SOUTH CAROLINA – Fashion designer Kitty Black Perkins couldn’t afford a Barbie doll as a child, but this daughter of the segregated South called the shots on the 11½ -inch icon’s outfits for nearly three decades.
Perkins, 71, was the first black designer for Barbie when toy dynasty Mattel hired her to design affordable, chic clothes for the doll in 1976. Four years later, she designed the first black Barbie and rose in the company after a decade, hiring more black designers.
When Perkins retired, she was chief designer for Barbie. Today, she still makes one-of-a-kind stage outfits for star clients like Gladys Knight and Thelma Houston and one of her dolls is in the South Carolina State Museum.
“I find that there’s a lot about Afro-Americans that’s not spoken about and a lot that the kids need to know about,” Perkins said. “Almost in every aspect of our lives, there’s been blacks involved.”
Her success with Barbie, she said, derived from making her own clothes as a child; developing an artistic eye in the art department at her all-black high school in Spartanburg, South Carolina; her love of all things pink and sparkly (something you see in how she dresses to this day); and her ability to channel the fantasy and delights of a little girl.
“My first week (at Mattel), I would just sit and brush Barbie’s hair,” she said. “It would give me ideas and it was a thinking process for me. As I was stroking the hair, ideas would just come.”
After rising to chief designer for Barbie, Perkins had her team sit on the floor during brainstorming sessions – literally getting on a child’s level.
“You look for ways to get into the mind of children,” she said. “I think that a lot of creative people do this.”
Her first six outfits for Mattel, designed for a job interview with the company, were an instant hit. One was a tunic with a bulls-eye pattern on the front, matched with shorts and high boots; another was a white, fit-and-flare dress with black patent-leather straps, sandals and a hat.
“Mattel put all six in the line that year,” Perkins said. “And it was amazing.”
That was the start of a 28-year career for Perkins at Mattel. She rose quickly in the company, twice winning Mattel’s chairman award.
“When you come from a modest beginning, I think you tend to work harder,” Perkins said. “You tend to put more into something. And there’s a phrase they use when they are hiring people:
To read Kitty Black Perkins’ full interview, click Source.