"We love Kylie Jenner!"
I'm at the headquarters of the toy company MGA Entertainment, and a male Bratz designer—whose name MGA publicists would not tell us on record citing undisclosed legal reasons—is gushing about Kylie Jenner. Since they first debuted in 2001, the "ethnically ambiguous" dolls (as a company representative called them) have become famous for their street wear style, huge heads, and pouty mouths. Listicle writers regularly call Kylie a Bratz doll, thanks to her trademark big lips and PacSun chic style, and the designer takes this as a compliment.
"[Kylie] looks like a Bratz doll. She embodies the dolls," he explains. "Kylie is the essence of being popular on social media and reaching out to others and just being, like, unique."
Like Kylie, the Bratz dolls have spawned controversy since they became a household name. In 2007, the American Psychological Association criticized the dolls for sexualizing young girls. Parents have taken to Yahoo forums to question Bratz toys' negative influence on girls. Someone has even made a Facebook page called "Bratz dolls are the sluts in every Barbie dream house." Several mommy bloggers failed to acknowledge the brand's diversity amid the critiques of the dolls' perceived hyper-sexuality, but these controversies erupted nearly a decade ago, years before Slut Walks and #OscarsSoWhite.
Last year, the Bratz dolls relaunched with less makeup and new clothes. Out were beanies, and in were shirts that say "selfie." Recently, the company even released a "music vibes" Bratz line whose vibe is best described as Kate Hudson dressed like a boho at Coachella. The dolls wear bell-bottoms and shirts with dream catchers on them.
"In one of our brainstormings about topics, we were all sort of like, 'Oh! Music festivals! Those are hot!'" the male designer explains. "Their has definitely changed. Their core personality has stayed the same, but I don't wear the same sweatpants and track pants I wore [in 2000 either]." The dolls still love glitter, though. "Rule number one: There's never enough glitter," he says.
The dolls' lineup is still comprised of the original four friends (Jade, Cloe, Sasha, and Yasmin), along with their new friend Raya, and each doll still has her own pet (Chloe, for example, has a winged pig), but MGA's marketing has changed to cater to a generation of kids who have known iPhones since infancy. The toy giant maintains a Bratz app, releases Bratz Youtube "webisodes," and encourages fans to submit art to their Instagram. MGA says their best selling doll is currently a "selfie" doll." In November 2015, they even partnered with the downtown New York fashion boutique VFILES for a limited edition doll. "We partnered with VFILES because they're edgy and on the cutting edge," Bratz's creative director, who also declined to be named, says. "It was kind of a natural partnership."
Citing unexplained legal reasons, MGA refused to give me certain employees' names, although they allowed them to speak on record. Like a nuclear weapons facility, MGA has many rules. Located between a Budweiser plant and an airport in Van Nuys, California, (a.k.a. "the Valley"), their headquarters is a campus made up of several buildings, all of which are heavily guarded.
The process of getting into the room in which the Bratz are designed involved navigating several security checkpoints: When a photographer and I first arrived the reception area—decorated with photos of Nick Lachey clutching a Bratz doll and of Joey Fatone holding a Bratz Game Boy game—the receptionist ordered her not to take photos and demanded that we both sign non-disclosure agreements. Amidst my attempts to explain that we were journalists and that our express purpose in being there was to disclose information, the company's director of PR and communications, Jennifer Campana, entered the room. It was only after she convinced the security guard that it was OK that we were able to enter the building.
Beyond the reception area, Campana led us through an aisle of cubicles, down a stairwell, and across the parking lot, to another building. This is where the Bratz dolls are made; appropriately, it's guarded by even more security. To enter, we had to speak to a security guard, her supervisor ("Nobody gets in this building without approval!" he barked), and, finally, an executive, over the phone, who had the power to provide the coveted approval.
Although MGA earned a reported $820 million in 2012, according to Forbes, the company's employees view themselves as rebels. "From a business perspective, we're a scrappier, smaller company," says Campana. "[The company loves to] keep up and make amazing dolls with amazing fashion." The company's little man syndrome and paranoia probably stems from its over-a-decade-long legal battles with publicly traded toy giant Mattel.
In the early 2000s, Bratz started selling more than Mattel's Barbie line. In 2004, Mattel sued MGA, alleging that the doll line's designer, Carter Bryant, had conceived of the doll while still employed by them. The following year, Mattel sold $445 million worth of Barbie dolls, while MGA sold approximately $800 million worth of Bratz dolls. In 2008, a federal judge ruled in favor of Mattel, ordering MGA to recall all Bratz dolls from retailers. On appeal, however, MGA won the suit, and a federal judge ordered Mattel to pay MGA over $309 million. In 2014, MGA then started another suit; this time, the Bratz kingpins sued Mattel for a billion dollars. The Wall Street Journal reports the Bratz team had alleged Barbie's owner had sent spies into MGA's showrooms to steal their ideas. The new case is still pending.
For all the drama unfolding in the Wall Street Journal, MGA's Bratz room looks more like a fashion boutique than an open plan corporate office. MGA only employs two designers to create the Bratz. There's the male designer, who is wearing a skirt and beanie that says "MEOW," plus a woman named Danna Darma. She wears a pink-and-blue cardigan that matches her cotton-candy dyed hair. Both Darma and the other designer studied fashion design at the Otis Culture Institute in Los Angeles.
"Growing up I liked the dolls," Darma says. "They had a contest for Walmart to design your own Bratz, and I remember entering that. Obviously I didn't win, but I'm here now!"
