Everyone has a Barbie story to tell.
Bill Greening, principal designer for Barbie Signature at Mattel Toys and Barbie Brand Historian, always loves hearing other people’s stories. Greening, a 52-year-old Long Beach resident with roots in Orange County, began as a Barbie collector himself and the hobby led him to work at the company for 25 years.
“Some of the Barbie collectors have known me since I was 16, so I think they’re happy to see that there’s a collector that is in the Dreamhouse, somebody in their community has made it to Mattel,” Greening said. “So now, I’m a collector designing for other collectors. That feels rewarding, giving back to my doll community.”
Greening has collaborated with celebrities as well as the community and has helped create memories for the millions of kids and adults who get their hands on the popular Barbie dolls.
As summer sizzles, “Barbie” is burning hotter than ever in the international consumer psyche. Greta Gerwig’s critically praised new comedy, starring Margot Robbie, took in a massive $93 million in North America in its second weekend, according to studio estimates Sunday — a week after a $162 million opening. The film reaped another $122.2 million internationally over the weekend. Its global tally has topped $775 million, numbers that many experts are hailing as a post-pandemic milestone. The iconic doll, in big-screen form, is wooing folks back into theaters, in tandem with Christopher Nolan’s widely praised historical epic “Oppenheimer.”
As principal designer, Greening is responsible for getting the first prototype done before a new Barbie goes into production. He works with a large team which include sample makers, seamstresses, sculptors, hair stylists and face painters at Mattel to bring designs to fruition.
“Once we get the design figured out and management approves it, then there’s a whole other team that takes over,” he said, “and I work with them to kind of make sure as it goes through the development lifecycle, as we get closer to production and the dolls getting a box, that the doll remains true to my vision.”
It takes between a year to 18 months from idea to Barbie showing up in her retail box, Greening said. Designers and teams can be living in 2023 but they are already looking at dolls that will be coming out in 2024 and then are starting to ideate dolls for 2025.
Greening’s admiration and fascination for Barbie began at a young age.
Greening grew up in the City of Orange in northern Orange County. At 3 years old, Greening would take his Malibu Barbie, Skipper and PJ outside to play in their toy pool and, eventually, into his family’s own — real — swimming pool.
“I played Barbie a lot with my cousin, Cindy, she had a lot of Barbies growing up,” he said. “And the thing I liked about playing Barbies with her is that it really triggered our imagination and I think that’s what kids really like about Barbie today, it’s like a tool for storytelling and using your imagination.”
In 1988, at 16, Greening decided to start collecting Barbie as a hobby. His introduction to the collecting world was introduced at Adventure City in Anaheim (formally called Hobby City) which had a doll museum at the time – including a wall of Barbie dolls. There he learned about collector books and doll shows.
Greening’s personal collection has exponentially grown, with more than 500 Barbies, including his personal favorite, the No. 1 Barbie – the first-ever version of the doll, released in 1959 with her golden hair, black-and-white bathing suit and striking blue eyeshadow.
“I think I would say almost every Barbie collector wants to own the original,” he said, “the first of what became this legend – I think is exciting.”
The 35-year collector said that part of the hobby is being very organized. Greening’s pink “Barbie room” in Long Beach has dolls lined up in glass cabinets, all showcasing their looks for the time. In separate drawers, different clothes, shoes and other accessories were neatly tucked away.
Although the Barbie collector community can be very competitive, Greening said that is it also very friendly and collectors will help each other find the rare dolls that they are searching for. While he mainly focuses on collecting dolls, Greening also collects the cases that Barbies have come in over the years.
“I love the graphics on it so much like that art has always inspired me, that’s what I would practice drawing with,” he said. “The art from the Barbie cases is what kind of got me drawing and became a passion.”
Greening started attending Fullerton Junior College as an art major and at some point, he said that a light bulb came on. “I thought if I switch to fashion design from art, maybe someday I could land a job for Mattel,” he said.
He switched to the fashion program, eventually transferred to Cal State Long Beach and graduated in 1998 with a bachelor’s degree in fashion design.
Long Beach then became a permanent home for Greening, and the community he had made as a local Barbie collector helped him land a job in the “Dreamhouse” – at Mattel. He started as an assistant designer in the spring of 1999, which was a dream come true, he said.
The first doll that Greening designed was “Cool Clips Barbie,” which was released in 2000. “It was a very surreal moment seeing your first doll, I don’t know it kind of feels like your first baby,” Greening said with a big smile. “Because there was this idea you had in your brain and now it’s in a box and now it’s on a shelf.”
The same year, Greening met the creator herself – Ruth Handler – at a doll signing and showed Handler his first design. Greening said Handler was “really gracious” and signed the box.
“I was there with my mom, Lorane, we waited an hour in line to meet Ruth,” he said. “It was a very kind of full-circle moment.”
Since then, Greening has gone on to design an array of dolls and collections. Last year, he designed Tina Turner’s Barbie, which sold out almost immediately. Other celebrities that he has helped be turned into dolls include Joan Jett, Debbie Harry, Cyndi Lauper, and most recently Sasha Calle, who plays the new Supergirl in the “Flash” movie.
“(Calle) was just so excited not only to be the first Latina Super Girl but just to have a doll made in her likeness was such a big honor for her,” said Greening. “It’s fun when it touches somebody like that.”
He has also gone on to collaborate with other fashion designers such as acclaimed designer Bob Mackie, as well as designers Tim Gunn, Trina Turk, and New York-based design duo David and Philip Blond also known as “The Blonds.”
Greening said that he finds inspiration for designs everywhere, especially being in Southern California.
“I think there’s a California sensibility, especially living in Long Beach and being so close to the water, and being a California native myself,” he said, “I think it somehow works its way into the designs subconsciously.”
The Barbie collector community is another source of inspiration, Greening said. Attending events like the annual Barbie Convention make him feel among his peer group, all speaking the same Barbie slang and getting their Barbie fix.
As a brand today, Barbie is more inclusive than ever, he said.
The toy industry giant recognizes the importance of representation and is “committed to doing the work to inspire the next generation,” according to the Mattel website. Barbie dolls — including Kens — now range in different body types, skin tones, hair textures, come in a variety of face sculpts, in wheelchairs, with prosthetics, hearing aids, and vitiligo. The first Barbie representing a person with Down Syndrome debuted this year as well.
“Everybody’s welcome to the table,” the principal designer said. “I think that’s the message that is exciting.”
From being a collector to designing “Cool Clips Barbie” and numerous popular designs of the fashionable doll – Greening continues having a strong passion for all things Barbie, especially those who love her just as much as he does.
“I think just interacting with other people that are passionate about Barbie is also inspiring because it might spark an idea,” he said. “Ideas come from everywhere.”
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