(Originally written on August 6, 2009.)
Sometimes one encounters something that sets off a light bulb in the brain as an idea. That is what happened to me one day when I visited this relatively new thrift store that opened in my area a few years back. I browsed through aisles of all kinds of used stuff ranging from clothes to small furniture to electronics. My eyes turned towards a shelf that was full of used naked Barbie dolls that were being sold for $1 each. At the time I had gotten into customizing 1/6 scale blank dolls manufactured by Japanese companies like Obitsu and Volks and I had even sold a few of them on eBay. I decided to buy one used Barbie doll on impulse even though, at the time, I hadn't decided what I was going to do with it.
The Barbie doll festered on a shelf for at least the next six months while I focused on other things. At one point I inadvertantly made my first foray into rehabilitating used dolls. I went to a doll convention where I found a vintage 1970's Velvet doll sitting there--clad only in a pair of shorts--in a bin full of used dolls at one dealer table. She was on sale for $10. When I visited another dealer table that sold vintage doll clothes and I found used clothes and shoes that were originally made for Velvet being sold very cheaply, I had an idea.
I bought that Velvet doll from one table while I purchased her original default dress and a pair of shoes from the other table. The only thing wrong with that doll was the white mold growing in her eyes, which is easy to remove. When I got home I cleaned out the mold, replaced her shorts with the clothes I purchased at the doll show, and put shoes on her. Velvet is now a functioning doll again. (Her growing hair mechanism is still intact so her hair can go from long to short to long again.)
When I decided to start selling some of my handcrafted goods on the local craft show circuit, I looked forward to selling my customized 1/6 Dollfies and Obitsus to the general public. The only snag is that the blank kits are so expensive (they generally cost at least $30 and that's not counting the clothes) that I have to charge at least $50 for each doll and I knew that there would be kids at these shows who would be attracted to them but not be able to afford them.
At that point I revisited that used Barbie on the shelf and I came up with an idea of turning her into a fairy doll. I went to a local store and purchased a princess-style Barbie dress. When I got home, I brushed the Barbie doll's hair and put her dress on her. Then, going into my personal stash of polymer clay, I fashioned a few fairy wings for each doll, baked the wings in the oven, then painted some details on each wing with acrlic paint. Afterwards, I glued the wing on the back of the Barbie's dress. I got this result.
I was so satisfied by the results that I went back to the same thrift store and purchased three other used dolls. I did the same thing to them as I did to the first doll--turned them into fairy dolls.
On the first day of the two-day 2006 Greenbelt Green Man Festival, I had the Barbies on sale alongside the 1/6 Japanese import dolls. (The tall doll dressed in the fairy outfit was my Volks Dollfie Dream and she was for display only--she wasn't for sale.) I priced the Barbies at $10 each, figuring that it would be a cheaper alternative for kids while teenagers and adults would be more likely to go for the Japanese dolls.
It turned out that I sold out of the Barbies by the second day of the festival while the Dollfies and Obitsus just sat there unsold. I realized that I had something with the Barbies. I went back to the thrift store, rehabilitated a few more used Barbies into fairy dolls, and sold a few more at various craft fairs while the Dollfies and Obitsus just sat there.
I'll admit that I was surprised by the response to my Barbies. I originally added them as an afterthought when I attempted to focus primarily on customized Asian 1/6 dolls from Voks and Obits becaus. I thought that the Barbies would appeal to a few kids who were too broke to get the Japanese dolls. I figured that I would sell one on occasion. Little did I know the phenomenal response I would get.
What is it about those Barbie fairies dolls that interest people? Well, there's the name recognition. Barbie has been able to maintain her level of popularity for nearly 50 years and she has appealed to several generations of young girls. But I think there's another reason why my thrift store Barbies have resonated with so many people.
