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Meet the huge community of Barbie collectors: ‘When people find out, they look at you like you’re from Mars’

The pandemic motivated many devoted fans of the most famous doll in the world to dust off their beloved treasures and show them off online

Barbie
Barbie fashionistas, 2023 edition.

In the book Forever Barbie: The Unauthorized Biography of a Real Doll, author M.G. Lord refers to Barbie as the ultimate piece of popular art; one that was created to be consumed by everybody, not just a few. Today a Barbie doll is sold every three seconds – and, like all works of art, they are also collected and exhibited. The collectors are Instagrammers, and their accounts are akin to a gallery one would visit on a Sunday morning after enjoying an overpriced brunch.

Mattel is aware that a fundamental part of Barbie’s legacy is in the hands of the collectors, and the company acknowledges the value they give to the brand. Each Instagram collector offers a unique, distinctive identity, along with a personal story of how they came to feel understood and protected among their followers and their likes.

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@barbie_lover_spain was three years old the first time a Barbie doll fell into his hands. It was a very disheveled 1989 Dance Magic Barbie that belonged to his older cousin. “For me [Barbie] became a great refuge, because sometimes I felt a little alone,” he admits. @barbie_coleccionista used to watch his sister play without being able to participate, while @barbiecollectorpy did play, but secretly. All @condecollector wanted to get for the holidays, every year, was a Barbie doll. @archivobarbie said he was the “sissy” who played with dolls in the schoolyard, and @barbielovercolombia dreamed of being a girl – specifically, her.

The Covid-19 pandemic prompted many collectors to dust off their treasures and show them off online. During that time, many accounts opened the doors of their collections. “It was a way to connect with people who were using the same resource to escape reality,” recalls @barbie_lover_spain. Between tricks, tips and sales, the different types of collectors took shape. There is the “in box collector,” who only buys dolls that have never been taken out of their original packaging; the “out of box collector,” who doesn’t mind purchasing dolls that have been outside; and the “rescue collector,” who enjoys restoring somewhat battered dolls.

The collections can be focused on characters and accessories: Barbie, Ken, Barbie’s family and friends, playsets and clothing sets; on the head molds, whose faces have been changing over time; on dolls that capture the spirit of an era, such as the Superstar era of the 1970s or the Generation Girl era from the early 2000s; on Barbie Playline, the ones that can be found in any toy store, or Collector Dolls, with a more detailed, delicate design; or on international productions from the time when Mattel granted manufacturing and distribution licenses to countries like Spain, Mexico, Venezuela or Peru, and which can fetch the highest prices in the “rare” category.

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Some have professionalized their hobby by associating their personal image with the doll. “Being part of the community helped me overcome my shyness when making videos for my YouTube channel or speaking publicly about Barbie,” says @barbielovercolombia. “The community gives me and my country that visibility [...] Now, in live streams or in events, they always invite ‘the guy from Paraguay.’ It’s a real honor,” says @barbiecollectorpy. Then there are those who do not show their faces. “It’s something that I don’t talk about much; the truth is that I’ve done it pretty much alone. I just thought that someone might be interested in my collection,” admits @archivobarbie.

The common denominator that motivates the collectors, the base that sustains this new online community, is nostalgia. Emily Aguiló-Pérez, who devotes part of her career to studying the Barbie phenomenon in childhood, confirms this: “In the collectors who participated in my study, I recognized a sense of nostalgia [...] For instance, one of them never had a Barbie when she was little, and just displaying her collection in her living room gave her joy.” Mattel agrees: “There is no doubt that our products cause great nostalgia.” They know it and reinvent their market by creating items that produce that feeling, identifying and feeding the trends followed by kidults with specific lines of collectibles: “We are aware of the phenomenon [...] Iconic brands like Barbie, due to their weight and history, have always been a benchmark among the collector niche.”

