Barbie debuted in 1959 as the brainchild of Mattel co-founder Ruth Handler. The adult (well, “teenage fashion model”) doll stood in contrast to the popular baby dolls of the era, and went on to be the company’s calling card. Barbie has since been sold in 150 countries, had even more careers, and stirred her fair share of controversy.
But Barbie, and Mattel as a whole, are now in a different kind of trouble. Barbie sales declined for the third consecutive year in 2014, slipping 16 percent. This is just one factor in Mattel’s overall 7 percent sales slump (industry-wide toy sales were actually up 4 percent in the U.S. last year). The company fired its CEO Bryan Stockton in January, and interim CEO Christopher Sinclair has admitted that Mattel increased its advertising spend dramatically at the end of 2014, though it didn’t help move product.
It makes sense then that the company is, as Barbie’s vice president of design Kim Culmone puts it, “dedicated to refining digital strategies, because that’s where it’s at.”
The @BarbieStyle Instagram began, and largely remains, a pet project for Culmone, Barbie’s director of design Robert Best, and Zlatan Zukanovic, who serves as the creative and photography lead for the account.
The idea started percolating when Culmone, a self-described “very late adopter of social media,” finally gave in to Instagram and created a personal account for herself. She followed a few friends, a ton of magazines, and, of course, @Barbie. While the official brand Instagram worked as a marketing platform for the brand, with itsproduct shots, event promos, and fan regrams, Culmone saw an opportunity for Barbie to be a part of a different Instagram world—the beautiful, art-directed one she saw on all those magazine accounts.
“We talked a lot about having a second voice out in social media to speak directly to an audience that’s interested in art, culture, and fashion,” she explains. “We thought it was a strong enough part of who we are that it deserved its own specific feed. @BarbieStyle is a curated, very specific story about Barbie’s role in pop culture today.”
Then came the question of how exactly this second voice would differentiate itself. The team settled on making @BarbieStyle entirely narrative and from the point of view of a “contemporary girl with an aspirational lifestyle.” This wouldn’t be an account for kids or parents, but rather for trendy twentysomethings who very possibly hadn’t touched a Barbie in a couple of decades.
“There are moments in Barbie’s world where she is a fantastical princess or a mermaid or whatever—this is not the place for that. This is firmly rooted in reality,” says Best. “Now, that reality can sometimes be over the top, like staying in the Bristol in Paris or going to the Golden Globes, but that’s what makes it fun and exciting. People love the glamour quotient. Whatever it is, it’s gotta be glamorous.”
Barbie has always been closely aligned with fashion—her first career was modeling, after all—and @BarbieStyle has been a way for the brand to experiment with that part of the doll’s identity. The vast majority of the clothes and accessories that appear on the channel are one-of-a-kind, designed by Best specifically for Instagram. She wears maroon moto jackets and crop tops with floral midi skirts; she carries mini copies of Chanel and Céline bags.
“We pretend she’s a little person going to do all these things,” he says, “so we think, ‘How would she do them? What would she wear? What would her point of view be?’ If Barbie’s like our celebrity and we’re her team, you don’t want her to falter!”
From the very first post back in August, the @BarbieStyle concept has remained consistent: full-body outfit of the day shots, closeups of details and accessories, and “lay-downs,” pictures of various objects arranged just so. There’s plenty of narrow depth of field and flattering poses; Barbie even takes selfies. Sometimes she’s with her friends or boyfriend, sometimes she’s with her dog, but most of the time she’s alone.
The formula should sound familiar to anyone who’s ever seen a personal style blog (she’s also totally mastered the jacket-over-the-shoulders look), which is part of what makes the account so successful. The photos are strikingly glossy, and they look soreal.
“It’s about this connection with a certain part of the population that’s used to seeing these sorts of images from human beings,” says Culmone. “When you’re scrolling through, there’s almost a double-take of, is it real or is it Barbie? That’s where I think the emotional connection comes from.”
There’s a charm in everything—a shoebox, a water bottle, a passport—being scaled down to doll proportions, and an uncanniness in how lifelike Barbie appears in front of the camera. Part of this is due to using a doll with full limb articulation (you can purchase this model at retail, though Mattel also sells dolls that can’t bend their arms or legs), and part of it is because the team is obsessive about how they style and photograph her.
“I’ve seen comments where people are like, ‘OMG, Barbie has a staff of people whose job it is to carry her around!'” says Best. “I’m like, ‘No she doesn’t! She just has the three of us!'”
Culmone, Best, and Zukanovic work so perfectly in concert, they finish each other’s sentences, alternately praising and sweetly teasing one another. @BarbieStyle is very much outside their 9 to 5 duties; it’s a side project that has them working weekends and texting off-hours about which clutch they should use the next day or whether Barbie should have bangs or a braid.
Which brings us to that Coachella shoot. When Barbie is at a music festival or an awards show or in front of the Eiffel Tower, she is very much at these places. There is no green screen magic or elaborate backdrop action. Some combination of Culmone, Best, and Zukanovic (and often all three of them) travel with her around the world expressly for these social media shoots.
