Moore From L.A.: What Fashion Brands Can Learn From Mattel and Toys

Mattel has had a very good year — and the fashion industry can learn from it, according to the brand’s president and chief operating officer Richard Dickson.

The El Segundo, Calif.-based toy giant’s third-quarter results shattered expectations, with revenues jumping 10 percent to $1.63 billion from $1.48 billion a year ago. Sales of Barbie and Hot Wheels to parents needing to occupy (and bribe!) their kids during lockdown have been a huge factor. But so has Mattel’s work connecting its products to pop culture.

Mattel began collaborating with fashion designers on limited-edition Barbies in the Eighties. But Dickson, a veteran of Bloomingdale’s, The Estée Lauder Cos. Inc. and the former Jones Group, has been working on expanding the collaboration-meets-collectible formula, not only with Barbie (an Elton John Barbie doll hit stores in October) but other Mattel brands.

This year he launched Mattel Creations, a new division to develop limited edition co-branded product and capsule collections with fashion designers, entertainment properties and artists aimed at a young adult audience. Releases have included Uno x The Hundreds (cards featuring the L.A. streetwear brand’s renowned Adam Bomb character, hats and T-shirts), Monster High Skullector x “The Shining” (the Grady twins in two-pack doll form) and Herschel x Hot Wheels Land Rover Defender 90 (with mini jeep, backpack and tool kit included).

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“It was fanatical,” Jamie Cormack, director of Herschel Supply, said of the reaction to the Hot Wheels product, which was inspired by the adventure-loving brand’s 10 years of road tripping in Land Rover cars, and which sold out within a few minutes. “This was one of those eye-openers for us, to see there are a lot of possibilities for a brand like ours to play in different categories and segmentations.”

Herschel Supply Co. teamed up with Hot Wheels and Land Rover. Courtesy/STEPHEN WILDE

Mattel was supposed to be celebrating 75 years in 2020 with a bevy of pop-ups and events, all canceled because of the pandemic. But Dickson has plans for Mattel Creations to come to life in 2021, once COVID-19 is in the rearview mirror.

He also has thoughts about how the fashion industry should be embracing toys, not just as a fleeting, seasonal handbag accessory or runway prop, but as an ongoing business opportunity.

One only has to look at the success of Bearbrick, the OG streetwear toy from Japan’s Medicom, whose collaborative figurines with Chanel, Hermès and Fendi have sold on the resale market for hundreds of thousands of dollars, to see the potential. And indeed, Gucci chief executive officer Marco Bizzarri has revealed his brand’s intent to build on its lifestyle appeal in 2021 by selling in selected stores “fun collections” of gaming cards, bottles and gifts.

WWD Zoomed in to Dickson’s home office in L.A. to chat about Mattel’s 2020 success, particularly with the Barbie and Hot Wheels brands, future plans for Mattel Creations and working with the fashion industry.

WWD: Hi Richard. We met years ago when Mattel had a real-life Barbie Dreamhouse in Malibu.

Richard Dickson: Oh, my god, that was a long time ago. It was designed by Jonathan Adler!

WWD: I still have some of that swag.

R.D.: It’s worth something.

WWD: What is flying off shelves for the holidays?

R.D.: Barbie is doing incredibly well, she ranked number one on top properties on NPD, and has been seeing double-digit growth in POS for some time. The products are innovative with brands like Color Reveal, which actually is new technology applied to Barbie. But the basic Barbie dolls where we have diversity and inclusivity in skin tones and body shapes, which reflect more of what girls see today with a tie-in to pop culture, is really giving Barbie a lot more credibility with parents, and a lot more playability with kids. Across the board, it’s been about innovation.

WWD: The Extra Barbie line is very fashionable and cool. What was the genesis of that?

R.D.: This was a return to Barbie’s fashion heritage, dialing up her accessories, friends, environments, just a little extra. It’s been one of the bestselling new segments, and we anticipate it will be a strong segment going into 2021.

WWD: Barbie is one of the ways I fell in love with fashion.

