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Meet the SC woman who designed Mattel’s first black Barbie

Kitty Black Perkins, former chief fashion designer for Barbie during a 28-year career at Mattel, shows sketches of dresses she has designed on Friday, Jan. 25, 2019.
Kitty Black Perkins, former chief fashion designer for Barbie during a 28-year career at Mattel, shows sketches of dresses she has designed on Friday, Jan. 25, 2019. The Greenville News

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, a Spartanburg native, 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. Today, one of her dolls is in the South Carolina State Museum.

When she retired, she was chief designer for Barbie.

Perkins, who still makes one-of-a-kind stage outfits for star clients like Gladys Knight and Thelma Houston, lives in southern California but visits her brothers and extended family in Spartanburg at least once a year.

That’s where The Greenville News caught up with her a few weeks ago to talk about Black History Month. The 71-year-old designer is humble about being “a person of interest.”

“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 the all-black Carver High School in Spartanburg; 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:

“’She’s hungry.’”

Highland to Hollywood

As a little girl in the 1950s, the child of a housekeeper and a chef, Perkins’ family never had Barbie dolls in the house.

“I grew up modestly,” Perkins said.

Perkins remembers admiring her dapper father and did not much like wearing her larger older sister’s hand-me-downs.

“My dad was the most spectacular dresser,” Perkins said. “He would wear a blue jacket with blue suede shoes, a blue hat, a white shirt and a blue tie. And if he wanted to wear yellow, he would do the same thing. He was just sharp.”

Taking sewing tips from her mother and grandmother, Perkins crouched on the floor of her family’s four-room house in the Highland neighborhood of Spartanburg and set to work cutting dress patterns out of old newspapers.

“I remember going to S.H. Kress’s on Main Street,” she said. “I remember going to that store and getting a yard of fabric for 15 cents.”

Her first outfit was a poorly fitting jumpsuit, but she said her mom never let on — just urged her not to “ruin” it by going outside.

“It wasn’t until years later that I realized it must have been really bad, and my mom didn’t want to hurt my feelings,” she said, laughing.

After she graduated in 1967, she had a scholarship waiting for her to attend Claflin College, but she first took up an offer to visit Los Angeles with her mother’s sister. One of seven children, Perkins had barely left her neighborhood in the Highland section of Spartanburg up to that point.

“My whole life was going from Highland to school, Highland to school,” Perkins said. “I never ventured out. Now I will say that my mom had jobs cleaning for people on the outskirts of town, so sometimes I would go with her to help in her work.

“Other than that, I went from Highland to Hollywood.”

A blind ad

Perkins said she fell in love with the southern California weather, and by the end of that first summer in Los Angeles, she went to her aunt with a plan: If she enrolled in college and got a job, could she stay?

“She said, ‘Absolutely,’” Perkins said.

Perkins attended Los Angeles Trade Tech College and soon was racking up awards for her student fashion design work. She landed a job with a couture designer before graduating with an associate’s degree in 1971.

Five years later, Perkins spotted an ad from an unnamed company seeking a fashion designer. She checked it out and learned it was Barbie. A recruiter explained she should come in with patterns and a finished outfit for the doll and urged her to spare no cost.

The dolls Perkins had played with as a child came from families whose homes her mother cleaned. Hers were large hand-me-downs and Shirley Temple dolls — nothing as small as a Barbie. She dressed them in her own baby clothes.

“After knowing I was going on an interview, I went to Toys R Us and I purchased my very first Barbie doll,” she said.

She was 28. Perkins, who loves children, said she was convinced she had found her dream job.

“And of course, I went way out,” she said.”Because after working on this doll for the first time, I said to myself, ‘I can’t do anything else.’”

That first outfit proved too extravagant, but another hiring director gave Perkins a second shot if she could come up with expensive-looking but cheaper looks. She complied, brought in six outfits, and the director took them directly to a vice president.

“He hired me on the spot,” Perkins said.

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