“It’s one of those things that’s so specific,” notes Zukanovic. “It’s hard to just hand it over to anybody. You might have the most fabulous photographer, but they can’t necessarily get it correct at that scale, or you might have a stylist who can style the hell out of anything, but at that size it doesn’t necessarily work.”
Zukanovic uses a Canon 5D Mark III and a variety of lenses to capture the jetsetting doll, and admits “it can sometimes be tough to capture the balance of her world with the location or event we’re at to make it feel realistic.” (You can see this tension in shots where Barbie is hanging out with famous friends like Karl Lagerfeld or Jeremy Scott; when you’re pulled out of her miniature world, the effect is lost.)
When the team goes on location, they go all out, scouting spots to shoot, nailing down concepts, and putting together all of her looks. “She’s a personality who’s getting ready to go somewhere,” says Best. “We get to ask, ‘What would she pack? What would feel appropriate? She’s going to a cold weather climate—she needs some coats, she needs some cute suits, some day dresses.’ You break it down like that and then you start to plot every single look with jewelry, shoes, handbags, hair. I think of it like a stylist, and we bag and tag every look that she’s going to wear.”
“She travels with an entire wardrobe,” says Culmone. “Thousands of accessories! Ken and her friends and her puppy come too—she does have an entourage.”
Mattel works with the digital arm of New York-based PR firm KCD to facilitate designer requests (“People ask to dress her!”) and coordinate appearances. “There isn’t a lot of trouble getting Barbie access to events,” Culmone says with a laugh. “If Barbie asks to go to something, she goes. We help her manage her social calendar.”
“For big events,” Zukanovic adds, “we go through the same channels that a celebrity would go through. I can’t tell you how many publicists we’ve met—we make sure to find them during the event, before, whenever. You have the same kind of conversations you would have if this were a celebrity, you get the same kind of credentials. It’s really fascinating.”
“And then Barbie exits quietly and goes to bed because she has an early call!” jokes Culmone.
Every couple of weeks, the @BarbieStyle team shoots lay-downs at a makeshift studio at the Mattel headquarters in El Segundo, a city full of office parks in Los Angeles County. The campus is big enough that there’s a shuttle bus, which currently has a Hot Wheels wrap, and looks not unlike a studio lot with its series of beige hangar-like buildings. This is where a very small portion of the magic happens.
“We use this room because the lighting couldn’t be any better,” explains Zukanovic. “Gotta love that ’80s glass block lighting!” Culmone shoots back. The room indeed looks like a relic from decades past, but it works and the three @BarbieStyle wizards get going on a pre-Coachella shot.
Zukanovic summons Best to take a look at the items that have been pulled—a pair of necklaces, a camera, car keys—while Culmone digs through a prop container that has everything from quilted handbags in a rainbow of shades to an itty-bitty Cup Noodles.
“The thing that I get super excited about is that there’s so much in this space that can be not positive,” Culmone says. “There’s very little controversial conversation in the comments.”
Zukanovic echoes the sentiment between camera snaps: “It brightens people’s days because it’s so silly and it’s so fun and it’s so different from anything you see out there, especially coming from such a big brand.”
That’s certainly true: @BarbieStyle is unique in that it isn’t actively marketing product the way most brand Instagrams (like @Barbie, which now trails @BarbieStyle by more than a quarter of a million followers) do, and it’s not like the current rash of viral accounts like @fuckjerry or @thefatjewish that rip off memes and feature virtually no original content.
“The last photo we did of Barbie and her friends, within a couple of hours there were a thousand comments,” says Best. “I was like, ‘What!?’ Every other post was, ‘Oh my god, it’s us!’ ‘Look it’s us!’ It’s just so fun.”
“That’s the thing,” Culmone says. “It’s a powerful, personal connection.”
While authenticity goes a long way in winning over fans, @BarbieStyle isn’t making Mattel money—not yet, at least. Barbie is occasionally styled or dressed by big-name partners like Rachel Zoe or Moschino, but none of these posts are sponsored.
“The value of the channel is recognized within the organization,” says Culmone. “Direct monetization isn’t in the plans, but at the same time, the concept of giving fans a way to take the digital to physical is something we always explore.”
For now, the focus is on continuing to grow the channel while keeping the ideas fresh (how many trips to Paris is too many?) and the account true to Barbie’s kid-friendly DNA. Even if she looks like a polished twentysomething on Instagram these days, she is, and always will be, a doll for children.
“We have to make sure there’s a narrative that continues to feel strong and also that what we’re delivering is appropriate,” says Best. “There are certainly opportunities to go in many different directions, but you also have a responsibility because Barbie is still a toy. Kids play with her. I don’t think anyone takes that lightly at all.”
Culmone certainly doesn’t: “Barbie has grownup fans and goes to adult events, she’s a part of that world, but our ultimate obligation is to the integrity of the brand as a whole. It’s what makes Barbie extraordinarily unique: She can co-host a party at Basel and also show up under someone’s Christmas tree.”