Barbie's Secret Plan For World Domination
By Lauren Goldstein

(FORTUNE Magazine) – The Barbie phenomenon has officially become surreal: Ninety percent market penetration in the U.S., 2.5 dolls sold every second, $1.9 billion in sales annually, and over a billion dolls sold since her debut. It's a market reach that major world religions can only envy.

And it's getting even stranger. Barbie is leaving fantasyland for the more profitable realm of reality. Mattel, the makers of Barbie, will sell some $200 million of Barbie skirts, shoes, jeans, shirts, and pajamas this year, but those aren't doll clothes: They're for living, breathing girls, sizes 4 to 6x. For years, Mattel has sold T-shirts and the like with the doll's face emblazoned on them, but in the latest lines, Barbie's face has disappeared, replaced by a Barbie-esque style that Mattel says speaks for itself. According to Adrienne Fontanella, the Mattel executive overseeing Barbie consumer products, Barbie's future is as a designer brand with a distinct style that's not attached to the doll. "Barbie is their Calvin Klein," she says of her little customers. Trained in the cutthroat world of grownup fragrance launches, Fontanella expects sales of Barbie duds to double by 2000. Retailers say the line is selling twice as fast as its closest competitors--the farmhand-inspired OshKosh and the more sophisticated Esprit.

But why stop there? Mattel also sees a Barbie-clad future for toddlers, for 7- to 14-year-olds, for teenagers, and yes, for grownups. For the 40th anniversary of Barbie next year, Mattel is launching a line of Barbie sunglasses designed by Alain Mikli, the man who makes shades for arbiters of modern style like fashion designer Jil Sander and hairdresser Frederic Fekkai. "They're just brilliant," says Fontanella from Paris where she is reviewing the line. "They're Barbie and they are so chic." Let's hope so: They're also going to run as much as $350.

The adult line of glasses has a discreet "B" on the temple and is the sum of the company's foray into grownup fashion--at least for now. But Mattel is out to profit from every minute of a little girl's life. That means Barbie home furnishings, Barbie cosmetics, Barbie electronics, Barbie sporting goods, Barbie books, Barbie stationery, and even a Barbie band, Beyond Pink. This may seem like madness, but the company believes girls can't get enough of their tiny little friend. They may be right: The CD-Rom "Barbie Fashion Designer" that Mattel launched in September 1996 sold 353,409 copies in three months, making it the fourth-best-selling game of that year.

Barbie is religion for girls--and what's a religion without a temple? Mattel is looking at spaces in Los Angeles and New York to become Barbie mecca. Slated to open in 2000, the first Barbie store will boast about 25,000 square feet and house all the Barbie products, plus little extras like a beauty salon.

If all this strikes you as a little disquieting, there is solace in the fact that this isn't quite the dumb blond Barbie of the 1960s. Barbie has become smarter in recent years (1997 saw the launch of Paleontologist Barbie) and more worldly (Chilean Barbie debuted this year). Today Barbie is more real, thanks to a makeover in January that gave her a bigger smile and less makeup. Next year's overhaul will make her more Sandra Bullock than Dolly Parton, with a thicker waist and smaller breasts. Maybe one day she'll even get a navel.

--Lauren Goldstein