Doll Parts (Quintessentially)

At last September’s Fashion’s Night Out event in New York, hundreds of people queued on the corner of Fifth Avenue and West 58th Street to get into Bergdorf Goodman’s while cabaret artiste extraordinaire and Mugler muse Joey Arias – dressed in his customary Betty Paige outfit – serenaded them within a window display. Inside, there was a near riot going on. Bypassing the meet and greet with Tom Ford, shoppers joined the scrum to try and buy one of 200 Jason Wu-designed couture dolls, each wearing an oversized off-white pussy-bow collared blouse, high heels, huge shades and clutching a Bergdorf’s carrier. Stock sold out within an hour. ‘We could have sold what we had a hundred times over,’ said a sales assistant.

In the same month, the Musée de la Poupée in Paris was exhibiting a selection of exquisitely handcrafted dolls by the London-based designers Charles Fegen and Desmond Lingard, marking the fifth anniversary of their ‘doll house’, The Sybarites. Amongst the collection – as dynamic and chic as a René Gruau sketch come to life – were outfits with oversized horse-hair shoulders reminiscent of early McQueen, and a razor-blade dress, clearly inspired by the finale of Andrew Groves’ Spring/Summer 1999 Cocaine Nites collection.

Barbie’s flirtations with high fashion – particularly in recent years thanks to a PR-reboot – are well known, and many a big name on the prêt a porter schedules started out their careers by making-to-measure for their Sindys, but these new haute fashion dolls are something infinitely more sophisticated. The designers behind The Sybarites compare their product to the Pandores, 18th century dolls that modelled the latest fashions and were anything but children’s playthings. To reinforce the point, they created a dramatic ‘Self-Medication’ collection, with dolls (possessing an alarming resemblance to Daphne Guinness), in sinister leg braces with lead-lined shoes. Very Issy Blow. They also bought one of their dolls a seat at the Dior Couture, whilst the prices of their dolls at auction have hit the $40,000 mark, which is decidedly couture in itself.

The worlds of high fashion and haute doll-making have obvious parallels – both trade in fantasy and revolve around men’s more eccentric desires to dress up and ‘create woman’. In both, exclusivity is everything. Vreeland and Warhol acolyte BillyBoy designed Barbies for Mattel and then went on to create the hugely collectible Mdvanii range of fashion dolls, complete with a logo by the aforementioned Réné Gruau (who John Galliano hailed as the main inspiration for what would turn out to be his final Dior couture collection, for spring 2011). The late Yves Saint Laurent claimed that BillBoy’s Mdvannii was an immense inspiration. ‘They helped me discover my childhood again,’ he said.

Fashion dolls are a continuingly integral part of the ‘real’ fashion universe. Jason Wu – constantly referenced by Condé Nast as a favourite designer of Michelle Obama – started his career at the age of 16 designing doll clothing for the company Integrity, and has worked with them ever since. He also produced a line for Harlem-based heritage company Madame Alexander last year. The Integrity dolls come with an elaborate back story, and at last year’s ‘Dark Romance’ convention, the company unveiled ‘Giselle Diefendorf (in a vast black ruffled gown)…  modelling at the fashion show that her big sister is hosting.’ For this spring, Integrity’s Monogram line included Chanel-like monochrome accessory packs, while their Fashion Royalty line continues to include male model types so arch that they bring to mind Paris is Burning more than Zoolander.

These dolls are deadly serious. The outfits are to die for and the attention to detail in the likes of the Gowns by Anne Harper collection at Tonner – inspired by 1940s classic Hollywood – is genuinely beautiful. These really are as desirable and emotive as the best fashion illustrations or photographs. And yet, while they aren’t toys, they push all the pleasure buttons associated with play. Certainly Tonner’s Miss Piggy line (and lest we forget that Piggy has form here – she’s sat front row at Julien Macdonald, collaborated with Marc Jacobs and plays a plus-sized fashion editor for Vogue Paris in this year’s new Muppet Movie), is irresistible fun, right down to her early-Mugler leather-look catsuits and Mary Quant vinyl muir cap. She’s a plus-size fashion icon who, as the people at Tonner say, ‘cannot (and will not) share clothing with other pigs.’


The doe-eyed doll beauty
Omnipresent in Japan, Blythe is more Anna Sui on E than Hello Kitty, Cindy Sherman than Sindy. First seen in 1972 and produced by a variety of makers since, Kenzo and Charlotte Ronson created dolls for charity auctions last year. There are three sizes, and the largest (at 28cm) has colour changing eyes. Blythe has a slavish following, and has appeared in countless fashion photographs in her own right. When the late Alexander McQueen produced a diffusion line with Target in the US in 2009, Blythe starred in the adverts. Expect to pay over $400 for a large Takara NeoBlythe model, and much more for the scarcest of editions at auction.

Deadly serious haute couture dolls
16 inches of major, resin, fashion statement for the serious collector, straight out of Fegen and Lingard’s Superfrock studio in London’s Hoxton. Such is their following that buyers have to sign a contract promising not to discuss pricing or to resell models for at least year 3 years. This is fashion doll as very fine art indeed. One outfit can take 100 hours to make while the most sought after, most detailed designs (in an edition of 1 of 1), are rumoured to have sold for over $20,000. The inspirations are as leftfield as anything at the real couture shows – one of the first Sybarites – a ‘Chelsea Girl’ – wore red and white polka dot shoes ‘because she wanted to have magic mushrooms for breakfast’.

Slick Manhattan chic in high-gloss resin
Overseen by New York City designer Jason Wu, the AvantGuards line (which sells new for $220 a doll) features interchangeable wigs reminiscent of Linda Evangelista, two sets of hands and feet and 21 points of articulation, and some slick, bright feather detailing. The Misaki line is only officially available in Japan, and includes a fake-tanned Farah-Fawcett-haired Harajuku Honey doll. Many pieces are limited – look for ‘warehouse finds’ on their website and stash them away. The Monsieur Z Fly Girl is a fabulous Braniff-style ‘60s airline stewardess, complete with magnetised metal serving tray.

The All-American fashion-doll house
Tonner are more Hollywood than haute couture, from the Tim Burton chic of Evangeline Ghastly (the Dark Illusions Skirt from the new collection is pure Victorian widows weeds) to the made-to-order west coast chic of the Revlon Fashion Doll Collection (which has a very-LA waiting list). The immensely detailed Anne Harper collection – straight out of a technicolour Douglas Sirk melodrama – sells new for between $100-$225.


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