#MyHistory: Kitty Black-Perkins
If you know me well, I’m sure you can imagine how hype I am to write this post. Barbie was my first client and still a huge inspiration. I can remember taking the time to create micro braids in my Olympics Barbie, reading books about Mattel’s history and collectible Barbies, swinging Movin’ Groovin’ Christie’s luxe ponytail in the wind and pretty much keeping my full collection of late ‘80s to mid 2000’s Black Barbie, Christie, Teresa and Kira dolls until 14 (my mama didn’t play about only having dolls of color in the house)...I bet not get a side eye for that. For me, Barbie represented a blank canvas, someone to make things for, create narratives for and look impeccable in the process.
Kitty Black Perkins was a name that I saw consistently in a lot of those Barbie books I would read, but I was never able to put a face to the name. How glamorous would it be to design for Barbie?! She could need a look for her Presidential Inauguration then change the next minute for roller skating...a client with limitless options. What I would learn years later is that Kitty Black Perkins, a Black woman, was the chief designer of fashions and doll concepts for Mattel’s Barbie for over 25 years.
Louvenia “Kitty” Black-Perkins was born February 13, 1948 in Spartanburg, SC. Spartanburg was a heavily segregated city in the south. Their school system didn’t enact desegregation until 1970, the high school that Perkins attended decided to close when the change finally came.
After graduation, Perkins traveled to California for a fun summer trip and never looked back. Perkins enrolled in the Los Angeles Trade Technical School and graduated in 1971 with an associate’s degree in fashion design. Five years after graduation, Perkins noticed an ad from Mattel in the classified section of the newspaper looking for a doll clothing designer.
In a 1991, LA Times Interview, Perkins states that prior to that interview she had never seen a Barbie doll in person and was asked to come back in a week with the doll wearing an original design by her. Perkins describes that trial outfit as “ floral print voile jumpsuit with full, tiered legs and puff sleeves and matching wide-brimmed hat. "Really stylish," she recalled, "almost like a garden party outfit.” But Mattel turned down this initial design because it would be a bit too complicated for Mattel to reproduce cost wise. Perkins didn’t take no for an answer and ended up with Mattel on a three month probationary period. Of course, Perkins talent took her straight to Barbie’s head designer.
Perkins days included finding inspiration in unlikely sources like the school supplies aisle or attending the hottest runway shows, fabric shopping, pattern drafting and draping for her 11 ½” tall client and working with the team to create a final look to be approved by the Mattel’s upper level team. Kitty Black Perkins and her team are responsible for pitching everything from each Barbie’s hairstyle, makeup, hair and outfit while collaborating with the accessories team.
Some of Perkins’ notable Barbie designs include designing the first black Barbie in 1979-1980 (not to be confused with Barbie’s friend Christie, who debuted in 1968), Mattel’s first exclusive line of black dolls Shani & Friends, the Brandy doll, Holiday Barbie (1988, 1989, 1990 & 1996), Fashion Savvy Collection (1998) Barbie, Bathtime Barbie, Tangerine Twist Barbie, Evening Extravaganza/Classique Collection, Uptown Chic, Dance With Me, Day to Night & MC Hammer
Kitty Black Perkins retired from Mattel in 2002 (Barbie’s 43rd anniversary) after designing over 100 dolls per year, 1985 and 1987 she earned Mattel's Chairman's Award, the highest recognition a Mattel employee can receive, and winning the DOTY award. She was inducted into the Black Hall of Fame on July 23, 2001.
Kitty’s career is incredibly inspiring to me. Having a Barbie made in my likeness with a few WM outfits has been #goals since I learned how to sew when I was 13. Perkins is one of the people I hope I can eventually meet during my career. For Kitty to have such an illustrious and noted career as a black woman for a international toy giant through the 70’s till the early 2000’s is incredible when so many people of color have been erased or ignored from fashion history.