Fashion designer Carol Spencer spent her career creating covetable clothing for a highly unusual client, one who stood just 11 ¹/₂ inches tall: Barbie.
Spencer designed the doll’s wardrobe for more than three decades, making her the iconic figure’s longest-running stylist. Now happily retired, the 86-year-old writes about her reign in the colorful “Dressing Barbie: A Celebration of the Clothes that Made America’s Favorite Doll and the Incredible Woman Behind Them,” out Tuesday (HarperCollins).
Spencer started at Mattel in 1963, quickly wowing her bosses with her first original outfit: a Jackie-O inspired, red and white skirt and top set called “Crisp and Cool.”
From there, says the Los Angeles-based designer, she drummed up thousands of looks for the doll, including the brand’s all-time best seller: the sassy blond “Totally Hair” Barbie, who wore a Pucci-esque minidress and had voluminous, crimped hair that dangled all the way down to her ankles.
Although Spencer had a bona fide dream job, she says she almost didn’t have a career at all.
“When I graduated from high school [in 1950], I was madly in love and engaged to be married,” Spencer tells The Post. She had a job in her hometown of Minneapolis, setting pages on the Sears Roebuck catalog — work she describes as both “horrible” and “mundane,” but something that yielded a paycheck. And as her fiancé’s mom and dad liked to remind her, it wasn’t permanent: After he finished medical school, she could quit and wear “doctor’s wife” as a badge of honor.
That plan didn’t sit so well with Spencer.
“The more I thought about it, the more I didn’t like being ruled by someone’s parents,” she says. When she pushed back, her boyfriend dumped her.
But Spencer had a backup plan: Just before the relationship ended, in the summer of 1950, she had spotted an ad for a local fashion design school. It sparked her interest: She had sewn her own clothes since her sophomore year of high school, after Christian Dior unveiled his “New Look,” with its nipped-waist jackets and lavishly full skirts, in 1947.
“We didn’t have a lot of money, so I started coming up with innovative ways of redesigning my clothes,” she says. “Then I was buying fabric and making my own, always wanting to add that touch.”
After getting her bachelor’s degree at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design, she went on to work for a few different brands. But it wasn’t until she was hired by Mattel that she finally met her muse.
At the time, Barbie — creator Ruth Handler’s 3-D answer to paper dolls — was billed as a teenage model. As Spencer quickly learned, the work of dressing the miniature fashion maven was challenging: She had to spot a trend at just the right moment — after it appeared on the runway but before it got watered down in mass-market retail — and figure out how to make it relevant to kids.
Barbie’s outfits were always designed with play in mind, Spencer says. “It was about figuring out a situation for the fashion that would be appealing to a child,” she says, citing a movie date with Ken or a trip out for ice cream as possible playful scenarios to dress for.
There was also the matter of Barbie’s size.
The doll is a perfect 1-to-6 scale of a regular woman, Spencer says, meaning that if Barbie were human, she’d be about 5-foot-7. Her human-ish proportions — wasp-waist and mile-long legs notwithstanding — meant that everything Barbie wore had to look “right.”
Splashy patterns posed a particular challenge, because they had to be properly scaled down. Spencer says that in those early years, before the right technology came about, the design team often hand-painted their fabric samples. “If we were 3 millimeters off on certain things,” she says, the look could be ruined.
Barbie’s tiny accessories — from necklaces to hats to pearl-studded earrings — had to be painstakingly proportioned, too.
But for Spencer, who for years admired couturiers such as Dior and Pauline Trigère, as well as the local California sportswear designers, the job was a dream come true.
She devoured fashion magazines, from Vogue to Seventeen, in search of ideas. When that failed, she looked to her own closet. She also enjoyed leisurely walks through the streets of Los Angeles, taking in the styles. “My house is located just a few blocks from Beverly Hills,” she says. “If I wanted to see high fashion, I could go over to Neiman Marcus or Saks Fifth Avenue. The French fashion houses, from Claude Montana to Yves Saint Laurent — they all had their shops here.”
It was Saint Laurent himself who gave Spencer one of her most memorable compliments.
Spencer says she met the famed Frenchman in the late 1960s, at an industry luncheon in Hollywood, Calif. At the time, the designer was at the height of his fame, having recently debuted his colorblocked Mondrian collection down the runway. But when Spencer and her colleagues introduced themselves, she says Saint Laurent was practically deferential.
“He said he always looked at the Barbie line to see what we were coming out with,” she says. “It was wonderful.” Later, she let herself imagine that a line of chic pantsuits she did for Barbie might have inspired Saint Laurent’s version of the swinging ’60s style.
As her responsibilities grew, Spencer’s work with Mattel took her everywhere, from New York, to the Carolinas and even Asia, where she spent two years in the late ’80s, stationed at a factory in Hong Kong.
But eventually, she says, she started losing steam. “I just couldn’t hold it together any longer,” she says of retiring in December 1998. “I could color my hair, and cover up the gray, but not the wrinkles,” she jokes.
And so she said goodbye to Barbie, although she still keeps hundreds of the dolls in her dining room. “You never eat alone in my house!” Spencer says.
And although she’s had some “wonderful relationships” since that broken high school engagement, Spencer — like Barbie, never officially married. “I’m still looking for Mr. Right!” she says, laughing.
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