you approach designing the original Black Barbie doll? What were your influences on the choices you made for her?
When I designed it, I wanted her to be the complete opposite of the traditional blonde Barbie, in that I wanted her to have different skin tones, and short, natural textured black hair instead of Barbie doll's long, blonde locks. I wanted her to have a slim silhouette instead of the traditional ballgowns that we usually put the blonde doll in. I wanted her to reflect what the black culture was, and what was familiar to our black collectors and children that actually played with Barbie dolls.
I have to say that the music industry was a big influence, too. I love Diana Ross and the Supremes, and every time I saw them on TV or in concert, I was just in awe of the way they dressed – the dignity, the fashion, and everything that they would wear was just special to me.
Also, when I design something, I imagine that it would be something that I would wear if I was in that particular situation. To me, that's like a gauge, as to whether I want to put that on the doll or not. Because if it's not something that I would wear, then I don't think it would be something the children would like, and something the Afro-American parents would embrace.
Did you have a sense at the time you were designing this Barbie how groundbreaking it was going to be, or how it might be seen by future generations?
I had a sense that it was going to be well received. I had no idea it was going to be as groundbreaking as it is now, but if you look at the history of Barbie, the reason Barbie is number one is because she was the very first of her kind. When we did Black Barbie, she too became the very first of her kind.
Before Barbie, there wasn’t a doll that was an adult figure. There were only baby dolls, and it was all about a nurturing system of play. Barbie offers a whole new way for children to imagine and play.
With that in mind, knowing that the Afro-American community was really looking for something that they could identify with and that children could be proud of, I think that we achieved that with the Black Barbie Doll. And I think that's why it has become so popular.
What was it like for you personally, when Black Barbie first appeared in stores?
You know what, I actually went to the stores. I visited Toys 'R Us and I had planned to spend some time there just watching people and their reaction to the doll. I was excited, but I was also a little bit nervous because I didn't really know how it would be received and I didn't know if the parents would embrace it.
I also wanted to see what the reaction was from the little girls because if you think about the Barbie play pattern, I really kind of eliminated a lot of that. There wasn't a lot of hair to comb or to style. I eliminated a little bit of the play pattern in the costume because her outfit is more reality than fantasy. And if you think about Barbie, her whole persona had been fantasy princess, ballgown, all of that. That was eliminated in the doll. I wanted to make sure I hadn't cut out the main feature of the doll itself.
When I saw the reaction from some of the little girls, what was gratifying to me was that their reaction was, "Oh mommy, look at the doll. She looks just like me." Or, "She has pretty skin." That kind of reaction. And that was very, very rewarding to me.
How significant ultimately was Black Barbie Doll for the future of Barbie dolls in general, and black Barbie dolls in specific?
Prior to Black Barbie, the only dolls really that were black were Barbie's friends. I think when Black Barbie came out, it brought her to the forefront. It raised the bar on black dolls.
I think that once that came into play, that's when the opportunity opened to do the different skin colors, the different hair textures, just a different play pattern all together She could do anything. She was a rock star and all of that.
I feel that was an influence on how we do our black Barbie dolls now, and how we're now making Barbie dolls that have different sizes and shapes and it's not all just one figure. I think that's a good thing, because children can look at the doll and choose the one that is more like themselves, and they understand that. I think it's easier to play with a doll that way.
Is there anything else that you'd like to share about Black Barbie before we wrap up?
I just have to tell you how happy and pleased I am about the doll. I was really, really wanting it to be a doll that parents could be proud of, and their daughters and their sons or whoever wanted to play with the doll. I wanted that to be something that would give them some pleasure.
Every time I talk to a collector – and when I designed a doll I wasn't really trying to make it a collectible item – the collectors have just embraced it, and I've been asked to speak at different functions because of the doll. And I tell you, I had no idea of the gravity that this doll would bring. I'm just so, so pleased and so elated.
Kitty Black Perkins was one of your idols prior to working at Mattel. Do you remember what it was like to finally meet her in person?
When I first started at Mattel, Kitty was still designing. Just knowing what Kitty had contributed to the history of Barbie, somebody that I looked up to, with inspiration and admiration, it was a little hard not to be starstruck around her.
But Kitty is very soft spoken, very easy going as far as her personality goes. And she was always eager to share her knowledge of what makes Barbie work. She would sit down on the floor and spread out Barbie items and imagine how a kid would play with Barbie. That's how she got into the mindset.
It's little tips like that I think are really interesting, and how she shared her design process with a new designer coming in the door. Very inspirational, and I think it was great that she took the time to share her knowledge with a younger designer.
Here we are, 40 years after the debut of Black Barbie, and you've designed the tribute to that groundbreaking doll. How did you approach this very unique project?
Black Barbie Doll is really an important milestone to the brand. We had previously done a repro of Black Barbie in 2010 under the My Favorite Barbie series. And that was celebrating the 30th anniversary of that doll at the time. We didn't want to do another reproduction, since we had already been there and done that. So it felt like this was a good time to pay tribute to the original design but with an updated look to it. And we wanted to make sure that the key elements of the original Black Barbie were in the new design, paying homage to Kitty's original design inspiration.
What are your hopes and ambitions for this new Black Barbie Doll?
I hope people feel that it's a fitting tribute to the original, because Kitty is my design hero, so I hope I'm doing the doll justice and I hope collectors embrace the new doll. I hope maybe they display it side by side with the original and the new version and see how the beauty of Black Barbie transcends time.
These excerpts from the full interviews have been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.