Top designers dress Barbie for a ball


It's not enough that she has Ken, a convertible and a figure that even a plastic surgeon couldn't replicate. There's now another reason to envy Barbie: She's got designer clothes.

After 35 years of wearing all the wrong outfits, America's 11 1/2 -inch ideal can finally leave the plastic mules, sailor suits and showgirl numbers in the dreamhouse.

Tomorrow night, Calvin, Oscar and other Seventh Avenue stars are dressing her for Baltimore's first Barbie Ball, to benefit Lifesongs for AIDS Inc.

Nearly 100 designer-garbed Barbies will be on exhibit -- and auctioned -- at the Baltimore Museum of Art during a social event that's expected to draw some 500 people and raise $50,000 for pediatric AIDS services.

Some of fashion's biggest names -- Oscar de la Renta, Bill Blass and Liz Claiborne among them -- have swathed the doll in everything from crystal-encrusted ballgowns to multicolored condoms.

The '90s BMA version of the girl-next-door has a baby in her backpack, dark roots and tattoos. Her clothes are made of leather, raffia and molten lead. And she can be whoever she wants: Scarlett O'Hara, Sleeping Beauty or Tonya Harding.

Barbie also has ditched accessories like high heels and simple handbags for crucifix earrings, leopard turbans and red ribbons symbolic of the fight against AIDS.

"The designers went all out," says Ray Mitchener, manager of Ruth Shaw, a clothing salon in Cross Keys, who helped organized the event. "The detail on the clothes is amazing. And this wasn't an easy thing. They couldn't crank these out in a day."

Costume jewelry designer Jay Strongwater hand-glued 2,200 Austrian glass crystals to create a shimmering Tina Turner-like unitard for his doll.

"It took me 15 hours," he says. "That's how long I'd spend on a very elaborate evening necklace . . . But I didn't mind. I wanted to glamorize her for evening."

For New York designer John Scher, linking his design to the AIDS cause was key. He dressed his creation, Play-Safe Barbie, in a sheath of multi-colored prophylactics and fashioned a handbag from a foil condom wrapper.

"The hardest part was getting the condoms on her without breaking them," says Mr. Scher, a Baltimore native. "I lost six along the way."

Avant-garde designer Betsey Johnson gave Barbie a dramatic new hairdo -- teasing her locks until they defied gravity and dyeing them a shocking purple to match Barbie's tulle dress. Calvin Klein put Barbie in the sleek fashion of spring -- a satin charmeuse slip dress. And Christian Francis Roth turned Barbie into a woman of the earth, dressing her like a palm tree.

The dolls, however, will face some competition for attention tomorrow night, since some guests are coming dressed as their Mattel favorites. At midnight, one lucky look-alike will be named the Barbie of the ball.

Ken Hobart, a Lifesongs board member, has been researching his Ken get-up for two weeks now.

At the moment, he's planning to wear a maroon polyester tuxedo, beige ruffled shirt and black platform shoes -- an outfit that pays homage to a darker period in the doll's fashion past.

But Mr. Hobart, a creative director with the Becker Group, a Baltimore-based holiday display company, still has his heart set on finding swim trunks and a matching beach jacket.

"I'll feel ridiculous, but it'll be fun," says Mr. Hobart, 42. "It's a totally geeky look. But that was traditional for Ken for a long time. He would have a camera around his neck and leather sandals on and maybe socks."

He's expected to turn up with Carole Sibel, the ball's planning chair, who's emulating Barbie by wearing a green fringed dress, satin gloves and a fake ponytail.

The idea to sponsor a Barbie Ball came to Ms. Sibel after seeing "Theatre de la Mode," an exhibit of French fashion miniatures on display at the BMA last spring. She turned to Mr. Mitchener, who since last fall has been recruiting designers. Mattel Inc. donated the dolls -- including larger, waist-high Barbies.

Last week, the Barbie Ball went big time, being featured in a two-page spread in Women's Wear Daily, fashion industry's bible. That brought calls from other designers, such as Donna Karan, pledging help.

One Barbie likely to bring big money is Tom and Linda Platt's Marie Antoinette Barbie. The designers, who broke into the fashion business doing miniatures for Saks Fifth Avenue and Lord & Taylor, painstakingly crafted their creation. Steal a peek under their Barbie's dress, and you'll find black lace flounces, an embroidered eyelet petticoat, tulle and hip padding. Mr. Platt even scalped Barbie so he could more easily "froth her hair into a nightmare."

Despite nearly two days of intense work, he says Barbie was a gem to work with. "We love her," Mr. Platt says. "She's the ideal model. She doesn't yell when you stick her with a pin, and she still fits into her wedding dress."


A benefit for Lifesongs for AIDS Inc., the Barbie Ball takes place at 9 p.m. tomorrow at the Baltimore Museum of Art. Tickets are $75 each. Call (410) 532-7886.

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