American Girl Celebrates 35 Years: It’s Not Child’s Play

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In honor of its 35th anniversary, American Girl staged a fashion show at its Rockefeller Center flagship with help from designers Prabal Gurung and Carly Cushnie and Harlem’s Fashion Row.

With a salon, doll hospital, café and other attractions, the 38,000-square-foot store is kaleidoscopic maze in itself. Building on the company’s inclusivity-driven heritage, American Girl partnered with HFR for the event, which featured reimagined girl and doll designs for the brand’s six historical characters by Cushnie.

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The Mattel-owned toy brand also presented the new “World by Us” doll and book line to strengthen equality and unity. The three characters’ stories address social issues and the value of working together to create a better world. On-the-rise HFR designers Nichole Lynel, Samantha Black and Kristian Loren created World by Us-inspired clothes for girls that were available on pre-sale during the event; they will be sold at American Girl stores starting in March.

Serious about how the storytelling rooted in their dolls can educate children and spark important conversations with parents, American Girl considered Thursday’s event to be a continuation of its heritage. After the show, Mattel president and chief operating officer Richard Dickson said that he expects the connection and messaging between fashion and toys to intensify. Mattel, which racked up $4.58 billion in sales last year, owns American Girl. Alluding to future fashion-fueled projects, he mentioned artist and OBEY founder Shepherd Fairey’s participation in Mattel’s UNO Artiste Series in July.

Toy dolls are a significant business in the U.S. that racked up $3.64 billion in sales last year, compared to $3.29 billion in 2019. As many corporations and companies in different sectors continue to try to improve diversity and inclusion through their products and customer reach, American Girl’s wide-ranging merchandise and storytelling has always been rooted in that goal by exploring different periods in American history.

Before the models took to the runway, general manager Jamie Cygielman said, “This is really just an amplification of that, by showing some contemporary stories of what it means to be an American Girl today. Our new line reflects that…Our partnership with Harlem’s Fashion Row is also a way to amplify diverse and inclusive stories, particularly giving strength of character and confidence to young girls by seeing all the opportunities that are open to them.”

The scene at the American Girl runway show. - Credit: Ilya S. Savenok/Getty Images for
The scene at the American Girl runway show. - Credit: Ilya S. Savenok/Getty Images for

Ilya S. Savenok/Getty Images for

While the youngsters posed on the rainbow step-and-repeat, Cushnie said she set out to reimagine the dolls’ outfits in a new and modern ways while maintaining elements of who they were. Her redesigns of six dolls were showcased on the runway by girls wearing similar styles and carrying each doll. For example, she reimagined Samantha from the Gilded Age with a printed sequined skirt with a puffed-sleeve T-shirt. Each American Girl doll has a personal story, such as the Civil War-era “Addie Walker,” who escaped slavery. Cushnie said she reimagined the patchwork quilt that Walker kept close by in a sleeveless dress.

Having not grown up in the U.S. playing with American Girl dolls, Cushnie said whenever she mentioned the project to others they were excited to share their favorites. The fact that the dolls have individual stories and books that educate the children about a moment in time was a plus, she said.

An auction was held for the six dolls to raise money for Girls Who Code. “I really wanted to extend the idea of this education for girls. I love the fact that it’s not just dolls, but really thinking about their stories,” she said. “I grew up playing with dolls. I never had a doll that even closely resembled me, or nothing near to it. I really enjoy this exploration because of that.”

Kennedy Cruz and Victor Cruz - Credit: Ilya S. Savenok/Getty Images for
Kennedy Cruz and Victor Cruz - Credit: Ilya S. Savenok/Getty Images for

Ilya S. Savenok/Getty Images for

Chanel Iman was also in Thursday night’s child-friendly crowd of 100 or so, as was a smiling Victor Cruz in a green varsity jacket. His daughter Kennedy was one of the models in the show. Although many of the guests looked too young to take the subway alone, they were given a glimpse of the downtown fashion show that Gurung held during New York Fashion Week. Through a partnership with American Girl, the toy company sponsored his runway show and Gurung has designed a limited-edition “Stronger in Colour” T-shirt for girls and dolls to be sold. The motto is a favorite mantra of the designer, who explained his collections are colorful, they celebrate colorful people and “offer happiness, joy and optimism, which bring hope for a change.”

Attendees also got a glimpse at a video of a Prabal Gurung doll that American Girl made for him. Bounding onto the stage enthusiastically, Gurung said, “I’m sure you’re all wondering why I’m here tonight [in a store] filled with beautiful dolls and books. Believe it or not I have my own doll, finally. That means I’ve made it.”

Turning more serious, Gurung spoke of the importance of seeing behind the surface of things, to go a little deeper and to perhaps look at life through a different lens. “One of my goals in fashion is to show that different kinds of fashion exist in the world,” he said.

Gurung cited that American Girl’s “entire reason for being is to empower and strengthen confidence into girls and boys to help them grow up into strong, optimistic and tolerant human beings” was why he was attended. The Singapore-born, Nepal-raised designer said that as a child he played with dolls all the time, but secretly at home. While his parents and sister understood that, a lot of people didn’t, he said, adding how glad he is to see now that anyone in the world can play with dolls, celebrate themselves and see themselves in those dolls.

A gown from the designer’s spring 2020 collection emblazoned with a sash stating “Who Gets to Be American” is featured prominently near the start of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute exhibit “In America: A Lexicon of Fashion,” which is on view through Sept. 5, 2022.

Harlem’s Fashion Row founder Brandice Daniel, with her daughter Sky by her side, thanked the crowd for their participation in celebrating the unlimited potential, hope and promise of our youth. Afterward, she spoke about how the collaboration will inspire young girls to pursue careers in fashion, because they will see themselves in that role. American Girl is supporting HFR’s nonprofit ICON360 with a donation of $25,000 for the next generation of fashion leaders of color.

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