This is where the first trace of an apparent controversy sneaks in: adults collecting dolls. “When people find out that you are an adult who collects Barbie dolls, they look at you like you´re from Mars,” says @barbie_lover_spain, “you realize that there are guys who make models of planes, cars, ships, and no one finds it strange, but as an adult who collects dolls, you’re a freak,” he concludes. Aguiló-Pérez points to another aspect that goes beyond the doll as an object: “Barbie is a figure of opulence: she has the car and the mansion, but tries to convey a social message [...], she wants to reach a broader population, but things continue to revolve around a white, blue-eyed Barbie,” she says, noting that while this is not necessarily a contradiction, it is a complexity.

In the words of Lord, for every collector for whom Barbie represents an exquisite language, there is a writer or a visual artist for whom the doll is both muse and metaphor, and whose message has to do with social injustice. “You have to have a balance. In real life I surely wouldn’t have a friend like Barbie; she wouldn’t be interested me, nor I in her. It is a character to play with, it is the fascination for the grotesque, the baroque, the circus, the fantasy,” says @archivobarbie. Among collectors, there is an appreciation for the aspirations that the doll represents, as well as the therapeutic nature of the act of collecting. “Beyond the plastic, to me she is synonymous with fulfilling dreams,” says @barbiecollectorpy. “Barbie is closely linked to my work […] I always wanted to work in the world of fashion, and she represented it,” says @condecollector. “I was constantly making them dresses with napkins [...] Since I was little I wanted to do something related to clothes [...], it helped me get into the world of fashion as an adult and develop a greater sensitivity,” admits @barbie_lover_spain. “It is a distraction when I’m overwhelmed; just seeing them all together gives me satisfaction. It’s cool,” says @barbie_coleccionista.

Lord likens the disparate and controversial idea of Barbie to a Rorschach test: each person projects diametrically opposed illusions from an apparently universal image, but in the end, each representation is considered valid and, above all, purely personal. That is why, at least on Instagram, collectors have a platform where the focus on Barbie is shared, legitimate, collective, and yes –fabulous, too.

The best collections

Barbie Lover Spain (Spain)

Number of dolls: about 450

Collector type: in box, out of box, rescue/restoration

Collection items: Barbie + Ken + friends + playsets

Focus of the collection: dolls produced from the late 1970s to 2006, with a special interest in Barbie dolls produced in Spain

First Barbie in the collection: Brenda Walsh Barbie from Beverly Hills, 90210, 1991 edition
Barbie Lover Spain (Spain) Number of dolls: about 450 Collector type: in box, out of box, rescue/restoration Collection items: Barbie + Ken + friends + playsets Focus of the collection: dolls produced from the late 1970s to 2006, with a special interest in Barbie dolls produced in Spain First Barbie in the collection: Brenda Walsh Barbie from Beverly Hills, 90210, 1991 edition
Barbie Coleccionista (Mexico)

Number of dolls: about 200

Collector type: bought in box, but displayed out of box

Collection items: Barbie + clothing sets

Focus of the collection: Silkstone Barbie

First Barbie in the collection: Jewel Hair Mermaid Barbie, 1995 edition
Barbie Coleccionista (Mexico) Number of dolls: about 200 Collector type: bought in box, but displayed out of box Collection items: Barbie + clothing sets Focus of the collection: Silkstone Barbie First Barbie in the collection: Jewel Hair Mermaid Barbie, 1995 edition
Barbie Collectorpy (Paraguay)

Number of dolls: about 400

Collector type: in box and out of box

Items in the collection: Barbie + friends

Focus of the collection: Barbie dolls produced in the 1980s and 1990s, with a special interest in long-haired Barbies

First Barbie in the collection: Jewel Hair Mermaid Barbie, 1995 edition
Barbie Collectorpy (Paraguay) Number of dolls: about 400 Collector type: in box and out of box Items in the collection: Barbie + friends Focus of the collection: Barbie dolls produced in the 1980s and 1990s, with a special interest in long-haired Barbies First Barbie in the collection: Jewel Hair Mermaid Barbie, 1995 edition
Conde Collector (Spain)

