Baltimore Sun

'Barbie Couture' tempts fashionistas in Japan

"Barbie Couture," a pricey line of human-sized clothing, is Mattel's effort to reinvigorate the 45-year-old doll line while catering to young women.
Kumiko Suzuki, a 22-year-old college student in Japan, played with Barbie dolls as a child. She says she always saw Barbie as her ideal image of a glamorous Western princess. "She's slim, she's blond and she's just a dream," Suzuki said. "I want to be just like her."

Barbie's maker, Mattel Inc., thinks it has found a way to cash in on Suzuki's desire -- and, it hopes, reinvigorate the 45-year-old doll line at the same time, despite her breaking off her romance with Ken, whom she met in 1961.

Mattel, based in El Segundo, Calif., has teamed up with Japanese fashion house Sanei International Co. to create "Barbie Couture." The costly line of human-sized clothing is sold in its own boutiques, next to high-end designer stores like Burberry or in upscale department stores like Isetan.

The line's coming fall collection includes a black, wool miniskirt for $400 and knit cotton sweaters for $250.

Suzuki, who recently was shopping at a Barbie boutique in Tokyo for an outfit to wear to her graduation party, picked out a baby-pink, sleeveless dress that cost more than $280.

"I wish I could wear a dress like this every day, but I can't," Suzuki said. "This is a special occasion."

For now, the clothes are available only in Japan, where Sanei opened 10 Barbie boutiques last year. But Mattel expects to introduce a similar line in Europe this fall and is exploring plans to bring Barbie Couture to the United States.

'An aspiration brand'

The toymaker is betting that once the line catches on with fashionistas, it will give the Barbie brand renewed cache with 'tweens, or kids between the ages of eight and 13. Hello Kitty, the cute cat character owned by Japan's Sanrio Co., already has made inroads on that front through alliances with edgy designers.

"The clothing line adds relevance to the overall Barbie brand by giving it an aura of prestige," said Richard Dickson, Mattel's senior vice president of consumer products. "Barbie becomes an aspiration brand like Chanel."

The idea, he added, is that girls will buy a Barbie doll in lieu of a pricey dress.

But aiming to create the next Burberry plaid can be as elusive as creating the next Beanie Baby. Furthermore, few luxury brands have been able to excite 'tweens and teens, said independent retail analyst Jennifer Black in Portland, Ore. "How many teen-agers really want Chanel?" Black asked. "Teen-agers want Burberry because they see it on MTV."

Another big issue: Success in Japan doesn't always translate elsewhere. While Japanese consumers have sparked fashion and toy trends globally, the market remains idiosyncratic. For one thing, 20-something Japanese women are among the biggest purchasers of Barbie dolls, a trend that hasn't materialized in the United States. Their ardor for the dolls appears to reflect the national appetite for iconic American brands.

The clothing line "might work in Japan but I would see it as very challenging in the rest of the world," said Margaret Mager, an apparel and retail analyst at Goldman Sachs & Co. in New York. "Being American doesn't help in Europe. And in the United States, Barbie is too associated with toys and juvenile products to do well in the high-end apparel market."

In Los Angeles, two teen-age girls interviewed at Fairfax High School seemed to agree.

Nelly, a 17-year-old who declined to give her last name and was carrying a Fendi handbag, said Barbie would always be considered a toy for "little girls."

Seiry Huerta, also 17, noted, somewhat dismissively, that her 5-year-old sister is "crazy about Barbie." Yet she fawned over a photo of a black Barbie skirt.

Barbie vs. Bratz

Mattel's foray into the cutthroat world of fashion highlights Barbie's ongoing struggle to recapture girls' attention. Long considered the unbeatable queen of fashion dolls, Barbie has been at war in the United States with the edgier Bratz doll, introduced in 2001 by MGA Entertainment Inc of Mission Hills, Calif.

Mattel long has licensed Barbie to girls apparel makers, which sell their lines at Wal-Mart Stores Inc., Toys "R" Us Inc. and Macy's. The items range from $5 T-shirts to $60 jackets. Girls clothing makes up a significant portion of the $3.6 billion in revenue Barbie generates from licensing agreements and doll sales worldwide.

But Mattel hopes Barbie Couture will speak to the increasingly sophisticated tastes of 'tweens and teen-age girls.

Sanrio has been particularly adept at playing this game. The company licensed Hello Kitty to designers Richie Rich and Traver Rains, who put Kitty on their Heatherette brand dresses. Last April at Los Angeles Fashion Week, socialites Paris and Nicky Hilton wore the dresses, which cost up to $1,000.

Designer Tarina Tarantino of Los Angeles put Kitty in her jewelry line. Actress Cameron Diaz wore one of her creations, a $170 faux-pearl Hello Kitty necklace, to the Nickelodeon Kid's Choice award in April.

Bruce Giuliano, vice president of licensing at Sanrio, said that like most Hello Kitty products, the adult lines were done with "a smile and a wink."

Boutique boom

Mattel, by contrast, seems serious. Its "couture" line is loosely based on actual outfits Barbie has worn; the spring and fall lines focus on Barbie's 1960s attire. Among the items: wool coats with subtly cinched waists and miniskirts with a clean, tailored look. "The strategy isn't kitsch but real fashion," said Mattel's Dickson.

So far, Barbie Couture appears to catching on. Popular Japanese fashion magazine ViVi, as well others, have featured the line. The Barbie line fits nicely with a fashion trend in Japan in recent months: the cutesy "princess" look. Fashion magazines also have been advising young women to put on frilly, feminine dresses.

"I want to wear a princess-like dress like Barbie does," said 24-year-old Aki Chujo, who was browsing a Barbie boutique in Tokyo one recent afternoon. "This is the kind of dress that every girl would dream of wearing."

Sanei plans to double the number of boutiques in Japan to 20 by year's end. Mattel reports that sales of Barbie dolls in that country have risen since the introduction of clothing line but wouldn't give details on that or on how the clothing line is selling.