R.D.: I’ve been at this for some time, but wherever I go around the world and say what I do, most of the influential creative voices, including fashion, will tell you their unique vision began in childhood, inspired by play, inspired by toys and very specifically in fashion, inspired by Barbie. And nothing makes me more proud to represent it. Despite the fact I hear it all the time, it never gets old because you are working today with something that truly inspired kids to be who they are as adults. We take that responsibility seriously even though it’s about fun. We do take a lot of pride in inspiring the next generation.

Uno x The Hundreds game. Courtesy of Mattel

WWD: What was the genesis of Mattel Creations? 

R.D.: It was inspired by the origin story of Mattel, which in 1945, 75 years ago, started in a garage under the Mattel Creations name. People like Walt Disney came to our garage and worked with our founders originally. It was an amazing place and I thought connecting back to our heritage would be really exciting, while modernizing it by introducing it as a collaborative platform for designers, entertainers and fashion brands that are inspired by our brands selling limited-edition collector’s items, telling designer stories, and essentially building an e-commerce platform where toys become art and art can be inspired by toys. So the name Mattel Creations is part of our heritage but the concept is very new, very relevant and very fresh.

Originally, we were going to launch online simultaneously with five pop-up shops in New York, London, Milan, Tokyo, and they were going to have a garage feel where we would curate a collection of the most iconic toys of our past, but also feature and celebrate some of the artistic interpretations of our toys of today. But unfortunately all the brick-and-mortar plans got killed. We’re happy we launched digitally, but as things get easier, we will come back and do pop-up shops and fun, exciting events around the world. In 2021, you will see a new drop every two weeks or so.

WWD: Certainly Mattel has engaged the fashion industry a lot in recent years, particularly using the Barbie brand. What other potential do you see for crossover?

R.D.: I actually think there are fashion brands that would love to have toys. And as you watch the fashion business migrate to other categories, I believe what we see in our own brands is that toys are a form of art, collectibility and design. Instead of seeing them as playful accessories for one season, I think there are ways fashion brands can look at toys as an ongoing business, appealing to their fans, and creating collectible curated toys, perhaps in their brand name vs. the Mattel brand. But hopefully, we team up and do some of that work.

It’s an interesting frontier we’re working on with some fashion brands. And think about how it’s appealed to the world of car collectors, when you have Hot Wheels done by Aston Martin, Ferrari and Land Rover, the Hot Wheels Legends collections of some of the greatest car aficionados, like Jay Leno, done in die cast form becoming objects that bring emotion, humor and fun. I think there is a way fashion can build on that.

WWD: They could also be vehicles for storytelling that could help fashion brands with content development — their toys could have different episodes or adventures, perhaps, in different seasons.

R.D.: Totally. Toys help with creativity, problem-solving and empathy, there’s all sorts of values to them, including aesthetics and the stories you can tell with them…the content is endless.

WWD: I would imagine you see in your own business: if someone is buying a Barbie, they may also be buying the expensive Dreamhouse. So it’s not like toys would cannibalize sales within fashion brands.

R.D.: No, it’s actually incremental. You have core play systems, special pieces and limited editions. Toys are a hybrid between fashion and entertainment. How we build and architect is much like a fashion brand, how we tell stories and market is much like an entertainment company. So we sit in a middle spot where we borrow the best of both.

Richard Dickson, president and chief operating officer of Mattel. Courtesy

WWD: Looking at overall strategy, how do you balance nostalgia and newness?

R.D.: It’s an important question; for any brand with heritage, that’s an important balance. For 75 years, Mattel has been known for toys, but even in the toys we do, we anticipate and reflect culture. We never want to be too trendy, and we never want to be off-trend, we need to be just right. Because when you look back on the history of the toys themselves, which we do often, they are a reflection of what was happening in the world — how they look, the graphics, packaging. Even today, you look at Uno, which now has fully sustainable packaging, and has had partners like Kylie Jenner. It’s a moment in time and a careful curation — a balance of art and science. And in our business, you have to constantly make sure you’re appealing to the next generation because you are only as good as that relationship.

