How did you end up in this job?
Robert Best: It was magic! I’m kidding. I did start out in fashion design, so I was in New York City in the design industry at Isaac Mizrahi. I was just sort of looking for a change and on a whim, I sent in my portfolio to Mattel. I knew some friends who were collectors and they were like, “Oh, you should be designing dolls.”
The way I approach the design is from a fashion background — when I’m working on dolls, it’s just everything about fashion in miniature. It’s the same attention to detail. Barbie is always up to date, so my natural love of fashion found a perfect home at Mattel because we’re always changing and looking at who the next great designer is and we have amazing design partnerships as well — we partnered with Coach recently, and Herve Leger to do their classic bandage dresses. So I’ve been able to keep my hand in fashion.
At the same time, what Barbie allows that fashion didn’t is the amazing world of fantasy. You don’t have to be bound by, Oh, can that dress fit in the subway? Or, In the South this is what length they prefer. You don’t have to consider cold weather. Those are not concerns that worry Barbie. She doesn’t care about cold weather.
How long does it take to make a Barbie, start to finish?
RB: The full cycle takes about a year from start to finish — from the time you submitted an approved idea to seeing the doll on the shelf.
There has long been criticism that Barbies contribute to problems with body image standards. What’s your response to that?
RB: There are always going to be people who have their strong opinions, pro and against the doll. I think we just think of Barbie as a toy that little girls play with. We think of the girl and her imagination. The doll herself has changed substantially from 1959, when she debuted, to the current doll that’s on shelves now. So, Barbie, we always say, has changed to reflect the times around her, both in terms of what the doll looked like originally to what she looks like now, and as well as the different partners we work with. I think we really do offer something for everyone. And, like I said, it’s really about little girls today and having a doll that they respond to and that’s going to fire their imagination.
Have you modified Barbie’s shape or size before? How often does that happen?
RB: In 1959, it was one silhouette, and it’s been modified many times over the years. In the ’60s, there was a twist-and-turn doll so it could look like she was dancing or whatever. In the ’70s with Malibu Barbie, it was a more athletic figure. So Barbie’s figure has been modified over the years and we’re constantly reevaluating what’s happening in culture to assess the need for that as well. When it’s appropriate — when Jennifer Lopez said, “I want my doll to reflect my own figure” — we do do a change like that.
How much attention do you pay to criticisms of Barbie?
RB: I think…the right amount. You want to know what the cultural conversation is, and engage with your consumers, and know what people are saying. I did a brief stint on Project Runway, and the one thing everyone told me was, “Don’t read the comments.” The internet is a crazy Wild West where people feel free to say all sorts of horrible things. You have to be mindful of that.
We want to beware of reactions, or people’s concerns or comments. That’s a gauge of where the consumer is. You want to be engaged enough that you’re taking criticism constructively. Constructive criticism is one thing, and pure hate-mongering and bashing is not productive. So I just try to ignore things that feel that way.
Monster High, the edgier line of Mattel dolls, has been portrayed as this huge threat to Barbie. What do you think about that?
RB: People want it to be this battle to the death: Barbie vs. Monster High, which would be hilarious as a TV show. But what I think it does is keep us on our toes. There’s nothing like competition to make you look at your own brand and say, “Hey, look at this great new line Monster High and see how much people are responding to that aesthetic and the uniqueness that those dolls have to offer.” It really makes you work harder. We can’t just sit back and say, “Oh! Barbie’s fine!”
Did you play with Barbies as a kid?
RB: Of course. My sister had plenty of dolls and I think we turned our bookshelf into her faux townhouse. But the funny thing is, we would play with Barbie but we’d also play with stuffed animals and they’d all live in this weird world where they were different sizes and materials, like a plush toy would be dating a Barbie doll. It was a very free world.
You called Barbie an iconic toy for girls, but tons of boys, I think, play with Barbies too.
There’s been a lot of discussion about the gendered marketing of toys — take the Easy-Bake Oven, for example — is that something you think about?
RB: I’m an openly gay man working at a huge corporation. I played with dolls. My parents were very open and understanding. I don’t think it was about whether the toys were marketed to girls or not — they in no way saw it as a negative thing or put any kind of blocks into the way I played as a kid. I think they were smart enough to realize that a kid is still just figuring things out, and to put any kind of labels, or try to ascribe what any of that [means]… I think people get caught up in trying to think it has all this really dense meaning and to a child, they’re just like, “I’m playing.” If there are kids who want to play with dolls, and their parents are smart and open, and understand that is just playtime… it doesn’t to have all this deep significance. Let them play and have fun.
At the end of the day, I do want to leave it in the parents’ hands — they’re the caretaker and the one raising the child. It’s up to them what they buy their kids.
Interview has been edited and condensed.