I think the fact that I purchased my Barbies used impresses a lot of people on the recycling aspect. Over the years I've seen documentaries and read books urging people to consider packaging when buying consumer products since packaging can also contribute to the garbage that clutters up the landfill. Well, with my Barbies, there are no boxes that need to be opened in order to play with them.
Sure I briefly was tempted by a sale on excess Barbie dolls at a toy store where they were being sold for something like $5 each. But then I got to thinking that buying a new doll just to customize would defeat the whole purpose of why people like my dolls in the first place, even if that new doll is on sale. To this day I haven't purchased a new doll just for customization purposes.
In time, I began to scour doll magazines and the Internet for tutorials. I found a free online tutorial on how to dye Barbie's hair using acrylic paint diluted with water. I was fortunate enough to attend a doll convention in downtown Washington, DC where I found a copy of the book by Tina Casey called Fabulous Fashion Doll Clothing You Can Make, which shows how one can make a doll outfit in less than an hour using just a hot glue gun and various found materials (such as felt, lace, and feathers) without a pattern. Over time I clipped articles from Haute Doll magazine on how to repaint doll faces and style doll hair.
Occasionally I'll find a thrift store Barbie that is still wearing an outfit (sometimes it's the original default outfit while other times it's an outfit that her original owner put on the doll before the doll was sent to the thrift store). I generally try to see if I can convert that outfit into a fairy dress. Sometimes all I have to do is just glue wings on the back and be done with it. Other times the outfit is a bit on the plain side so I try to glue some frills (just as glittery ribbon or lace) just to make the outfit more visually interesting. Then there is the occasional outfit that I just can't convert into a fairy outfit because it's either too sporty looking or it's designed in such an awkward way that the outfit would be ruined if I attempted to convert it. In that case, I'll give the outfit to my Soom Mini-Gem Uyoo for her wardrobe (which is already a pretty decent size since she's the easiest to clothe because she can fit Barbie's outfits) or give it away to another doll owner.
I've read profiles in magazines like Fashion Doll Quarterly and Haute Doll of people who purchase new Tonner and Gene dolls, wipe their faces clean, remove their outfits, then repaint their faces, create new outfits, and even change their hairstyles. Some of the most successful doll repaint artists can actually make a living from their creations. Personally I've never ventured into this mainly because I would have to spend at least $100 for a new doll and I would have to charge at least that much in order to earn back what I've originally invested. Additionally I would have to deal with the hassle of getting rid of the original outfit once I finished re-making that doll according to my own creative vision plus I would have to deal with disposing of consumer packaging since I don't know if any of the doll manufacturers use anything that could be recycled.
To be honest, I don't think I would get as much response if I repainted Tonner or Gene doll as I currently do for my rehabilitated thrift shop Barbies. But I can't say that I will never work on other dolls. If I ever find a used Tonner or Gene doll in a thrift store, flea market, or estate sale, I would go for it. But, as of this writing, I have never came across any fashion doll other than Barbie in a thrift store.
Over time my customization efforts have evolved, especially as I began to learn more about the creative things I can do with a used doll purchased from a thrift store. I have even branched out beyond fairies as I started to venture into creating pirate dolls. One day I may experiment with creating a mermaid doll or a doll with a robot part (especially since I do occasionally see dolls missing an arm or a leg in the thrift store). But I figure that as long as I still like rehabilitating used dolls and as long as people are buying them, I'll just keep going.
To learn more about things you can do with a used doll, I highly recommend the following links:
Fashion Doll Quarterly has printed doll patterns in each of its issues. This magazine is primarily a print publication and, for legal reasons, I can't scan and post any of the patterns. The website does sell back issues so you can purchase the ones that have the doll clothes patterns that you might like.
Haute Doll magazine has printed tutorials on a variety of creative things you can do with a doll ranging from repainting the face to styling doll hair to sewing tips. This magazine is primarily a print publication and, for legal reasons, I can't scan and post the articles I personally found helpful. The website does sell back issues so you can purchase the ones that have the articles that you might potentially find useful.
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