Number of dolls: about 30

Collector type: bought in box, designer/clothing maker

Items in the collection: Barbie + clothing sets + custom clothes made by the collector

Focus of the collection: Silkstone Barbie

First Barbie in the collection: Secretary Barbie from the Fashion Model collection, 2007 edition
Conde Collector (Spain) Number of dolls: about 30 Collector type: bought in box, designer/clothing maker Items in the collection: Barbie + clothing sets + custom clothes made by the collector Focus of the collection: Silkstone Barbie First Barbie in the collection: Secretary Barbie from the Fashion Model collection, 2007 edition
Archivo Barbie (Spain)

Number of dolls: about 480

Collector type: in box, out of box

Items in the collection: Barbie + Skipper (Barbie’s little sister)

Focus of the collection: Takara Barbie (Japan) + Skipper with head mold from 1987

First Barbie in the collection: Tropical Barbie, 1986 PHOTO: INSTAGRAM
Archivo Barbie (Spain) Number of dolls: about 480 Collector type: in box, out of box Items in the collection: Barbie + Skipper (Barbie’s little sister) Focus of the collection: Takara Barbie (Japan) + Skipper with head mold from 1987 First Barbie in the collection: Tropical Barbie, 1986 PHOTO: INSTAGRAM
Barbie Lover Colombia (Colombia)

Number of dolls: about 700

Collector type: in box, out of box, rescue/restoration

Items in the collection: Barbie + Ken + Barbie’s sisters (Skipper, Stace, Kelly and Krissy)

Focus of the collection: Superstar era (late 1970s, early 1990s)

First Barbie in the collection: Dance Magic Barbie, produced in Colombia by Dibon, 1990 edition
Barbie Lover Colombia (Colombia) Number of dolls: about 700 Collector type: in box, out of box, rescue/restoration Items in the collection: Barbie + Ken + Barbie’s sisters (Skipper, Stace, Kelly and Krissy) Focus of the collection: Superstar era (late 1970s, early 1990s) First Barbie in the collection: Dance Magic Barbie, produced in Colombia by Dibon, 1990 edition

Some interesting facts about Barbie

In 1977, Mattel gave Spain a license to produce Barbie dolls in the factories of the Congost company. Before that, Barbie had been banned in the country due to the Franco dictatorship. The molds belonged to Mattel, but the details of the face, hair and makeup were different from those of the American prototype. Special editions such as the 10th Anniversary Barbie from 1987 and the Top Model Barbie from 1989 that can now be found on Ebay for approximately $960 were created there.

Mexico is the only country that gave Barbie an international friend: Valerie, created by the Cipsa company. It was only available there during the 1970s.

The Totally Hair Barbie is the best-selling Barbie doll to date. It had a 1990s style and the longest hair of all: 8.5 inches.

In 2019, Barbie received the Board of Directors Tribute Award from the Council of Fashion Designers of America for her influence on the fashion industry. Bob Mackie, Bill Blass, Vera Wang, Carolina Herrera and Pertegaz are some of the designers that we could find if we take a peek in her closet.

-There was a controversial version of Skipper Roberts, Barbie’s little sister, released in 1975. When her arm was rotated, breasts would grow on the chest of Growing Up Skipper, simulating the arrival of puberty. It was withdrawn from the market and Skipper remained a teenager forever.

-In the 1970s, Mattel also granted production licenses to different Latin American countries. This is how the models known as “rare Barbie dolls,” due to the peculiarities of each country’s adaptations, came to the collector market. One can still find Barbie dolls produced in Colombia (Dibon Barbie), Mexico (Cipsa Barbie) or Peru (Basa Barbie); currently, their prices can reach almost $5,000, as is the case of Miss Barbie Reina de Belleza from Rotoplast, in Venezuela.

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