Fashion designer Kitty Perkins, from Spartanburg, South Carolina, who was hired by Mattel as the principal designer for Barbie in 1978 went on to be the brilliant mastermind who led the design team for the first-ever Black Barbie doll that was released in 1980. For over 30 years, she played a vital role in diversifying one of the country’s most popular toys.
Growing up in the South, she always saw a lack of dolls that reflected diversity and inclusion, which fueled her passion for fashion and creativity. At the age of 28, Kitty landed a job interview with Mattel, the company behind Barbie, and was given the challenge of redesigning a Barbie doll with a fresh wardrobe. Her creation impressed the company, and she was hired as a Barbie clothes designer.
During Barbie’s early years, the dolls faced criticism for their lack of diversity, mainly featuring thin, white dolls. In 1969, Mattel introduced “Talking Christie,” the first Black doll, though not officially part of the Barbie line. In 1978, Kitty was promoted to Barbie’s principal designer. A year later, she was entrusted with creating the first-ever Black Barbie.
Kitty Perkins rose to the occasion, creating history with the Black Barbie. Packaged with the bold declaration, “She’s Black! She’s beautiful! She’s dynamite!” the Black Barbie lived up to the hype. Kitty crafted a stunning red bodysuit with a disco-inspired wrap skirt and modern accessories like a necklace and hoop earrings.
“My first week [at Mattel], I would just sit and brush Barbie’s hair. It would give me ideas and it was a thinking process for me. As I was stroking the hair, ideas would just come,” Perkins recounted, according to Greenville News.
Throughout her three-decade-long tenure as chief designer, Kitty drew inspiration from magazines, fashion shows, and personal experiences. She created over 100 designs annually, from the Astronaut Barbie in 1985 to the game-changing Brandy Barbie Dolls in the late ’90s, inspired by singer Brandy Norwood.
Kitty Perkins’ impact on toy culture was profound, transforming Barbie and empowering Black girls to see themselves represented. Her work earned her numerous awards, and she was inducted into the Black Hall of Fame in 2001 before retiring from Mattel in 2002.
Today, Kitty’s legacy lives on in the form of Black Barbie dolls, honoring real-life trailblazers like Olympic star Flo-Jo, Maya Angelou, Madam C.J. Walker, actress Yara Shahidi, and tennis phenom Naomi Osaka. Her creativity and fearlessness continue to inspire generations, making Kitty Perkins a true pioneer in the Barbie universe.
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