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Losing the Limo: New Fashion Dolls

Ruth La Ferla
New York Times
November 6, 2009

Rapunzel has nothing on Avery, a 10-inch injection-molded mall princess whose flaxen hair cascades to her knees. Rapunzel might also have envied Avery’s smart wardrobe and her arsenal of styling tools, from thumb-size lip gloss to a tiny curling iron.

One in a quartet of Moxie Girlz, Avery is among the latest in a phalanx of doe-eyed fashion dolls jostling for attention on toy shelves this season, their cutting-edge clothes making them hits with a nation of aspiring primary-school Rachel Zoes.

Ms. Zoe, the celebrity stylist, might herself have a field day with the dolls’ bright frocks and accessories — although she would probably sniff at the lack of glitz.

The Moxie Girlz, along with four Liv dolls and the Barbie Fashionistas, introduced in August, are more funky than flashy, their high-style, low-key personas embodying their marketers’ response to sober times.

They stand in contrast, especially, to the big-headed Bratz dolls, whose sometimes provocative clothing and fabulous lives — accessories included hot tubs and limousines — made them a $1 billion franchise a few years ago. But Bratz dolls have vanished from toy shelves since Mattel won a lawsuit for copyright infringement against their maker, MGA Entertainment, last year.

“Bratz celebrated materialism; we don’t,” said Ben Varadi, the creative director of Spin Master, the Toronto company that makes the plastic Liv dolls, positioned as the anti-Bratz, decked out in denim jackets and tooling around on tiny motor scooters.

Moxie Girlz, too, made by MGA, have turned their backs on gas-guzzling Escalades in favor of a fuel-efficient compact.

For better or worse, these new fashion dolls “reflect what’s in the culture right now,” Mr. Varadi said. “I don’t see Liv having a limo any time soon.”

What Liv and her cohort do possess are abundant locks — the better to crimp and to wave — articulated joints, back stories (Sophie, one of the Liv girls, is an aspiring celebrity stylist) and full social calendars that are documented on the Web. Their interactive features and fresh-faced looks, played up in television advertisements, have propelled them to the top of Christmas shopping lists at Wal-Mart, Target, Amazon and Toys “R” Us, where they are ringing up impressive sales.

“Since Bratz, there really hasn’t been anything exciting in the fashion dolls category,” said Garrick Johnson, a toy industry analyst with BMO Capital Markets. But by speaking to the aspirations of style-struck 8- and 9-year-olds, newcomers like Liv and Moxie have “revitalized the fashion doll category,” Mr. Johnson said.

Barbie and her accessories still rule the toy shelves, retailers and analysts say, taking in about $3 billion a year. The Liv and Moxie lines, by contrast, are each expected to generate $30 to $40 million this year, said Jim Silver, the editor in chief of, an industry journal. “But by the standards of the toy industry,” he added, “that’s a great success.”

Others maintain that Liv may one day be poised to knock Barbie from her perch. “If I were Barbie, I would be really concerned,” said Lutz Muller of the Klosters Trading Corporation, a toy and video game market research company. “Liv is an excellently constructed doll with much better functionality than most of her competitors.”

Mattel seems unshaken. “The leading indicators, including the most recent market share, all show growth for Barbie,” said Richard Dickson, a senior vice president. “Barbie has remained as the top fashion doll for 50 years as other doll brands have come in and out.”

Friendlier, younger and more hip-looking than Barbie, the Liv and Moxie dolls are aimed at pint-size consumers who mimic girls in their teens. One devotee, Ally Alessi, 8, who takes her style cues from Keke Palmer, who plays a fictional teenage fashion designer on the Nickelodeon network, already owns a Barbie. But the other day she had her eye on the Liv and Moxie dolls at the Toys “R” Us store in Times Square. “The Liv dolls have their own user names on little tickets that get you to go online,” Ally said raptly. “I know it because I saw it on TV.”

Liv, is perhaps the most lavishly detailed of the new dolls.

“We wanted to create a collector-doll feel,” said Mr. Varadi, who gave the Liv dolls glasslike eyes, glossy hair, interchangeable wigs and 14 points of articulation that make them easy to dress. He aimed to make Liv pretty but approachable by giving her slightly plump facial features and contours softer than Barbie’s. “We went through five different sculptors” to create an alternative to Barbie’s chiseled cheeks and pneumatic curves, he said, adding, “We didn’t want Liv to look like she just came back from a plastic surgeon.”

His company studied Vogue and Elle and youth-oriented television shows, and even visited local surf shops, in search of inspiration.

Moxie is giving Liv a run for the money in part by appealing to girls’ creative sides: Some of the Moxies come with clothes that can be hand-colored and sheared. “In some respects, these girls are designing the clothes themselves,” Mr. Johnson, the analyst, said, “and that’s a strong part of the dolls’ appeal.”

Bratz dolls were sometimes criticized for being heavily made up and suggestively dressed. Some child psychologists worry that the new dolls, which come with “necessities” from hair driers to handbags, pose another problem. “You are robbing them of the opportunity to use their imaginations,” said Claudia Paradise, a New York psychoanalyst who works with children. “But that’s big business,” she added resignedly.

Both Spin Master and MGA say they are fostering self-expression by offering girls the chance to mix and match doll wardrobes as their whim dictates. To entice them, however, “you have to have the right types of clothes — the distressed jeans, the lip gloss and the shoes — those are crucial,” said Mr. Silver, the Timetoplaymag editor. “Little girls pay special attention to details like that.”

MGA is engaging the lollipop set with a hipsters’ wardrobe of denim jumpsuits and studded pink mini dresses for its Moxie Girlz. Even though the looks and accessories may reflect a more frugal, do-it-yourself era, to some critics they encourage as much materialism as their predecessors.

“These girls remain immersed in a world obsessed primarily with looks and clothes,” said Susan Linn, a child psychologist in Boston and the director of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood. “The purpose of their marketers is not to sell the dolls so much as to sell the stuff that goes with them.”

Their proliferating wardrobes are catnip to 8-year-old Maria Modila. Checking out a gowned Fashionista doll at Toys “R” Us last week, Maria said: “I like her. But if I could keep changing her clothes, I would like her more.”

Just a few steps away in the Moxie aisle, Ally Alessi was tossing her mother a beseeching glance. Noticing the boxed satin dress that her daughter so obviously coveted, Angela Alessi tried to appease her. “If you get the doll now,” she promised, “Santa will bring you the other things later.”





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