The prototypes designed by BillyBoy* for Barbie.
by Lala J.P Lestrade
It is almost impossible to talk about the fascinating Barbie fashion prototypes created by BillyBoy* between 1984 and 1985 without evoking this period.
In the early eighties, the Barbie doll was not at all the collectible phenomenon that it is today - and far from it! She was a very commercial, rather bland doll, industrially-made in huge quantities and her image was aimed to please a very young audience. In other words, a fluorescent pink nylon affair in floor-length blond hair!
In France especially, Barbie never encountered in the sixties and seventies the popularity that she had in the USA during the same period, mostly because until the mid-seventies she was not marketed and widely distributed the way she was in America. Mattel France was born only in 1972. Compared to other French fashion dolls, such as the amazing Mily doll by Gégé and the Tressy doll by Bella, still around since the 1960s, and others of the time, she was a more expensive imported fashion doll.
For many adults however she had a rather controversial image, something between the bimbo and the “femme-objet” (object-woman) which, notably in France, was poorly considered in the post-1968 women’s liberation years.
As a purely collectible item on the doll market in France, she meant absolutely nothing. When BillyBoy* would ask some doll dealers at the fleamarket in Paris whether they had some Barbie dolls, I remember that he was practically looked upon as if he had uttered an obscenity, which nevertheless struck BillyBoy* as unnecessarily snobbish and pretentious. In the land of Bru and Jumeau dolls, you could not expect any doll dealer to consider a vinyl doll something collectible! Things surely were to change for good (and sometimes for the worse) after BillyBoy* came into the picture.
A fabulous project on a golden tray
BillyBoy* was the first person to write about Barbie in a sophisticated way, introducing a clever mix of humour with an accurate knowledge of high fashion history and sociological context. He knew the history of Barbie by heart and thought it was time to do something really interesting about it. Paris was opening its arms to BillyBoy*, Schiaparelli expert and high fashion collector, whose jewelery was the hottest thing around. Journalists loved him because he was young, highly visual and most importantly, incredibly clever and mostly so very witty.
Around this time, BillyBoy* was contacted by the Mattel executives in Paris. They had seen an article about him in ELLE magazine, and while he was wearing a mad 1930s Schiaparelli hat and designer clothing, on his shoulder was a “twist and turn” Barbie doll, perched like a little bird...she wore the “Action Accents” Giftset Ensemble of fake fur-trimmed skating skirt and tights in turquoise and pink...I remember that he used to go to board directors meetings, with his slicked down platinum white blonde pre-war styled hair dressed in slick black vinyl, sometimes wearing a casual wool miniskirt by Mary Quant over black wool leotard - and smothered in exotic and rare jewels. The Mattel executives could not believe their eyes but they immediately took seriously the incredible project that was brought to them on a gold platter by this extraordinary young man.
At the time, Mattel executives in general had very little awareness, if any at all, of a potential adult collectors market, a very important reality concerning Barbie which was not at all appraised by them. It is also during these meetings that BillyBoy* expressed clear and loud that Mattel should re-launch Francie, Midge and accentuate more quality-oriented dolls, which would be appealing to adult collectors. One knows today how all these ideas were to be extensively developed by Mattel, over a decade later.
A genuine vision
It is also during this period that BillyBoy* started making prototypes of the Barbie doll. He had been doing "make overs" (a term coined much later in the 1990s) since he was a teen on Barbie and other fashion dolls. Mattel supplied him with endless amounts of nude generic Barbie dolls. Shortly after his contract was signed BillyBoy*’s Barbie dolls were produced by Mattel in Oyonnax, France, its plastics capital - something very unusual for Mattel at the time ( his “Nouveau Theatre de la Mode” Barbie says clearly “Made in France” on her torso).
BillyBoy* really had a vision for the Barbie doll, which included the revival of some of her highlights as well as totally contemporary fashion looks. He often mentioned that he found it a pity that Barbie had lost, somewhere along the way, with her worldwide main stream marketing, some very charming and touching aspects of her personality. He also felt that she had to become more fashion-oriented instead of just fantasy-oriented. And what do you think about when you are in Paris, the city of high fashion? Gloves, turbans, gowns (real ones) cocktail outfits, chic day ensembles, big jewellery and even - how unpolitically correct- fur! No more sneakers and jogging outfits, no more day-glow fairy tale gowns, please!