Darma has decorated her cubicle with a skateboard, a bunch of sticks with dolls' heads on top of them, and pictures of bones. At his desk, the male designer has hung photos of hot guys painted as skeletons. The two share an inspiration board on a wall. Around a neon sign that says "BRATZ," they've hung magazine clips and fan art that kids post on Instagram. In the center of the room, the pair also shares a large white table they refer to as a "production table."
They've covered the desk in magazines like Nylon Japan and model drawings. It's where they conceive of the dolls and try out different fabrics. "Every season, Danna and I are going to task," the male designer explains, "So we sit down and brainstorm about what's cool. Let's say unicycling is cool. So we'd do a Bratz unicycling segment—we'd take the fashions, we'd go fabric shopping, buy fabrics." He takes out boxes full of doll accessories: purses, high heels, and boots. Beneath a shelf are boxes filled of differently colored dolls labeled "medium black," "light pink," and "Asian light."
The designers and Campana also work together on elaborate publicity stunts. After the Emmys, they produced Bratz versions of Amy Schumer and Taraji P. Henson. When the Grammy nominations were announced, they created Meghan Trainor and Taylor Swift dolls. They then posted these images on social media.
Their favorite stunt creation, though, is their Frida Kahlo Bratz doll. Based on fan art, the doll shows Frida in a red dress. The male designer sees Frida as an independent free spirit who wasn't afraid of controversy but was also sweet and genuine at her core. "Frida really ties into Bratz. She was like an OG Brat back in the day," he explains. "She was herself, and didn't live by social standards and norms. She wasn't afraid to express herself through her art, her eyebrows."
After they design the dolls, the male designer says, they "review them with marketing and with Jasmin." Jasmin is Jasmin Larian, MGA's creative stakeholder and the daughter of the company's billionaire Iranian owner Isaac Larian. (She also owns Cult Gaia, an e-commerce site that sells flower crowns.) Jasmin, fittingly, looks quite a bit like a Bratz doll. She says she's unsure if her father named the Bratz doll Yasmin after her, but admits she helped get the brand started.
"I was 12 years old, and [MGA was] always looking for something to kind of come out. Barbie had all the shelf space—90 percent market share at the time—so they were looking for something to come out and kind of rival that," Jasmin says in a Valley girl accent. "There was nothing diverse on the market at that time. It was just this blonde, blue-eyed girl. A designer came to my dad with some drawings [of Bratz dolls]. I was in the meeting, and I was obsessed with them. My dad thought they looked like aliens. He was like, 'Why do they have such big heads and feet that come off?' but I was like, "Theses are so cool! I need these!" And so, that's it. He made them."
Although the dolls looked liked Jasmin, she loved them mostly for their clothes. She and her friends shopped at Friends and Rampage, but they only ever saw Barbie dolls who looked like blonde girls who shop at the Grove.
"Barbie is more Rodeo Drive," Jasmin says. "We're more street wear Melrose: mix and match, make your own clothes."
Jasmin views fashion as the key to the Bratz brand. "I think it's really incredible to note that our team, they're fashion designers," she says. "They used to design for real girls, real people." Darma, for instance, was mentored at Bob Mackie, the eponymous company of the designer best known for dressing Joan Rivers and Cher. The Bratz creative director, who sits cross-legged on top of a desk near Jasmin, says that she previously worked as a buyer for an edgy fashion boutique.
The creative director, designers, and Jasmin all seem to be in sync and love to brag about the doll's fashion cred. "Other dolls don't use real fabrics," the male designer says. "They use any kind of ditzy prints, but we use real fabrics."
When I ask the group what's the biggest misconception about the Bratz, they all give the same answer. "[The biggest misconception is] that they're sluts," the male designer says. "I feel like no matter how you dress, [it] doesn't mean that someone knows who you are inside." Jasmin agrees: "Even in the past, when they were totally so-called 'sluts,' as a kid I just thought they were really cute and cool and just wanted to hang out with them," she says.
As a publicist, Campana discusses the Bratz's bad reputation in a less blunt way. "The dolls have always been based on cartoons, so they're not supposed to be real bodies," she says. "That's why they have the big heads—it's kind of the anime influence and cartoon influence." Campana says the company's young fans understand the context of the dolls' look, even if their parents miss the point. "If there is something negative that comes up or if a mommy blogger says something, our fans will jump to our defense fiercely," she says. "I'm sure you saw the woman who took the makeup off the Bratz and made them 'natural-looking.' Our fans were just like, 'Why would you do that?'" She laughs. "The [fans] really are very good defenders."
Campana speaks from a public relations standpoint, but when Jasmin discusses Bratz dolls she becomes passionate. Her voice rises.
"[Bratz fans] only know a black president," Jasmin says. "These kids, they are so color blind. I remember being at Toys 'R' Us for a launch, and seeing little girls to pick out which doll they wanted, and you saw the all-American blonde girl picking out Sasha—not because of her skin tone. That's not what they see [a doll] for. [She picked Sasha] just because she identified most with her style."
Jasmin's biased—she will probably inherit part of her father's fortune—but she's got a point. As much as the Bratz dolls and their creators may sound ridiculous at times, it's true that MGA offered a set of sex-positive dolls of various ethnicities to American girls over a decade before women's sexuality and racial diversity in media became subjects of national discourse.
"Before this brand, no one would dare to come out with a group of five girls, four of whom are ethnically diverse," Jasmin says.
Are the Bratz feminists, then? The creative director dodges my question. "I think that there's a stigma with feminism, and it's going away but I don't think it's quite there yet," she says. "But I definitely think that the Bratz girls and strong-willed and independent and very creative forward thinkers."
Perhaps the male designer sums up the dolls' views the best: "Demi Lovato has a song out, and one of the lyrics is What's wrong with being confident? And I feel that's the Bratz. What's wrong with being confident? What's wrong with being myself?"