Black like Barbie and Me

*Updated to include the lastest images and designer credits.

 

When I was a child my mom searched high and low to get me dolls that looked like me–my parents we very black conscious—but even as they found black Barbies, way back in the late 70s black Barbie had dark(ish) skin but always, always the Barbie I got had the inevitable waist length, swishy straight hair.

Vintage Barbie

I grew up believing that Barbie was the ideal beauty and that black was indeed beautiful but only if black was simply white with black skin. I coveted long straight hair that I could brush like I brushed Barbie’s and when I was six I got my first relaxer and I was thrilled, I brushed it and I swished it and I felt beautiful. When I was nine I was almost bald from the chemicals and had to have my dry, broken hair cut to near army specifications.  When it grew to an inch or so I was told that I would finally be able to get another chemical, the Jheri Curl. My mother and her hairdresser told me that this was the only way that they’d be able to “manage” my thick, kinky hair and I believed, trusted, that eventually I’d get my hair back to Barbie’s length and texture. Even though I had long since given up my Barbie dolls I desperately wanted to be considered beautiful, and so without thinking about it I began my quest for perfect, acceptable hair, for Barbie hair.

Barbie’s hair was straight, it was long, it was brush-able and it was pretty when I heard other girls speak of what was pretty  they often said “oh, her hair is so pretty, just like a dolly” I was indoctrinated and I didn’t even know it. I was 17 when I finally ditched my obsession with straight hair and embraced my kinky, nappy hair but it has been a struggle in the years since because society still places a premium on straight (or not kinky) hair and the process of indoctrination starts before we are even aware such things are affecting our young girls.

A few years ago Barbie got a makeover, her DD breasts (implants I think) were scaled back to a reasonable size and she got a little thicker in the middle (thank goodness because that 18″ waist was freaking me out) she acquired several black friends  in the forms of Kara, Grace, Chandra and Trichelle but even as she got a little soul, Barbie’s long hair still flowed straight down her back and little girls who were black like me still coveted her tresses. We had bought into the fiction that Barbie was selling, that long straight hair was beauty and that if we could pretend that it was growing out of our heads like Barbie that was even better. The mainstream black hair industry is built on this fiction and some of those little girls from my youth had grown up and were making the weave shops happy with the results of unaddressed indoctrination.

Warning! This video is Not Safe For Work (Language)

Well, now that we all feel a little dirty, I will say that I applaud Mattel’s efforts to make Barbies that actually look like black women although I remain disappointed that they are all apparently addicted to weave like liquored-up West Coast socialites. What to do about the issue? I recently decided to make a Barbie that I wished I had when I was five, Barbie with kinky hair almost like mine, with inky black skin like mine and with clothing and accessories that didn’t look like she’d just left the set of a Lil’ Wayne video.

Here she is straight out of the box with her swishy long hair

Before

and here she is with her pipe cleaner curlers

and with the curls

and finally with her new, fierce ‘fro  and wearing a one-shouldered shibori top and pearls.

After!

 

 

Kara is wearing Alexis Campbell Resort Wear 2012 Photo Credit: Risée Chaderton 2012

 

Chandra's hair by Hajar Mohammed of Hapi Loc Groomers and her outfit is by Ayeba Asher Photo Credit: Risée Chaderton

somebody is going to love her birthday gift!

Credits:

Alexis Campbell – clothing and accessories,

Christine Kumchy – Shibori  fabric (shirt)

*Ayeba Asher – Traditional African Clothing Designer

Leigh Weatherhead- Principal doll stylist

Adrian Charles: Lighting Assistant

Risée Chaderton – Photography, hair and styling

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Well designed: Alexis Campbell speaks of her first love and passion

While most 22 year olds are busy planning their outfits for  endless rounds of weekend parties, Alexis Campbell is staring at her overlock sewing machine, contemplating the finish of an outfit from the dozens of unfinished pieces that line every surface of her studio. The  tiny workspace she shares with her father is thankfully cool and breezy, but sweat beads on her brow as she concentrates on the details. She is hard at work… perpetually at work. It is Tuesday, and that is just how it is, day and night, around Alexis.

Alexis fixing one of her creations worn by Shanelle Johnson

The former student of The St. Michael School, and graduate of Harrison College’s ‘A’ level program, was once on a course to become either an architect or an interior designer, and says that she fell into the world of fashion design by accident. “I studied ‘A’ Level Geometric and Mechanical Engineering, Maths, and Art at Harrison College; but by the end of my time there, I was still undecided as to which direction to take.”

It was that indecision that led Alexis to sign up for a course offered at the Barbados Community College in fashion design.

Swimwear that is designed for looking good, not getting wet.

“I was just killing time, really,” she admits, “and it took me a very long time to realise that fashion design was actually something that I was good at.” Recalling her life before fashion, Alexis says, “Just like any little girl, I used to make clothes for my dolls when I was bored, and as I got older I decided that I hated paying lots of money for the cheaply made clothes found in Bridgetown.” With her distaste for overpriced garments spurring her on, Alexis decided to make her own clothes. Her first attempts were less than stellar, and she recalls with amusement the black and white polka dot pants that were “shooting”, and suffered from a badly-cut inseam that impaired her movement.

“My dad saw me in those pants and took me home later, and showed my how to cut a pants pattern. I was 11.” She laughs as she recalls the “horrifying” effort, but admits that it was the constant support from her father Richard that kept her trying her hand at designing, over and over again.

Animal print romper with leather shoulder detail

The epiphany came for Alexis near the end of her second year at the Barbados Community College. “During that year, coming down to my last semester, I finally realised that I could make a business of fashion— and it didn’t seem like a job. I could sew, and still be an artist, and still make money.”

In 2009 she showed her first collection at BMEX, and still appears amused and stunned by the response. “It was menswear, and people were surprised that a little girl like me could do stuff like that. Many people didn’t really believe that I had done all the work myself.” But she had done all the work herself, having perfected her tailoring skills under the tutelage of her father. 

Richard Campbell is a tailor with more than 30 years’ experience, and Alexis spent many years paying close attention to his pattern making skills. “BCC taught me how to cut patterns, and my father showed me how to perfect them. I watched him during my school years, and as soon as I was old enough I started helping in the workroom. I owe a lot of my success to my father.”

Of her future plans, the young designer is enthusiastic. “I would love to do Caribbean Fashion Week, and the Islands Of the World Fashion show in the Bahamas, because I want to show people what Barbados has to offer.”

Screenshot from Lifetime's Project Runway of Anya Ayoung-Chee with fashion guru Tim Gunn

She also spoke about the door that has been opened by Anya Ayoung-Chee, the Trinidadian designer who wowed the fashion world with her Caribbean charm and design skills on the American “reality” television show, Project Runway. “I would love to do Project Runway! I think that I could compete with the designers there. I know I could be great, and I know I’d do Barbados proud— if I ever got the opportunity.”

Alexis Campbell in one of her designs with jewellery by Keith Shepherd of Christian Friis Jewellery