The man who dresses the world’s “ultimate [fashion] muse” is wearing head-to-toe black: Prada boots, Saint Laurent trousers, a checkered Dior shirt, and a tailored Balenciaga jacket. At the moment, I can see the appeal of neutrals: When Barbie senior design director Robert Best chooses his outfit each morning, he must keep one extra color in mind: Pantone 219 C pink. Because at Mattel HQ in El Segundo, CA, there is no escaping the pink; with walls painted floor-to-ceiling in Barbie’s signature hue, Best's office is less of, well, an office, and more of a bubbly shrine to the world’s most famous doll. Best ditched the fashion industry in New York City 20 years ago — where he designed for Donna Karan and Isaac Mizrahi — for Los Angeles, Mattel’s pink palace, and the tiniest of style muses. It was a surprising step for a talented young designer who was used to rubbing shoulders with then-up-and-comers Kate Moss, Naomi Campbell, and Marc Jacobs.
“When I told friends that I was off to L.A. to design for Barbie, there were a few people who questioned it, like, ‘Did you take your brain out and play with it?’ But Barbie is so beloved by the fashion community that most people were jealous and thrilled for me,” he says. "My experience designing for [her] has enabled me to reach more people than I ever did working in high fashion." To the Barbie believers, the blonde-haired doll is so much more than a pretty face. She’s a multi-million dollar empire; over one billion Barbie dolls have been sold worldwide in over 150 countries, and three Barbie dolls are sold every second. She’s a cultural icon who's been painted by Andy Warhol and made a cameo in the Toy Story movies. As a heritage toy brand, she is the most universally recognized 11.5 inches of plastic ever assembled, with Mattel claiming 98% brand recognition globally. Her status as a fashion muse, too, is uncontested, sparking collaborations with designers like Oscar de la Renta, Christian Dior, Diane von Furstenberg, and Karl Lagerfeld. And as Best points out, that inspiration travels in both directions: For spring 2015, Moschino creative director Jeremy Scott dedicated an entire collection to Barbie, with hot-pink, logo-clad pieces, mirror iPhone cases, and heart-shaped purses. A year later, when Scott created an eight-piece collection for Barbie (which sold out on Net-A-Porter within an hour), he wrote in an essay for The Guardian, “Barbie is the perfect muse for a designer: she’s had every job imaginable and an outfit for every occasion, from day to evening, put together with real flair.”
But the transition from full-size clothing to, well, Barbie-size, isn’t as simple as just scaling down catwalk creations. “Barbie’s clothes have to be relatively easy to change, and almost everything closes at the back,” Best says, explaining that functionality is the most important component when it comes to designing her clothing. “Size also impacts decisions around the kind of fabrics and details that work on such a small scale.” And with the toy manufacturing process being even more aggressive than the fashion calendar, Best says he and the remainder of Barbie's "glam squad" are "already thinking about 2018 designs, while most fashion designers only work six months ahead." Though their production schedules may differ, the design floor at Mattel HQ closely resembles that of a studio and the showroom of a fashion house. Cubicles look like 3-D Pinterest boards: smothered in Vogue cuts, pictures of Katy Perry from Entertainment Weekly, and fabric swatches. “Barbie dresses in the clothes that young girls are seeing on women they look up to, whether it's celebrities like Taylor Swift, or bloggers, or Instagram stars,” he says. “As designers, we’ll put together trend boards, pulling references from the internet and from fashion magazines like Vogue, to celebrity titles like Hollywood Reporter, People, and Variety.” On top of trend forecasters like WGSN, Mattel’s Barbie division has its own dedicated "consumer insights" department, though Best points out that Barbie's role isn't to be a trendsetter — it's to be a reflection of the items people are actually wearing on the streets. “Barbie has always been a mirror of social and fashion trends, a constant reflection of the times,” he says, pointing to a row of vintage dolls. He notes that their fashions and hair reflect of-the-moment styles so accurately, it’s easy to immediately decipher which decade the doll is from. “It’s not Barbie’s job to occupy the 'edge’ of a trend; ideally, we want her comfortably in the middle, in that sweet spot where a design is most accessible and appropriate for kids and relevant to the widest possible range of consumer. I’m thinking about everyone, from a dad in the Midwest to a collector or a fan in Europe or Asia. It’s terrifying when you think about the sheer breadth of taste levels and exposure a single design will have.”
Clearly, a fashion obsessive’s passion doesn’t shrink just because the model does. And while she may not exactly be starting trends, Best insists that dressing the pint-size muse is never boring. “We get to push the envelope when we’re designing for Instagram fashion shoots rather than purely product,” he says, explaining how Instagram is Barbie’s catwalk: an artsier, edgier platform geared more towards adult fans. “We’ve worked with the Valentino, Marc Jacobs, and Stella McCartney teams, and we did a really fun partnership for Zoolander 2. But for so many designers, playing with a Barbie doll as a child was their first introduction to fashion, their first awakening about the transformative power of clothes to change your identity, career, and life. As a child you’re just playing, but we work with a lot of designers who tell us their first taste of fashion was dressing a Barbie doll.” Was this the case for Best? “The doll I played with as a kid belonged to my sister," he says with a sigh of nostalgia. "It was Quick Curl Barbie and she had hair that you could curl and was dressed in pink gingham. She was amazing."