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
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!
By Bethany M. Sefchick
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
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!