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Breaking the Height Barrier:

The 1990s and the Rebirth Fashion Dolls

By Bethany M. Sefchick

In the history of modern dolls, there hasn't been anyone quite like Barbie.

For years, she reigned supreme in the world of plastic and porcelain. Any

and all contenders for her crown as doll queen were dispatched to the

clearance isle without much effort at all. If you weren't a blonde,

blue-eyed, 11.5 inches high model mannequin in the 

fiefdom of "Dollyland", then, quite honestly, you didn't stand a chance.

Sometimes, Barbie didn't even stand a chance against herself. The

Supersized Barbie of the late 1970s was a flop. And forget it if you

happened to be Supersized Sparkle Candi or Darci or Jem. If a Barbie over

11.5 inches didn't sell, why should these others? They, after all, didn't

carry her prestigious name and the backing of Mattel.

These dolls weren't what was now considered the "traditional" fashion doll

size or shape. They couldn't fit into Barbie's clothes. Or, horror of

horrors, they had their own unique story that made them more than just the

fashion mannequin that Barbie was designed to be. They had an imaginary

life beyond modeling, be it a rock star or the girl next door who just

wanted to look beautiful.

So it remained well into the 1990s, with Barbie taking on every career or

going to every glamorous ball or event that could be imagined. But never,

ever again venturing over her petite stature or creating a unique

personality all her own besides the ever-present, squeaky clean label of

"model."

Then came Gene.

Gene was and is the brain child of artist Mel Odom. Given her own story as

a Hollywood screen queen from the 1940s and 50s, Gene entered a world where

Barbie feared to tread. She had a personality, a story all her own, a life

clearly in a different era that would never leap frog into the distant

future and a wardrobe that reflected her lifestyle. But perhaps most

importantly, Gene was something that Barbie was still afraid to be... BIG!

At 15" high, Gene was beautifully made and easy to dress. Only high

quality, collector's grade vinyl was used in her production. She had

exquisite sculpting, showcasing the art and grace of the human form in

every way, from a defined spine to a delicate collar bone. Her clothes

were stunning and were the height of fashion for her era. Her life's story

was beautifully scripted with room for more details as new dolls and

outfits were introduced.

This was a doll with personality, and a certain something that began to

attract more and more collectors as time went on. Collectors, meaning

adults, who saw in Gene something that was missing in Barbie, flocked to

Gene and the world she lived in. They couldn't necessarily define it, but

whatever that was, Gene had IT. That intangible element that made her

popular and desirable to collect and play with.

As the Gene line expanded and grew in popularity, other doll companies

began to take notice of what Odom and Ashton-Drake had found in Gene. Here

was a doll that was far bigger than Barbie, which up until that point had

been the "gold standard" in doll height and mold. Yet Gene was selling

just as well, if not better than Barbie in some cases, 

and collectors were going wild for her.

More change was on the way.

Other larger sized dolls entered the collector's market, something that had

not been done before, as the earlier dolls like Darci and Jem had been

marketed for children. Even the Madame Alexander Company, 

a company that stayed out of low-rent "fashion" dolls

since the failed Brenda Starr line,

began a new, aggressive marketing plan for the Cissy line of larger dolls.

And these dolls sold! Not one line, but all lines by various companies!

Gene continued her skyrocketing claim to "Dolly-land" fame and finally,

after an almost uncountable number of years, 

Barbie's fiefdom was being upset in a very big way.

Today, there are still more choices coming on the market. This summer and

fall will see the introduction of Tyler Wentworth, by Robert Tonner and

Daisy and Willow, two 60s era "MOD British Birds" from Laura Meisner 

and Doug James of Gene fame. Tyler, Daisy, and Willow each have 

their own stories and tower over Barbie in more than just stature.

Tyler is an immediate sell out, the dolls and fashions scarce and waiting

lists long, months before her release. Willow & Daisy, while not a

complete sell out yet, are racking up hefty pre-order numbers, as

collectors clamor for the different and unique, no matter the size.

For the fashion doll collector, it's a truly exciting time. Choices are

numerous and, in some cases, overwhelming. If one doll doesn't appeal to

you, chances are another one will. And for the first time since Barbie

first burst onto the scene, you can choose from a number of dolls that

don't have to conform to the petite, story-less standard of years gone by.