WWD: I’m interested in your digital content development…I was on the Barbie YouTube channel, looking at the Barbie Blogger show. That’s daily programming you are putting out there dealing with real issues like racism. How does that convert to sales?

R.D.: We are storytellers. While we have toys that are physical products, we create narratives out of our brands. And today, specifically, our goal is to be where our consumer is. Therefore, we need to be everywhere. We need to create content for YouTube, short form, long form, TV commercials, TV series, digital gaming, it’s really complex today. For a company that was built on the 30-second commercial and Saturday morning cartoons, the whole model is completely new.

We need to create a huge amount of content, and in that, we have some content that’s very deliberately designed for commercial connectivity. Then we have content that is more designed around brand narratives. Some of the Barbie work, particularly, brings brand equity. We want to make sure we invest in Barbie narratives that work to empower girls, inspire them to believe they can be anything, and that deal with real current issues. The Barbie Blogger is a great example of dealing with current issues that may have no product associated with them, but the equity and brand affiliation exponentially drives goodwill, which we believe drives better brand equity and conversion into product sales.

Elton John Barbie Courtesy of Mattel

WWD: Creating digital content has also been a huge priority for fashion and luxury brands this year, whether it’s the Gucci seven-part “Ouverture” film, or the Balenciaga video game. What you think they could learn from Mattel?

R.D.: I do think that the way our toys are designed, and how we reflect pop culture on our toys as a canvas is inspirational for fashion companies. I think fashion companies today are looking for different ways to express their own identity as fashion itself becomes more challenging. Whether that’s through content or other categories like toys and home, how do they stay relevant? Today the consumer can digest an unbelievable amount of content. And if you are not telling a story, if the brand is not expressing its values, interests, opinions and persona, it loses relevance with today’s consumer. You don’t have to appeal to everyone but you do have to appeal to someone, therefore you can’t be afraid to have a brand voice.

More fashion brands are extending themselves in interesting ways, and personifying themselves in content, podcasts, collaborations. Moncler has done a great job with the Genius brand and saying the rules are the rules the guest designer applies vs. the rigidness of a brand. Brands like IWC have done a great job taking a real heritage brand and deliberately creating great content and collaborations and programs that put the brand in unexpected places. Fashion is starting to stretch the boundaries. And I do believe toys, like fashion, have always been a bridge to pop culture.

WWD: This is a dumb question, but does Barbie have a writing staff?

R.D.: She has a lot of talent who supports her — we have writers, artists, script writers, short form, long form, even from a product perspective, she has teams with whole series of skillsets, from makeup to fashion. But she is also a celebrity, so we have carefully curated how we navigate Barbie’s do’s and don’ts and how Barbie should be reacting to various different moments in pop culture.

WWD: You have that with each Mattel franchise?

R.D.: It’s most pronounced admittedly with Barbie, who is a lightning rod of cultural conversation. But each of our brands has a deliberately personal positioning statement. Behind the scenes at Mattel, we talk a lot about purposeful play and I’m a big believer in having a brand foundation, what is its purpose, what is its promise. So in times of opportunity, you can build off of that, but in times of crisis you can get your inspiration, how to handle that.

At Hot Wheels, we stopped doing animated cartoon series, and went into short-form content and user-generated content, inspiring kids to build the best sets they can and share them on YouTube. We also did a virtual garage series event where people competed to build the best custom cars — actual real-size cars — to be made into Hot Wheels die-cast cars. We did contests virtually to pick the winners, engaging with more than 10 million fans on YouTube. Snoop Dogg and Jay Leno were judges. We literally created a show around the Hot Wheels brand and inspiring people who love the brand to create themselves.

WWD: How do you interface with production companies, do you pitch them content ideas or do they pitch you?

