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Forbes: The Eyes Have It

Updated: Feb 7, 2023

Nearly 35 years after the Blythe doll failed with kids, adult fashionistas and photographers vie to own her and dress her.

A few minutes in Gina Garan's Manhattan studio can make the most well-adjusted visitor feel uneasy. On the walls 1,000 dolls--each a model known as "Blythe"--transfix the intruder with their enormous goggle-eyes. Their expressions are identical: guarded, knowing, noncommittal. Some, sent to Garan as gifts by collectors from around the world, are customized. One sits in a wheelchair, lacking legs, her shoes atop the foot rests. Another, sent by a Japanese man, lies in a coffin-shaped box, arms folded across her chest. These are not your daughter's Barbies.

Blythe has been around since 1972, when Kenner, an American toy company, produced four different versions in one year, then retired them because of poor sales. It's no surprise that the doll, with its oversize forehead, neutral facial expression and enormous, alien eyes, didn't appeal to children. "Kids thought they were creepy," says Garan, 41, a producer of corporate videos and an amateur photographer. The doll's one interactive feature--a string on the back of its head that allows users to change its eye color with a yank--does little to humanize it.

But the same qualities that alienated children now attract adults, who find something compelling in the doll's eeriness. When Philip Leeming, a New York City fashion designer, first saw Blythe in 2001, he was entranced by what he calls her "real sense of loneliness." Leeming, who has spent as much as $250 for a Blythe that would originally have sold for $6, has 8 full-size dolls and 30 smaller "mini-Blythes." He began buying them online, then in boutiques during trips to Singapore, Hong Kong and Japan. He started designing clothing for Blythe and photographing her in various settings. At India's Taj Mahal, he says, "We sat her in the place where Princess Diana sat, when she was interviewed about her divorce." Blythe wore a sari. When Leeming took her to Las Vegas, she wore a Paris Hilton outfit.

Lauren Townsend, a graphic designer in Santa Barbara, Calif., uses Blythe as a canvas. She customizes her dolls, removing their hair and "rerooting" them with mohair or Saran (polyvinylidene chloride), the filament used for Barbie dolls. Sometimes she replaces the dolls' eyes with colored discs she buys online. "It's a form of artistic expression I've never had before," she says.

When Garan first saw Blythe, she thought the doll looked like her. She bought one on Ebay in 1997 and began photographing it against different backdrops, playing with the scale so the doll would look life-size. In one shot Blythe surfs in Miami. In another she's frozen in a huge block of ice. Two years later, on a whim, Garan submitted a collection of her photos to Chronicle Books, which gave her a book deal.

Six months later Garan, at a party, showed her photos to Junko Wong, a Tokyo agent who represents illustrators. Wong saw Blythe's appeal right away. "I thought it would be perfect for the Japanese market," Wong recalls, noting that in Japan girls embrace cartoons and other childlike art. Wong went back to Tokyo and pitched the doll to the Parco department store, which cast Blythe in an animated TV commercial that showed her walking in the snow, her eyes changing color and direction.

Wong had approached Hasbro for permission to manufacture the doll in Japan. (Hasbro had acquired Tonka, which acquired Kenner in 1987.) She bought the rights, then hired Japanese toy company Takara for manufacture. In 2001 Takara released a limited edition of 1,000 dolls, priced at $66 each. They sold out in one day. Over the past five years Takara has sold 325,000 Blythes in Japan, mostly at Japanese outposts of Toys "R" Us and in boutiques like Kittyland and Wong's own Junie Moon.

Chronicle released Garan's This Is Blythe in 2000. Two years later Women's Wear Daily and Vogue Japan ran spreads showing the doll wearing miniature designer clothes. To capitalize on the buzz, Garan developed a Web site,, and became Blythe's ad hoc spokesperson, moderating discussion groups for people interested in buying. On Ebay, original Kenner models today fetch upward of $1,800. Despite Blythe's surge in popularity, Hasbro produces just 2,000 a year, sold mostly in boutiques. "Our audience is a creative, design-focused group, age 18 and up," explains Bryony Bouyer, who oversees the licensing of Blythe for Hasbro. "It's not a traditional doll that Hasbro would do in mass markets." Even so, Hasbro has licensed a small line of Blythe products in Asia and the U.S., including stationery, mouse pads and journals.

Garan works with Junko Wong to promote the dolls and her own photography in Japan. She's published two more books, Blythe Style and Blythe Moment. Hundreds of people show up for Garan's public appearances in Japan and for other Blythe events, such as an annual charity fashion show. Wong enlists fashion designers like Prada and Gucci to dress Blythe and then hires models to walk down a runway with the dolls held out in front. Collectors in the audience, says Garan, "hold up their Blythes, so the dolls can get a good look."


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