Kitty Black Perkins: Where is the First Black Designer of Mattel Now?

Netflix’s ‘Black Barbie: A Documentary’ traces the origins of Black Barbie dolls and their surrounding socio-political events, leading up to modern discourses on race, representation, and diversity through Barbie. As it dives into the history of the iconic doll, narrator-director Lagueria Davis introduces us to Kitty Black Perkins, the first African-American designer who joined Mattel and revolutionized its doll line with creativity and inclusivity. She takes us through her years of hard work in bringing the idea of a Black Barbie to fruition and handing it over to a new generation of talented African-American designers.

Kitty Black Perkins Witnessed Poverty and Segregation Growing Up

Kitty Black Perkins is a name synonymous with groundbreaking design and innovation in the toy industry, particularly for significant contributions to the world of Barbie dolls. She has had an illustrious and inspiring career, with various accolades commending her for professional excellence and the championing of social causes. Born as Louvenia Perkins in Spartanburg, South Carolina, during the mid-1940s, Perkins witnessed an era of racial segregation in the city. One of seven children, Kitty did not grow up with luxuries and didn’t own a Barbie, which was a high-end fashion doll at the time. She studied fashion design at the Los Angeles Trade Technical College and graduated in 1971.

When responding to an ad for a job opening at Mattel, Perkins was asked to design one dress for an upcoming collection. She ended up submitting five designs and was hired as the company’s first African-American designer. Her initial tasks involved designing clothes for Barbie, but she quickly rose through the ranks due to her exceptional talent and innovative ideas. Perkins is best known for her role in the creation of the first Black Barbie, which debuted in 1980. Prior to this, the African-American dolls came in the form of Barbie’s friends and were only distinguishable from the original because of a darker skin tone.

The Trail Blazer for Black Barbie Dolls

Kitty Perkins’ vision was to create a Barbie doll that was truly representative of African-American girls, complete with authentic features and stylish outfits that resonated with them. Her design for the Black Barbie included a face sculpt with fuller lips, a wider nose, and an Afro hairstyle that celebrated the working Black woman’s beauty. This doll had character and was dressed in a fitting and sparkling red gown. It became an instant hit, proving the market demand and opening the door to a line of future dolls. Her creations include Shani and Friends, Holiday Barbie, Bathtime Barbie, Day to Night, Peaches and Cream, MC Hammer, and the Brandy dolls, among others.

As Perkins continued to design for Barbie over the next few decades, her work earned her numerous accolades, including the Doll of the Year Award, Woman of the Year by the National Council of Negro Women, and being inducted into the Black Hall of Fame in 2001. After over 25 years of service as Chief Designer of Fashions and Doll Concepts for Mattel’s Barbie line, she decided it was time for her to hang her hat. Kitty Perkins retired from the company in 2003 after having reached the highest position in the company as a designer.

Black Perkins Makes the Most of Her Retirement

Kitty Black Perkins enjoys her retirement, but her legacy in the toy industry and her impact on cultural representation continue to be celebrated. The California resident is now in her seventies and remains involved in various community activities and talks. Despite her retirement, Perkins continues to influence the world of Barbie, with an enduring legacy and frequent appearances at the brand’s events and conventions. For instance, in June 2024, Perkins joined in the celebration of Barbie’s 65th anniversary and was appreciated for her work by Bill Greenie, the current Principal Designer for Barbie Signature at Mattel.

The mother of two shares a strong bond with her grown-up daughters, Erika Nicole and Christian, and even took inspiration from them during her decades of designing dolls. Perkins separated from her husband after twenty years of marriage, but the two maintained an amicable relationship and brought up their children jointly. Her ex-husband, who worked in the IT industry, made her acquaintance through a meeting arranged by her aunt. At the time, Perkins was too involved in her work to have a complete social life, but she hit it off with him. After their divorce, he moved down the street from Perkins to make it easier for their daughters to spend time with the both of them.

Kitty Black Perkins Received the Key to Her City and Continues to Inspire

Kitty Black Perkins was honored with the Key to the City of Spartanburg, South Carolina, in March 2024, recognizing her exceptional contributions to the world of design and her impactful role in promoting diversity and representation. The event highlighted her remarkable journey from a small-town girl with a passion for fashion to an influential figure whose work has inspired generations. “I never dreamed that I would ever make that kind of impact on Spartanburg, South Carolina-where I grew up,” Perkins said at the event. “This is my hometown and will always be my home.”

Perkins is often invited to speak at various events and forums, sharing her experiences and insights on diversity in design and the importance of representation. Early April 2024 saw the retired designer attend a meet and greet at Thornton Community Center, where she gave a talk and interacted with Lotus Society members and community leaders. At such events, Kitty Perkins often encourages the youth to pursue their dreams and emphasizes the importance of perseverance and self-belief. Her own journey and challenges stand as a testament to what can be made possible with passion and resolve.

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