R.D.: It works both ways, we take concepts with our brands to platforms like Netflix, Nickelodeon and Disney just like any seller of content. We have a really great in-house content creation team, some of the greatest talent from the entertainment industry, and they create animated series, live action concepts and scripts. And we work with partners like Netflix. “Barbie Dreamhouse Adventures” is a show on Netflix created in partnership with Netflix.

WWD: Is the Margot Robbie Barbie film ever going to get made?

R.D.: We absolutely are driving it for what we believe will be an important movie. Greta Gerwig is directing and for her to be associated with the Barbie brand and passionate about it is incredible. And with Margot Robbie, it’s an all-star team. It’s much more important for us to get it right than to worry about the time. We’ve been around a long time and have never had a theatrical release, and we’re doing just fine. We want to make sure what we do is the kind of quality and impact that will complement the brand’s heritage.

WWD: We didn’t talk about how you see the gaming space and gamification. Is that something Mattel is pressing more into?

R.D.: Absolutely, while Mattel is a leading toy company in the world of physical gaming, in digital gaming the opportunities are immense. Digital gaming as a category is almost twice the size of traditional toys so it represents huge amounts of volume. Both have continued to grow, so digital has not eroded traditional play. And traditional play has been complementary to digital play.

We’ve been working hard to extend our own brands into digital play systems. Hot Wheels is probably the most pronounced. We just launched “Road Blocks,” a great digital platform game for us. We also have a strategic partnership with NetEase, one of the largest gaming companies in the world out of China, and they do our mobile gaming, of which Uno is a blockbuster success. And we will be rolling out more mobile games from our games division. We have Uno, Skippo, Pictionary, Scrabble, and we will be doing a lot more digital gaming and it represents a huge growth opportunity for the company.

American Girl Thank You Heroes scrubs raised money for COVID-19 relief in 2020. Courtesy of Mattel

WWD: What are other priorities for 2021?

R.D.: We are focused on staying consistent and seizing the momentum we have. We are concentrated on growing our largest franchises. Barbie has had a spectacular year and we have a vision for that brand that we feel is going to continue the pattern. Hot Wheels is going to have the biggest year it’s ever had. Brands like Fisher-Price and American Girl are poised for great growth.

Then we partnered with best in class — Disney, Universal, Nickelodeon, WWE. We have “Jurassic World: Dominion” with Universal and lots of movie-related toys, that once movies come back, we’re going to have a large part of our business be in that space.

We’re also incredibly focused on the d-to-c piece of business, the growth of e-commerce, the way consumers have changed their shopping behaviors. And getting much more pronounced in our e-commerce assets, in our marketing, in our ability to stay in the lead as a toy company in that space. We have our work cut out but I’ve never been more inspired to drive.

WWD: What’s your position on timing for product tied to content (that’s one thing traditionally fashion has grappled with)? I’m thinking particularly of runway shows or films promoting collections produced for future sale vs. see-now, buy-now.

R.D.: I think there are certain programs, content and merchandising that do need to be in harmony. The moment comes and the moment goes, and you need to have a merchandising calendar and product development timelines lined up, and it really is a science. I’ve found, particularly in the fashion space, the discipline of maintaining that approach is challenging. There’s a lot more art associated in fashion that sometimes takes precedent, whereas when you’re dealing with timing and merchandising and content, like or don’t like, you’ve got to go to keep the wheels on the bus to have that shot at the time the movie drops. We do that as a part of our business model so we’re accustomed to that.

But as content becomes more prolific, as it becomes faster and less of an event, I think timelines will be more relaxed, and at the end of the day product is hero. If the content doesn’t coordinate but the product is great, it will sell regardless. If the narrative was great, it will last with whatever product you put in the marketplace. It’s just when it’s specific and tailored to the event, you have to be more disciplined.

WWD: Clearly, people will wait a year for Baby Yoda!

R.D.: That’s been a blockbuster success, being on top of the trend and bringing it fast to market.

WWD: And hopefully under my Christmas tree!

“Star Wars: The Mandalorian” The Child Real Moves Plush toy by Mattel. Courtesy of Matrel


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