By Deputy fashion editor
updated 4/30/2004 3:21:35 PM ET 2004-04-30T19:21:35

She's 45 this year and still a global icon. She has a worldwide fan base, is known for her devotion to fashion - she has launched her own line in Japan, and recently talked Julien Macdonald into collaborating on a kids' line with her. 

Giorgio Armani and Donatella Versace clamoured to dress her. All this, and we've never heard her utter a word. Who is she? 

It can only be Barbie, the plastic doll created in 1959 by Ruth Handler, self-appointed "marketing genius" and co-founder of Mattel. 

"Barbie is cool as a bomb," says Antonio Marras, creative director at Kenzo womenswear, and a recent addition to the list of Barbie's guest designers. "She is the ultimate pin-up." 

It is exactly this kind of fashion reaction and style leadership enjoyed by Barbie that Mattel is building on; not with plastic dolls, but with the walking, talking, living variety. 

A year-and-a-half ago, Mattel launched a high-end adult clothing range in Japan, and last month saw the introduction of a designer childrenswear range, Julien Macdonald for Barbie. The idea, says Richard Dickson, senior vice-president of Mattel-branded consumer products, is to create "Barbie as a true fashion brand", rather than just a character brand. 

Dickson is being careful to pitch the brand at Mattel's preferred market level - a more exclusive one than the dolls enjoy. "In Japan, we've been very, very successful," he says. "It's very limited in its distribution - we've positioned it as a prestige brand in Japan's adult market, competing with the top designer brands such as Burberry." 

For kids too, it's all about going upmarket. Julien Macdonald, known for skimpy knits and high-octave glamour, says his collection isn't about translating a doll into clothing (Mattel already have a girls' collection) but about creating a "designer range that was my kind of style, to make a small capsule collection for little girls". 

This is occasion wear for little ones: "When you ask little girls what they like, they all like the same things: pink, sparkles, angels, flowers." 

The collection means Mattel can place a children's range in more prestigious stores, such as Selfridges, that might normally shy away from character-branded merchandise, and gives it yet another high-level designer link-up. "Part of Barbie's heritage is that she is a designer's best friend," says Dickson. "Most designers grew up with Barbie and there's an immediate relationship that most designers have with her." 

Elizabeth Grampp, marketing manager for Barbie Collectibles in the U.S., explains: "[Barbie] was the original teenage fashion model, that was her tagline when she debuted in 1959. Then, her fashion was very European couture, and it was great for little girls to be able to play out that fun fashion aspect." 

Since then she's kept up with the trends: a mod doll during the 1960s British invasion, a long-haired Malibu Barbie in turquoise swimsuit for the 1970s, blue spandex and legwarmers in the aerobics-obsessed 1980s, an acid-washed CK denim outfit in the early 1990s, and now limited edition dolls (see www.barbie.com) with outfits designed by fashion's biggest names. 

Barbie has had many incarnations, many makeovers over the years - but what she's never done is age. Even after the trauma of the break-up from her long-term love interest Ken (which coincided with a drop in doll sales), she hasn't gained even so much as the hint of a crow's foot - and no, it's not because there's a Botox Barbie, or a Just Returned From My Plastic Surgeon in Brazil Barbie. 

But harsh reality has never been a Barbie trademark. Famously, if her dimensions were turned into a real person she wouldn't be able to stand up (she was originally inspired by a German doll, Lilli, based on a risqué character in a men's magazine). 

Barbie is about dreams, about make-believe. "You only have to take a quick stroll round Woolworths to see that what they [Mattel] are plugging into now seems to be the princess idea," says Noreen Marshall, curator of dress at London's Museum of Childhood. 

Yet Barbie has also been about weaving a little girl's own fairytales into real possibilities: college graduate, airline pilot, presidential candidate, astronaut - dress like them, and you are them. Barbie has always reflected women's lives as clearly as any magazine or opinion poll. 

With a fragrance launch also in the pipeline, Mattel seems well-placed to turn Barbie into a "global fashion lifestyle brand for girls." From playroom to designer hangers may sound like a huge leap of faith, but Handler, who died two years ago, would surely approve. After all, Mattel is simply banking on the fact that if a girl's into clothes, then she'll never grow out of the joy of playing at dressing up.

© The Financial Times Ltd 2010. "FT" and "Financial Times" are trademarks of the Financial Times.

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