RPT-Barbie at 50: is Mattel's star still in fashion?

Mon Mar 9, 2009 1:08pm GMT

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(Repeating March 6 item)

By Aarthi Sivaraman

NEW YORK, March 6 (Reuters) - Barbie, the iconic doll that has claimed countless hours of girls' lives in a make-believe world that mirrored real life glamour, high-fashion and fabulous careers, is turning 50.

But is her star fading?

Some people say Mattel's doll MAT.N that has had such "careers" as astronaut, Army medic, scuba diver, pediatrician and presidential candidate, has run her course.

"It's very clear that the taste of little girls who play with dolls has changed," said Jerry Oppenheimer, author of a book on Mattel called 'Toy Monster.'

"They have come into the 21st century, where they play on their own laptops, and have their own cell phones. Dolls will be a part of their lives ... and Barbie will be part of that, but it will be a small window."

Introduced at a toy fair in New York City on March 9, 1959 as a teenage fashion model, Barbie, whose full name is Barbie Millicent Roberts, cost $3.

With her shapely figure, carefully styled pony tail and curly bangs, strapless black and white geometric bathing suit and spiked heels, Barbie was at once an instant rage and outrageous.

At a time when "Leave It to Beaver" was depicting the so-called "All-American Family" and June Cleaver never showed any cleavage, Barbie created her share of controversy.

Created by Ruth Handler 14 years after she and her husband Elliot started the toy company Mattel Creations, sales of Barbie reached 300,000 the first year.

BIG BIRTHDAY BASH

Whither Barbie goes, the world's No. 1 toymaker is waging an extensive campaign to promote Barbie, perhaps its most notable toy, and celebrate her birthday.

Mattel has opened a six-story flagship store in Shanghai called House of Barbie, featuring a restaurant, spa and runway where girls can pretend to be fashion models. [ID:nL6651818] Film stars Jet Li and Cathy Chung attended the Shanghai opening.

Supermodel Heidi Klum and other celebrities are expected on Monday at Mattel's Malibu Dream House party in a 3,500-square foot house at Malibu, California, near Los Angeles. The interior of the house was designed by Jonathan Adler.

One of Barbie's major attractions over the past five decades has been her clothes, created by some of the world's most famous designers, including Gucci, Calvin Klein, Galliano and Versace. Throughout her life, Barbie's hair and fashions have reflected real life haute couture, and fashion trends and crazes.

Fans mobbed a fashion show at New York's Fashion Week in February, where models took to the runway in 50 new designer outfits to celebrate Barbie's life of fashion.

On March 14, specialty toy store chain Toys "R" Us is due to hold a Barbie party at its flagship store in Manhattan.

A ROLE MODEL - STILL?

"Growing up, my sister had the nurse outfit for Barbie and my sister became a nurse," said Nancy Parsons, 50, who has been collecting Barbie dolls for 25 years.

"It was what she was, what she could be. It gave even little girls the idea that 'I could do that.'"

Parsons, who prefers the vintage Barbie and has amassed a collection of about 500 dolls, is president of the Western Pennsylvania Doll Club, which is hosting the 2009 National Barbie Doll Collectors Convention in Washington D.C. in June.

The event, Parsons said, draws collectors who show and sell Barbie dolls, clothes and other items made for the doll.

Other collectors said they are ardent Barbie fans. But is she still a hit with youngsters?

Sales of Barbie dolls declined 6 percent in the United States and 28 percent overseas in the last quarter.

It is far from certain if Mattel's efforts to spark greater interest in Barbie by lighting birthday candles around the world will pay off.

But one thing was evident in the looks on faces of dejected fans, ranging in age from tots with parents to college students and business people who were turned away at the crowded fashion show -- Barbie still has a devoted audience.

"I really don't see Barbie disappearing at all," said Stephanie Gentile, 25, of Pittsburg, Pennsylvania, a Barbie collector for nine years.

"She's still so popular with collectors and young girls alike. She's still got another 50 years in her." (Reporting by Aarthi Sivaraman; Editing by Toni Reinhold)

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