Barbie’s (Real) Dream House

It was an invitation-only gala affair fit for a star. Celebs like Jet Li mingled with models, and cars filled with people eager to get inside were backed up in a traffic jam. The reason for the event, held on March 6: the grand opening in Shanghai of the $30 million House of Barbie, the iconic doll’s flagship pink emporium featuring six stories of everything Barbie, from a restaurant to a runway.

The world’s most famous doll turned 50-years-old March 9, and Mattel is working its way through a yearlong celebration. The store is part of Mattel’s global strategy to turn Barbie, which saw global sales drop 21 percent last year, into a lifestyle brand for girls of all ages.

Richard Dickson, gm and senior vp of Barbie, says, “As we grow China as one of the future big markets within the Barbie portfolio, we’re starting off the brand in a very exciting way. … Previously, we might have just marketed dolls to little girls.”

While the DNA of the Barbie brand is rooted in fashion — Barbie Millicent Roberts was first introduced in 1959 as a fashion model, and designers such as Gucci, Galliano and Versace have dressed her — it’s grown to include a long list of line extensions, which the store showcases along with sections that document different phases of Barbie’s “life.” For instance, a “career wall” showcases the doll’s various vocations throughout the years.

Located in a former movie theater, the new store took about two years from start to finish. It houses the brand’s 45 different product categories, including publishing, sporting goods, apparel and accessories, entertainment and, of course, toys.

To bring Barbie’s brick-and-mortar dream house to life, Dickson turned to Mattel agency Ogilvy & Mather and its strategic branding and design unit BIG to act as the store’s brand steward. They helped develop the initial concept, conducted research and focus groups, designed the latticework that runs throughout the interior and selected the core creative partners. Slade Architecture designed the rest of the interior and the exterior; Chute Gerdeman, a strategic retail-design company, created the activities in the Barbie Design Center-where girls can customize their own dolls-and on the Fashion Stage, where they can participate in fashion shows of their own making.

Visitors enter the 40,000-square-foot store on the third floor, where they can buy a Barbie Passport to earn promotional rewards. The central element of the store’s design is a three-story spiral staircase that displays more than 800 encased Barbie dolls and links the three retail areas for girls, women and dolls. The store also features the Barbie Cafe. Later this year, a full-service spa designed by Norman + Karen Design Studios will be added. Products include women-targeted makeup, luxury jewelry and even a $10,000 strapless wedding gown designed by Vera Wang.

“It’s for Barbie girls of all ages,” says Richard Bates, ecd at BIG in New York. “The idea is a real melding of what is play for a 3-year-old, for an 11-year-old, for a mother. Our goal was to mingle all those together into one large experience.”

Although Mattel considered building the emporium in London, Paris and Mexico City, it decided Shanghai-and the growing Chinese consumer market, in which Barbie wasn’t even available a decade ago-was the right spot. But the road to Shanghai began with experiences from earlier, smaller retail ventures. In 2002, for instance, Mattel launched a Barbie concept store targeted to young adults in Tokyo. In Japan, explains Dickson, Barbie “is regarded more as [a] pop-culture [icon] than anything else.” The company also had its own trickle-down theory, he adds, in that they expected if the older kids thought Barbie was cool, the younger ones would, too. Mattel has since added 15 more tween shops there and 15 geared towards the 5- to 8-year-old market.

The experiential element to the retail experience was first tested in Buenos Aires last year, with the opening of a 7,000-square-foot Barbie store for the younger target market that includes a beauty bar for makeovers, a birthday room for parties and a dessert counter. “Argentina proved to be a great fishbowl,” says Dickson. “The beauty bar was a home run not only with the younger girls, but the 16- and 17-year-old girls coming to a Barbie store designed for girls 5- to 8-years-old.”

The dessert bar was not Barbie branded, and Dickson says they realized it should be: “Shanghai’s is clearly a Barbie-branded space.”

The store is unapologetically girl. “We only have one illusion to boys in the entire store,” says Bates. “There’s a boy’s bathroom on one of the floors.”