“Barbie Bootcamp:” A Look Inside the Mattel Archive That Inspired the Film

For longtime fans of all things Barbie — which is currently in the middle of celebrating its 65th anniversary — Greta Gerwig’s Barbie film provided a different level of enjoyment. Filled with references to notable dolls and doll accessories from decades past, Margot Robbie’s Barbie and Ryan Gosling’s Ken wore bespoke ensembles dating back to brand’s 1959 inception.

Both Mattel’s head of design for dolls Kim Culmone and chief branding officer Lisa McKnight have reasons why Barbie has been special to them. McKnight, who described herself as living and breathing Barbie, offers, “to see the world get to know Barbie in her current form and for people that no longer play with the doll reappraise their view on Barbie because of the movie has been incredible.”

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The filmmakers behind the $1.44 billion grossing movie were briefed on Barbie’s origin story and were taken to the Barbie archive at Mattel headquarters in El Segundo, Calif.

“We gave them what I call the ‘Barbie Bootcamp,’” says McKnight of first meeting with Robbie, Gerwig and other members of the Barbie team. “Full immersion into the brand.”

In speaking about the company’s process with Jacqueline Durran, the Oscar-nominated costume designer for the film, Culmone says, “My team and I created multiple decks of chapters of Barbie’s fashion history.” The costume designer also did her own research, and the team often went back and forth to provide the designer with physical samples and different versions of Barbie fashion packs.

For McKnight, who has been with the company for nearly 25 years, the Barbie movie was like a partial scrapbook of her own career history. She says, “Sugar Daddy Ken to Video Girl Barbie, some dolls that I worked on, it was just a kick to see them all larger than life.” Sugar Daddy Ken, also known as Palm Beach Sugar Daddy Ken, was priced at $82 upon launch in 2009 and was meant to appeal to adult collectors.

Hot Skatin Barbie
Hot Skatin Barbie, 1994

While the Mattel team is arguably the most knowledge about all things Barbie, execs found that they discovered new parts of the doll’s long history in the making-of process for Barbie. McKnight says that one Barbie fact that struck a particular cord with the team: The doll pre-dates women’s guaranteed right to a bank account of their own. (Barbie was released in 1959. Meanwhile, the Equal Credit Opportunity Act was signed into law in 1974.)

“Barbie was created at a time when women couldn’t even have their own bank accounts and created by a female entrepreneur, working mom,” McKnight said. “It’s a great reminder when you think about how far we’ve come.”

President Barbie
President Barbie

There was also some other unexpected reminders.

“We had a doll that came with a dog that pooped called Pooping Tanner. It came with a pooper scooper.” Barbie featured a life size Pooping Tanner that wandered around the home of Weird Barbie (played by Kate McKinnon). Says McKnight, “I will say, it was a bestseller.”

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