Fashion designer Carol Spencer spent her career creating covetable garments for a extraordinarily unusual client, one who stood merely 11 ¹/₂ inches tall: Barbie.
Spencer designed the doll’s wardrobe for higher than three a very long time, making her the enduring decide’s longest-running stylist. Now thankfully retired, the 86-year-old writes about her reign inside the vibrant “Dressing Barbie: A Celebration of the Clothes that Made America’s Favorite Doll and the Incredible Woman Behind Them,” out Tuesday (HarperCollins).
Spencer started at Mattel in 1963, quickly wowing her bosses collectively together with her first genuine outfit: a Jackie-O impressed, purple and white skirt and excessive set known as “Crisp and Cool.”
From there, says the Los Angeles-based designer, she drummed up 1000’s of appears to be for the doll, along with the mannequin’s all-time best vendor: the sassy blond “Totally Hair” Barbie, who wore a Pucci-esque minidress and had voluminous, crimped hair that dangled all one of the simplest ways proper all the way down to her ankles.
Although Spencer had a bona fide dream job, she says she almost didn’t have a career the least bit.
“When I graduated from high school [in 1950], I was madly in love and engaged to be married,” Spencer tells The Post. She had a job in her hometown of Minneapolis, setting pages on the Sears Roebuck catalog — work she describes as every “horrible” and “mundane,” nonetheless one factor that yielded a paycheck. And as her fiancé’s mom and pa appreciated to remind her, it wasn’t eternal: After he accomplished medical faculty, she would possibly cease and placed on “doctor’s wife” as a badge of honor.
That plan didn’t sit so properly with Spencer.
“The more I thought about it, the more I didn’t like being ruled by someone’s parents,” she says. When she pushed once more, her boyfriend dumped her.
But Spencer had a backup plan: Just sooner than the connection ended, within the summertime of 1950, she had observed an advert for a neighborhood fashion design faculty. It sparked her curiosity: She had sewn her private clothes since her sophomore yr of highschool, after Christian Dior unveiled his “New Look,” with its nipped-waist jackets and lavishly full skirts, in 1947.
“We didn’t have a lot of money, so I started coming up with innovative ways of redesigning my clothes,” she says. “Then I was buying fabric and making my own, always wanting to add that touch.”
After getting her bachelor’s diploma on the Minneapolis College of Art and Design, she went on to work for a few utterly completely different producers. But it wasn’t until she was employed by Mattel that she lastly met her muse.
At the time, Barbie — creator Ruth Handler’s 3-D reply to paper dolls — was billed as a teenage model. As Spencer quickly found, the work of dressing the miniature fashion maven was troublesome: She wanted to identify a improvement at merely the suitable second — after it appeared on the runway nonetheless sooner than it obtained watered down in mass-market retail — and decide learn to make it associated to kids.
Barbie’s outfits had been always designed with play in ideas, Spencer says. “It was about figuring out a situation for the fashion that would be appealing to a child,” she says, citing a movie date with Ken or a go to out for ice cream as doable playful conditions to brighten for.
There was moreover the matter of Barbie’s measurement.
The doll is a perfect 1-to-6 scale of an on a regular basis girl, Spencer says, that signifies that if Barbie had been human, she’d be about 5-foot-7. Her human-ish proportions — wasp-waist and mile-long legs nonetheless — meant that each one the issues Barbie wore wanted to look “right.”
Splashy patterns posed a selected downside, on account of they wanted to be appropriately scaled down. Spencer says that in these early years, sooner than the suitable experience passed off, the design crew normally hand-painted their material samples. “If we were three millimeters off on certain things,” she says, the look is perhaps ruined.
Barbie’s tiny gear — from necklaces to hats to pearl-studded earrings — wanted to be painstakingly proportioned, too.
But for Spencer, who for years admired couturiers equal to Dior and Pauline Trigère, along with the native California sportswear designers, the job was a dream come true.
She devoured fashion magazines, from Vogue to Seventeen, in quest of ideas. When that failed, she regarded to her private closet. She moreover beloved leisurely walks by way of the streets of Los Angeles, taking inside the varieties. “My house is located just a few blocks from Beverly Hills,” she says. “If I wanted to see high fashion, I could go over to Neiman Marcus or Saks Fifth Avenue. The French fashion houses, from Claude Montana to Yves Saint Laurent — they all had their shops here.”
It was Saint Laurent himself who gave Spencer one in every of her most memorable compliments.
Spencer says she met the famed Frenchman inside the late 1960s, at an enterprise luncheon in Hollywood, Calif. At the time, the designer was on the height of his fame, having not too way back debuted his colorblocked Mondrian assortment down the runway. But when Spencer and her colleagues launched themselves, she says Saint Laurent was just about deferential.
1960s “Trailblazers” Barbie and “Fur Sighted” Barbie, in Spencer’s designs.Elizabeth Lippman
“He said he always looked at the Barbie line to see what we were coming out with,” she says. “It was wonderful.” Later, she let herself take into consideration line of trendy pantsuits she did for Barbie would possibly want impressed Saint Laurent’s mannequin of the swinging ’60s fashion.
As her duties grew, Spencer’s work with Mattel took her in every single place, from New York, to the Carolinas and even Asia, the place she spent two years inside the late ’80s, stationed at a producing unit in Hong Kong.
But in the end, she says, she started shedding steam. “I just couldn’t hold it together any longer,” she says of retiring in December 1998. “I could color my hair, and cover up the gray, but not the wrinkles,” she jokes.
And so she said goodbye to Barbie, although she nonetheless retains an entire bunch of the dolls in her consuming room. “You never eat alone in my house!” Spencer says.
And although she’s had some “wonderful relationships” since that broken high-school engagement, Spencer — like Barbie, on no account formally married. “I’m still looking for Mr. Right!” she says, laughing.