Photo via Getty Images
For a brief stint, the center of the Barbie universe wasn’t Malibu, it was Shanghai. While Barbie has long been a cultural icon in the States—the new movie only extends that narrative—she’s never been much more than a doll in China. A relatively popular doll, but a doll nonetheless. But with the introduction of the first-ever Barbie flagship store in Shanghai in 2009, Mattel hoped to change that. The $30 million, 36,000 square foot space featured not only limitless toy selections but a restaurant, spa, cocktail bar, and even bridal section designed by Vera Wang, bridging the gap between a children’s store and an adult destination.
A celebration of history's biggest fuck-ups.
It closed just two years later. In the decades of Barbie’s influence, Barbie Shanghai is only a momentary blip—a costly, massive monument to a character Shanghai didn’t quite want a monument for. By most assessments, its failure was due largely to a lethal combination of bad timing and a misreading of markets. Mattel was one of several major American companies to attempt to make leads in China in the early 2000s and ultimately fall short: Home Depot, Best Buy, and eBay each had similar fates. Still, others like Starbucks and General Motors have managed to find success that even surpasses their popularity here. In light of the current demand for Barbie and the size of the Chinese consumer market, the quick downfall of Barbie Shanghai represented not only millions lost in Mattel’s initial investment but also in incalculable profits had the brand managed to become a hit. The store itself was a design marvel. Created by Slade Architecture, a New York-based design firm, it won the 2010 award for Store of the Year by the Association for Retail Environments. It was described by its creators as a “sleek, fun, unapologetically feminine interpretation of Barbie: past, present, and future,” featuring six floors of translucent polycarbonate panels trimmed in neon pink lighting and mid-century modern elements throughout. Its every detail suggested the effect of being ensconced in the plastic Barbie box yourself, surrounded by smooth, shiny white countertops and shelving. The rectangular store glowed from down the block. In a promotional video created at the opening of the store, Gene Murtha, former Vice President of International Marketing at Mattel, said, “We wanted it to be beautiful on the outside and beautiful on the inside, and we aced it. This is a stunning work of art.”
“We changed the landscape of Shanghai, forever,” said Richard Dickson, former General Manager and Senior Vice President of Barbie and now-President and COO of Mattel, in the same video. (Mattel did not respond to multiple requests for comment on this story.) Ahead of the store opening, Dickson told NPR that Shanghai was selected above Milan, Paris, London, New York, and Los Angeles because of the cross-generational response Shanghai had toward the brand. “There was an amazing connection to Barbie's values,” he said. “Barbie, in this culture, represented a world of possibilities for girls and for women. She's had amazing careers, she has the cars, she has the plane, she has the boyfriend—and she looks fantastic doing it."It turned out, though, that a lit-up storefront wasn’t quite compelling enough to entice the children of Shanghai. More importantly, it wasn’t enough to entice the adults, for whom much of the store was actually designed. It's this fact that represents one of the most crucial miscalculations for the store, which featured child-unfriendly offerings like Barbie-themed martinis and breast-firming treatments. Perhaps these options would speak to adult American women raised in Barbie nostalgia, but for Chinese women not already immersed in her world, it seems not to have translated.
“We changed the landscape of Shanghai, forever.”
“There's a lot of speculation as to what happened,” says Lori Verderame, art historian and antique appraiser who specializes in Barbie and other collectables. “I think most of it is just a cultural difference. The expectation was that because it was such a big opportunity in the Chinese market, that this would be received very well.”More than a decade after its closure, Verderame says she sees some interest among Barbie collectors for items from the store but that it remains niche. Mattel released a Shanghai edition of their classic Barbie, as well as one with what they described as a “pan-Asian likeness.” In addition to the dolls, the store sold high-end clothing created by Sex and the City costume designer Patricia Field, as well as Barbie-themed stationary and makeup. In Barbie-centric Reddit groups, there’s sporadic curiosity as to why the first and only Barbie store was located in Shanghai and occasional reference to the dolls designed specifically for it. On eBay, a pre-owned silk scarf from the store is being offered for $100, while an unopened Barbie Shanghai doll with two outfits and a purse-sized puppy goes for $130 to $300. Other Barbies from that era in-box go for around $75, though some are worth upwards of $2000.Verderame speculates, however, that the movie will spark a renewed appeal for all Barbie items: “Collectors are very, very interested and excited, not only about this movie but about the fact that this is going to cause a big spike in the Barbie collectable realm,” she says, something that has already begun to manifest in everything from the dolls themselves to their outfits to tiny, Barbie-sized bathroom scales. Prices for these types of items have already quadrupled, she says, and products from Barbie Shanghai—including architectural objects like display fixtures—will likely be subject to this same growth.It’s possible, then, that Mattel predicted a global renewed interest in Barbie just a few years too early—there’s reason to think that this store would have been more successful if only it existed now. Hollywood movies are increasingly created with Chinese audiences in mind, a factor that was surely considered in the production of Barbie. Moreover, there is interest among Chinese consumers in experiencing American culture in bite-size tourism experiences without any actual travel involved. For example, as Candise Lin, an educational psychologist who shares cultural commentary on TikTok has previously reported, “American camping” themed bars and coffee shops that allow customers to take photographs that give the illusion of camping in the United States have become popular in various Chinese cities. Ultimately, most analysts chalk up the failure of Barbie Shanghai as a case of a company doing too much, too fast. They invested in the idea that Barbie could become a cultural symbol in China without doing much to test that hypothesis before dropping millions of dollars. Others theorize that its failure was political, the result of China’s reluctance to Americanize or the product of different relationships with femininity. Either way, Chinese women were unwilling to spend $150 on Barbie-branded jeans in 2010. In 2023, however, who’s to say the Instagrammable halls of Barbie Shanghai wouldn’t be a hit?