Kitty Perkins is a fashion designer from Spartanburg, South Carolina, who created the first ever black Barbie in the 1980s. The child of a housekeeper and a chef, Perkins never had Barbie dolls in the house.
The toys she played with as a kid came from the homes her mother cleaned. They were largely hand-me-downs and Shirley Temple dolls but not small Barbie dolls and she would dress them in her own baby clothes, according to Greenville News.
However, the lack of diversity and inclusiveness in the doll industry inspired her passion for fashion and creativity. She took sewing tips from her mother and grandmother using old newspapers to cut dress patterns.
“I remember going to S.H. Kress’s on Main Street,” she said. “I remember going to that store and getting a yard of fabric for 15 cents.” According to Perkins, her first outfit was an ill-fitting jumpsuit but her mother kept inspiring her.
She eventually benefited from the fruit of her labor when toy dynasty Mattel hired her in 1976 and tasked her to design a Barbie doll with a fresh wardrobe. Impressed with her creation, the company hired her as a Barbie clothes designer.
“My first week [at Mattel], I would just sit and brush Barbie’s hair. It would give me ideas and it was a thinking process for me. As I was stroking the hair, ideas would just come,” Perkins told Greenville News.
Within four years after she was hired, she led the design team to create the first-ever Black Barbie doll which was released in 1980. And for three decades, she helped diversify one of the country’s most popular toys, creating over 100 designs annually including the Brandy Barbie Dolls in the late 1990s inspired by singer Brandy Norwood.
One of Perkins’ doll lines includes Shanni and Friends, which she created in 1991. She also introduced Fashion Savvy in 1997 and designed a special doll which was donated to the South Carolina State Museum in May of 2001. She retired the following year.
Perkins has a degree in fashion design from Los Angeles Trade Technical College. Prior to joining Mattel, she worked for other fashion houses in Los Angeles. They include Miss Melinda of California, Debbie Ross, and A & O Couture, among others.