Yeonji, a rival to Barbie?Around the world, the prevalence of blond, Caucasian Barbie dolls may have more than just a subconscious influence on the ideals of beauty. Korean girls admired the popular dolls’ big blue eyes and shiny blond hair ― much different from their own features.
Barbie has mostly had European-style outfits. And Barbie’s narrow face and nose have almost become the de facto standard for Korean girls’ vision of beauty, possibly helping to account for the current plastic surgery boom.
It is not clear why dolls with Asian features were not made in Korea. Korean-looking dolls were almost non-existent in toy stores until the late ’90s, except for some roughly made dolls in tourist shops that hardly qualified as competitors to Barbie’s empire. Dolls with long, slanted eyes and jet-black hair were absent.
Choi Shin-gyu, chief executive officer of Sonokong Corp., a well-known toy company, wanted to create dolls that looked Korean and were well made. He put his idea into action in 1997, and a brown-eyed doll in hanbok, traditional Korean dress, named “Yeonji” was born.
“I was always envious of dolls made in other countries whenever I traveled the world,” said Mr. Choi. “I wanted to make these dolls to revive the tradition of Korean beauty that has been forgotten. Dolls spread culture. We thought creating our traditional dolls was one good way to introduce Korea to the world.”
So the company started making dolls ― not only the shy Korean bride doll often seen in tourist shops but also kings and queens, royal families, maids and servants from the Joseon Dynasty and even gisaeng ― female artisans similar to Japan’s geisha. The dolls feature various items of traditional clothing from different seasons, and even tiny underwear and socks that are handmade and historically accurate.
The doll’s body is made of plastic and the head of soft rubber, just like Barbie dolls. But following Korean women’s typical features, Yeonji dolls are a little shorter than Barbie and less curvy, with smaller shoulders and breasts.
Making the doll’s face Korean looking was difficult, however.
“Since the Korean people’s standard of beauty has been westernized, it was hard to find a middle ground,” said Kim Sun-a, a chief designer of the company. The facial structure of the dolls changed a lot during the development process. When the designers created a face based on old Joseon Dynasty paintings, the classical beauty did not get much acclaim. A relatively wider face and thinner eyes were a key element in the concept of beauty for people from the Joseon era. In modern times, however, people’s reaction to the look wasn’t so enthusiastic.
“To make the current face, we conducted a survey on the streets of people’s standard of beauty,” said Ms. Kim.
After several revisions, the doll’s face became narrower and the brown eyes ― though still slanted ― became bigger. With shimmering black hair, a pointed nose and a narrow face, the doll soon became popular among children and even adult doll collectors. But some people complained that the doll should be totally traditional.
“The face of Yeonji is not so different from Barbie dolls except the color of her eyes and hair,” wrote a member of an online Yeonji Doll club. “I wish they stayed more original.”
The shape of the doll’s body and face was not the only hard part, however. According to Ms. Kim, making the clothes by hand was another challenge.
“To make original-looking hanbok, we had to start everything from scratch,” said Ms. Kim. “After trying countless sewing processes, we finally got the ‘elegant line’ of hanbok that we wanted to get.”
Since Yeonji dolls only wear traditional clothes, their hairstyle from the Joseon era requires many shining, dangling ornaments that are often seen on the hair of queens and concubines in Korean historical dramas.
To make the tiny versions of these ornaments, the designers made numerous trips to Namdaemun Market and Insa-dong.
The handmade hanbok and underwear are not glued to the dolls like other cheap ones in tourist shops. “They can be taken off and put on like real hanbok,” said Ms. Kim.
The effort in designing accurate and attractive clothes has paid off. “These clothes are so beautiful and they look very real,” said Kim Jung-a, a collector who is a fan of Yeonji dolls.
Since making Yeonji’s wardrobe is done by hand, the company cannot produce many dolls. Only about 50 are completed in a week, and most of them are sold as soon as they are completed. So far, about 30,000 dolls have been sold since 2002, when the company opened an online Yeonji doll shopping mall.
“We do not have stock anymore. These days, people have to place an order and wait many days to get the doll,” said Ms. Kim. The price of the doll ranges from 30,000 won ($30) to 80,000 won. Considering all the hand work and the relatively slow process of making the dolls, the business is not very profitable, according to Ms. Kim. However, Mr. Choi is enthusiastic about continuing the production of Yeonji, and it stems from his faith in the dolls.
“Since there are die-hard collectors of Barbie dolls, I’m sure there soon will be manic fans for Yeonji dolls as well,” he said.
Even though the scale of the Yeonji market can’t be compared to the Barbie empire, the future of Yeonji looks bright as the number of “kidults” ― the term for adults who still collect toys ― is increasing in the country.
Now, these dolls are very popular not only online, but at shops and department stores. Even foreigners have been showing interest, especially since the Korean TV show “The Great Jangeum,” about a beautiful cook in the royal palace of Joseon, aired outside Korea. Already, the dolls are sold in Los Angeles, and there are increasing numbers of foreign customers. The company is in the process of securing a contract to export the dolls to Hong Kong and China, according to Ms. Kim.
“People who first see our dolls all respond similarly,” she said. “They all say, ‘Wow, they are so pretty.’”
Kang Jung-hi, a doll collector, said, “Yeonji dolls really make me proud of my Korean heritage. I am so glad that this kind of well-made doll finally exists in Korea.”
“I hope young Korean girls grow up prouder of where they come from and what they look like by playing with Yeonji dolls,” said Han Mi-gyeong, a middle school student and doll collector.
by Choi Sun-young