Joanne Sasvari, Calgary HeraldPublished: Friday, October 06, 2006
As a designer, Robert Best loves luxurious fabrics and glamorous fashions. He adores beautiful colours, fine details and exquisite accessories.
“I’m always grounded in a certain esthetic or style. I’m a purist, a classicist,” says Best. “I’m not going to be Mr. Crazy-Over-the-Top.”
Unfortunately for women who lust after his luscious clothing, he designs for just one woman, and she happens to be 29 centimetres tall, made of resin and occasionally ends up in the bottom of the toy box, minus a limb or two.
Best is the fashion designer for Mattel Inc.’s Barbie doll. He is also famous for his appearance this past season on Bravo’s Project Runway, the reality TV show that follows a bunch of competing fashion designers. He made it more than halfway through before being cut.
“Project Runway was cool,” he said at a recent Barbie convention in Calgary. “It was an exhausting, gruelling schedule and you’re being filmed constantly. You’re in this hotbed of insanity and competition. There is a tendency to come unglued a little.”
The whole time he was on the show, he was aware that he represented Mattel: “I didn’t want to be the crazy designer who trash-talks everyone else. I just tried to make it about the work.”
Best joined Mattel 11 years ago after working in New York’s fashion industry for five years, most recently for Isaac Mizrahi.
“I just reached a point where I was suffering from fashion burnout,” he says with a shrug.
A friend suggested that, since his sketches always looked like Barbie anyway, he should consider working at Mattel. So he did.
Now he designs the highly sought after Barbie Fashion Model Collection, a series more likely to be kept in a display cabinet than a toy box.
And while Barbie herself may never complain that, say, a certain design makes her bum look too big, the job definitely has its challenges.
“I think the biggest challenge in designing for Barbie is the scale. You’re designing for an 11 1/2-inch doll,” Best says.
“Surprisingly, in Barbie land, certain things, really fine details like pintucking, aren’t going to have the same effect.”
Then there’s the problem of scaling materials down to Barbie size. While buckles, beads, jewelry and so on can be miniaturized, fabric can’t.
“There aren’t tiny looms to weave Barbie scale,” Best says.
Instead, for impact, he uses colour, texture, feathers and fake fur. “And, of course, who doesn’t like sparkle?”
The process begins when he comes up with a sketch for a design. Next, he turns to his sample maker, Nini Tun.
“She’s the point person for everything,” he says. “I show her a sketch and she really understands how I want that to come to life.”
Once Tun has created her sample, they visit the face and hair people who help determine what the doll should look like, whether she should have blue eyes and platinum hair, for instance, or green eyes and red hair.
“It’s a very head-to-toe thing. It’s not just fashion,” Best says.
After that, the rest of the team crafts the accessories, the jewelry, shoes, handbag, and so on. Then, he says, “All of these details have to be translated into an actual product.”
Although the design process is quick — about two weeks from sketch to prototype — it can take Barbie two years to get from concept to toy store.
The most recent collection Best has created is the 2007 Barbie Fashion Model Collection Hollywood.
“I don’t think there’s anything that represents old world glamour as well as the golden era of Hollywood,” he says. Besides, he adds, “L.A. is Barbie’s home, so it seemed kind of natural.”
The collection features glamorous clothes that many real women would love to own, among them a Sarah Jessica Parkerish pink dress and a red-and-leopard ensemble complete with Balenciaga-esque handbag.
Luckily, he says, designing for Barbie lets him really explore his fashion esthetic: “They’ve given me a very sort of carte blanche approach. We try to switch it up every year and make sure it’s unique.”
Unique, and very tiny.