For 15 years couturier Robert Best has been doing big designs on a very small scale — 30cms, to be exact.
As the principal designer for Barbie some would think Best’s job amounts to little more than playtime. But between the divas, devoted detractors and demanding collectors, Best is left with little time to do what he does best — fashion.
Best is the man who cemented Barbie’s status in the world of high-end fashion. He got her networking with top-end designers like Dior, Louboutin and Diane von Furstenberg, and has kept her immovable plastic foot one step ahead of the rest ever since.
He was the creator behind the crystal-encrusted gown on Billions of Dreams Barbie and developed one of the most popular collectibles line, the Silkstone Barbies ­— the dolls of choice for adults who know that, were she real, Barbie would never be caught dead in anything less than hand-stitched silk and vintage lingerie.
“I wasn’t ever obsessed with Barbie. I had a healthy love of her,” Best told Sydney Star Observer.
In his childhood, he played with his sister’s dolls, and cried with frustration as he tried to re-create picture-perfect curls on a Quick Curl Skipper.
Best’s story suddenly opened memories of me petulantly throwing Barbie across the room when her hair refused to change colour like it said it would on the box.
It’s not an odd response, Best kindly assured me, for people to offload their childhood memories on him.
“It’s universal. There’s always an immediate response that varies from ‘I hate her’, to ‘Oh my God, I still play with Barbie’. ”
The camps of Barbie lovers versus those who see her as a symbol of culture’s demise have long been entrenched. In the ’60s a go-go dancer-inspired Barbie was deemed nothing short of scandalous.
Today’s critics have similar qualms, seeing Best’s lingerie-wearing Fashion Model series as a sign of the sexualisation of little girls.
“People have such weird issues about sex that have nothing to do with Barbie,” he responded.
“I mean, we’re not putting Barbie in pasties and a thong. If she has vintage-looking lingerie, I don’t see that as such a problem. It’s a weird conversation for me.
“I know that people do get hung up on that, but children don’t have all those issues. It’s taught behaviour and it’s the parents’ role to inform the kid.
“If they want to tell their kid, ‘This is lingerie’, they don’t have to add, ‘That’s what a stripper wears’. If you’re telling your kid that, that’s what they’re going to think.
“When you look at the world we live in, compared to the media and music videos, I think we’re still very tame.”
Controversy is not exclusively the domain of the blonde mistress. Ken too has the power to raise eyebrows — and not just because of his plastic mound.
Earlier this year the blogosphere went crazy when pictures of Mattel’s latest creation, Palm Beach Sugar Daddy Ken, were leaked around the world.
Wearing white chinos, a Carson Kressley-like green jacket and walking a tiny dog on a pink leash, this incarnation caused many to cry joyfully, ‘At last! He’s come out’. Unfortunately not everyone, including toy retailers, were so happy and Palm Beach Ken’s plans for world domination were shelved.
“Ken never sells as well as Barbie, so retailers will always hold their spend for the Barbie buy,” Best said.
“But let’s just say the name didn’t help us. We called him ‘sugar daddy’ and that was misconstrued by certain media outlets to be a negative.
“But as for complaints about him being too camp, the whole line is camp. He’s Ken, it’s in his DNA to be campy.”
The need to remain appropriate is always in the back of Best’s mind, influencing the choices he makes in celebrity Barbies.
Though he would love to do a Judy: The Later Years Barbie, there could be concerns around the appropriateness of an accompanying miniature pink pill bottle. A Liza doll could be possible though.
“I’d love to do it — the sequin tunic and crazy hair, her hands outstretched like ta-da! It’d be great,” Best confessed.
“We used to have a phrase when designing, ‘What would drag queens do?’ It’s such a good barometer of what makes for flashy, glitzy, showy visuals.” This in some part explains the release of a Babs doll.
“I remember when the marketing girl said, ‘Robert, I’ve got Barbra Streisand on the phone’. I thought she was lying, but there she was on speaker-phone saying, ‘Heeellooo goorrgeesous’. I just stopped and thought, is this really happening?
“We hear from our collectors all the time about who’s on their wish list, but it can be a long and tenuous process to get a celebrity.
“People can want a Lady Gaga doll, but the celebrity has to be willing.”
For the record, Gaga has been approached, and negotiations are ongoing.
“Sometimes you just have to keep asking.”
As for Best’s personal wish list, a range devoted to iconic ’90s supermodels remains close to the top. But the top slot is devoted to a surprising choice — Jean Shrimpton.
There are concerns a Shrimpton doll may not be recognisable enough for the masses, but any Australian with even a remote interest in fashion would queue to snatch her up.
It does, however, beg the question — what would the accessories line be for a doll devoted to a model whose greatest claim to fame was that she refused to wear a hat, stockings or even gloves to Victoria Derby Day?

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