It's a wonderful time in "Dollyland," for everyone involved!

 

 

Personally Speaking

By Bethany M. Sefchick

Why?

I think that's probably one of the most asked questions in the fashion doll

world today. Why was Gene successful when some many other failed?

Personally, I feel that there are really too many factors to name them all,

but that they can be summed up under the umbrella of one simple word:

Timing.   And timing, they say, is everything.

In the 70s and 80s, doll collecting, and Barbie collecting specifically,

wasn't the big time business that it is now. Sure, some people collected

Barbie then, me included in the '80s. But most people didn't. It wasn't

until 1985 or so that Mattel introduced the first doll aimed at adults, the

porcelain Blue Rhapsody. Even then, she was so limited in availability

that most collectors weren't aware of her existence. I stumbled across her

in one of the old-style department stores in a nearby town. If not for

that, I wouldn't have had the first clue that she was out there.

By the early and mid-1990s, however, things had changed. There were a lot

of adult collectors, reading Barbie Bazaar, Miller's and Doll Reader

magazines and seeking more and more information on dolls. 

And buying dolls in record numbers. 

Mattel was now marketing dolls aimed at those same

collectors. Doll sales were way up, as scalpers cluttered the hobby,

hoarding the much-sought after dolls and selling them for outrageously high

prices on the secondary market. Doll collecting was now officially 

"big business."

Gene was introduced by Ashton-Drake in 1995.

1995 must have been a good karma year in the doll world, as many other

events played into the timing factor for Gene. That is the year that many

computer experts agree on as the year that the Internet really caught on

with the general public. People, who had up until then never touched a

computer, were getting on-line in record numbers, learning how to "surf the

web", and joining the ever growing list of news groups, posting boards, and

listserves that were available and catering to every 

human need or desire possible.

Also in 1995, Barbie's "parent", Mattel, began a rather unwise marketing

plan. Eager to cash in on the seemingly endless hunger for all things

Barbie, they began to produce even limited edition dolls in mass quantities

and increasing the number of overall "theme" lines and pink boxed dolls

that were available. The price tags for the dolls themselves 

shot up to before-unheard of levels while the quality declined. 

Cheap fabrics, missing pieces & details, and unfinished 

seams among other problems became

the norm on supposedly high quality collectable and limited dolls as

Mattel's quest for higher and higher profits grew out of control. Mattel

flooded the doll market with too many products offered at too high prices

and collectors began to get discouraged and disgusted. 

Many were looking for a way out

Gene was it.

Here, at last, was a doll that was reasonably priced, truly limited in

production numbers, had only a few dolls and outfits in the entire line and

was made of the finest materials available. This was a doll that was made

to be taken out of her box and played with, really enjoyed by the people

who collected her. If fact, if you didn't open her box, there was no way

to see her. Gene didn't exist in a plastic prison and could withstand

being handled by human fingers. Size no longer mattered 

with Gene. She was meant for adults only, 

who had the money to spend and didn't care if

Barbie's clothes didn't fit her. They weren't supposed to!

AD and Odom encouraged collectors to take out Gene and play with her,

change her clothes, and restyle her hair. Wash her hair if you wanted to

create new hairstyles for her, much like the first Barbies. Which was the

very thing that most collectors were looking for 

in a collectable fashion doll.

Word of her spread by the Internet and email to the various doll collecting

groups out there Collectors bought her, instead of Barbie. Mattel's

flood-the-market practices meant that scalpers were sitting on piles of

worthless dolls, so they had no capital to invest in Gene, nor the desire

to. After all, history said that Gene would be a flop, over in a few years.

What Mattel and the scalpers failed to understand was that Gene was all

things that collectors often wished that Barbie could be. Limited,

collectable, high quality, and reasonably priced. Even if collectors

didn't care for Gene specifically, they liked the idea of her and what kind

of possibilities she represented.

Fortunately, other companies and designers were paying attention. Gene

broke through a barrier than no other doll had been able to. You can chalk

it up to timing if you want. I do, at least in part. Or you can say that

it was any number of other factors. What doesn't change is that the dollie

playing field is no longer covered just in pink boxes. And I don't think

many collectors would now want it any other way!