Age 36, male, loves BarbieA small, delicate Japanese doll in a kimono is one of the first things to greet a visitor to Park Chan’s two-room walk-up apartment in southern Seoul. It serves as a mild introduction to the surprises that abound in this 36-year old man’s compact living space.
Filling just about every corner of the flat are Barbie dolls of all shapes, outfits and colors, flamboyant evening gowns, lingerie and one pearl-white mermaid costume.
There’s a Barbie doll as Audrey Hepburn in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” as Vivien Leigh as Scarlett O’Hara, and a pairing of Barbie and her steady, Ken, as Lucy and Ricky Ricardo from the classic American sitcom “I Love Lucy.”
In the middle of the room lies a half-naked brunette ― also a Barbie doll, of course. It is enveloped in a cloak of thread and needles.
“I’m working on that doll right now,” says Mr. Park, whose appearance is dominated by a thick silver earring and prominent horn-rimmed glasses. “I’m trying to finish the dress for a doll exhibition in Japan.”
So how obsessed has Mr. Park become with designing Barbie doll outfits?
Consider that he even brings his sewing into the bathroom.
Upon hearing that a man in his mid-30s collects Barbie dolls, most folks simply can only say “Get real.”
The Barbie doll, after all, has long been a mainstay of little girls’ bedrooms. An American modeled the first one from a German comic strip character, to serve as inspiration for her daughter. The toy giant Mattel agreed to back the item, and the first Barbie ― with a ponytail, zebra-striped bathing suit and sunglasses ― debuted in 1959 at the American Toy Fair with her famously small waist and buxom chest.
“Once a girl asked me if I was a pervert,” Mr. Park says. Even his girlfriend, who works in fashion in Italy, cringed at the notion of boyfriend as doll collector. “My parents didn’t think too highly of it at first either,” Mr. Park says.
But anyone who examines Mr. Park’s collection enough to see the hand-made Barbie blouse, hand-dyed skin color and hair styling can appreciate his attention to detail, his patience and craftsmanship.
“Mr. Park’s work is more splendid than what ordinary people would be wearing,” agrees Park Jung-hyung, a member of Mattel’s publicity team in Korea who has seen pictures of the dolls.
Despite his ardor for dolls, Mr. Park’s day job is not making Barbie dolls, at least not yet. He is a computer animator and programmer by trade, and was part of the team creating Cyber Character, a virtual personality in pop culture.
Designing Barbie dolls has been Mr. Park’s pastime since 1995. While working in California, he became fascinated with the wealth of obscure items that could be unearthed at flea markets; he found himself endlessly scouring their booths.
It was at a flea market that Mr. Park purchased his first Barbie. “I noticed that the doll I had in my hands had a different face from other Barbies sold in large toy stores,” Mr. Park says.
As Mr. Park later learned, Barbies weren’t just toy dolls for little girls; they were delicate crafts. “If you closely look at every Barbie doll, you will notice that each has distinctly different features,” Mr. Park says. “These are no mere toys to play with.”
Since that revelation, Mr. Park has collected more than 900 unique dolls. His most expensive one is worth 750,000 won ($625). Mr. Park was surprised to learn that Barbie dolls come in different races. “There’s even a Korean Barbie doll wearing our traditional outfit, the hanbok,” Mr. Park says.
He also realized that the clothes on certain Barbie dolls were exquisitely tailored, their designs more elegant than what some of his more fashionably dressed friends wore.
“I tried making my own dress for Barbie dolls,” Mr. Park relates, “but it was never easy for me because I had only drawn oriental paintings since I was 5, and I only studied computer animation to earn some money. I never had any experience using sewing needles.”
To add to the challenge, doll dresses cannot be sewn like people’s clothing; everything from hemlines to the neckline to sleeve length must be shrunk down to well, miniature doll size.
“At first I used secondhand clothing,” Mr. Park says. “The little beads I used on the clothing came from my mother’s old clothes.”
As Mr. Park’s interest grew, he allotted more spare time to figuring out his next Barbie outfit. Like many fashion designers, he brainstormed by inspecting the work of other professional doll designers.
“A lot of work goes into making a Barbie doll’s outerwear because everything is so small and every detail needs to be precise,” Mr. Park says.
His involvement with the world of doll design has even helped him with his day job. Most of Mr. Park’s ideas for animated characters come from Barbies these days. Barbie dolls have also taught him about different preferences for beauty around the world. “Not everyone likes the same blonde Barbie doll,” Mr. Park says. The greater awareness of diversity has helped him design characters with wide-ranging appearances.
But Mr. Park’s elegant doll creations won’t sustain his creative juices forever; he harbors bigger dreams than designing apparel for a porcelain or plastic doll. “A man has to have a bigger dream and mine is to actually make life-sized costumes,” Mr. Park says. He is especially keen on European clothes of the 14th century, and sketches of such medieval clothes designs are stacked up next to his computer.
“I plan to move to Italy in July to study fashion design, in fact custom-tailored design, and then later move to France to study more,” Mr. Park says.
Some of Mr. Park’s work can be seen on the Web site www.gagbarbie.hompy.com
by Lee Ho-jeong