Image: Barbie in Shanghai store
AP
Workers arrange Barbie dolls at Barbie's Shanghai flagship store March 5, 2009, in Shanghai, China. The flagship store opened Saturday, 50 years after Barbie was first introduced.
updated 3/8/2009 12:31:27 PM ET 2009-03-08T16:31:27

What better way for a fashion icon to mark her 50th birthday but with a bash in China's city of chic — Shanghai?

A half-century after Barbie's first appearance in a demure black-and-white striped swimsuit, a six-story, pink and sparkling Barbie Shanghai flagship store opened Saturday to a Chinese public that less than a decade ago couldn't even buy the iconic doll in local stores.

Mattel Inc., the world's biggest toy maker, is betting that its unabashedly "everything girls" store, complete with spa, cafe, design studio, fashion stage and of course, just about any Barbie-branded item imaginable, will be a hit with fashion-conscious Shanghai ladies, both young and older.

The company, which also makes Hot Wheels cars, has sold more than a billion Barbies since the doll's debut at the New York Toy Fair on March 9, 1959.

A typical American girl owns eight of them, according to Mattel. Chinese girls and women, many of them in their 20s and 30s, are just getting started.

While Barbie's hourglass figure and tiny high-heeled feet may raise concerns among some about the doll's possible influence on girls' concepts of beauty and body image, for young Chinese women she represents a romantic ideal.

"My cousin sent me my first Barbie as a gift on my 20th birthday, and I immediately fell in love with it. To me, she is irresistibly beautiful," said Wang Yan, a 26-year-old editor at a local fashion magazine who says she now has six of the dolls.

"Sometimes I talk with her and confide any complaints while she keeps that charming smile," Wang said. "She's a good listener."

Passion for Barbie in Shanghai
Although the squeeze from the global financial crisis is pinching China, too, retail sales have continued to grow at double-digit annual rates. With less than 5 percent of Mattel's more than $3 billion in annual sales coming from China, the company believes there is plenty of room to grow.

"Asia is a region of opportunity for us," said Richard Dickson, general manager of the Barbie brand at El Segundo, Calif.-based Mattel.

"We have been looking at various cities," he said. "Shanghai showed the absolute most passion for the Barbie brand, not only among girls 3 to 8 years old, but for teenagers and moms, too."

Shanghai, traditionally a hub for the textile and garment industry, has always fancied itself China's most cosmopolitan and elegant city, and many prominent brands — Nike, Louis Vuitton, Armani — already have big flagship stores catering to its newly rich business class.

Only in recent years has there been a cultural and economic shift broad enough to allow companies to expand in China, despite its legendary promise as a market of 1.3 billion people, said Needham & Co. toy analyst Sean McGowan.

"A decade ago people could say China is a great opportunity, but that wouldn't have played out," he said. "Now that Chinese people have experienced Western taste and have the ability to afford it, it adds to up to a pretty good opportunity."

Mattel's Barbie in particular could do well in China since it is so quintessentially American, he said.

"As they get to know more about America and associate it with certain brands in entertainment and pop culture, Barbie is right up there with Mickey Mouse, with the great American brands," he said.

Barbie could use a fresh start.

Barbie sales down in the U.S.
Once-strong sales have weakened back home as girls opt for video games and other online entertainment, and the economic slump is cutting even deeper: Mattel reported a 49 percent drop in profit in the fourth quarter of last year from a year earlier, while Barbie sales fell 21 percent.

Encouraged by a successful experiment with a Barbie-licensed theme store in Argentina, Mattel saw the store as a chance to bring together all 45 of its Barbie product lines, from trampolines and jewelry to couture clothing and pencil cases reading "When you look this good, who cares if you're plastic!"

Barbies have been available at major Chinese department stores for about five years, and knockoff "Barbie" children's clothes and accessories can be found in any local market.

The new store, on Shanghai's Huaihai Rd. shopping strip, was designed with women like Wang Yan in mind, from the pink and black restaurant and gelato bar on the top floor to the Barbie spa and boutiques on floors below.

Running through the three main floors: a spiral staircase bordered by clear box cases holding 875 different pink-clad Barbies. Dozens more dolls line the walls — some of them collectors' items worth hundreds of dollars.

Visitors will be able to try out a computer design studio session and leave with a doll of their own creation; dress up and strut a runway like a fashion model; or get a cotton candy facial in the spa.

"It's unapologetically 'all girl'," Dickson said.

Still, there is one concession for brothers who might get dragged in, says the father of two boys.

"The fifth-floor boys bathroom has a wall lined with 1,000 Hot Wheel cars," he says.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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