It Only Looks Expensive

It only looks expensive...

It only looks expensive…

Despite my rantings here…it’s now time to present the other side of the story

Look, I wore alot of hats when I worked for a doll maker over the course of ten years. So I can safely say there’s a great deal I know about doll design, production, marketing, the lot. In fact, one of the things with which I actually had little involvement was designing a doll or its clothing – and how ironic that most people think that’s exactly what I did. No, no…that wasn’t a question. Oh sure…I sewed and designed…but for my own personal collection – but never for any company. I will say that I did submit a design trial to Franklin Mint in the hopes of working for them – they sent specs for their (then) vinyl Scarlett O’Hara doll – I thought, piece of cake, right? Well, color me mental, but I was about to get my first significant lesson in working for the doll industry.

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Firstly, the specs were all wrong. And this wasn’t in my own opinion, mind you…they were completely wrong. The design I was to recreate was one of Scarlett’s widow’s weeds while mourning Charles Hamilton. Hang on…not so fast – there were more than one even in her first fake mourning. This particular outfit was one she was wearing when a generous Rhett Butler presented her with a dazzling green chapeau from Paris. Oh, the scandal.

Why - what's the matter?

Why – what’s the matter?

The real scandal though, was that the Franklin Mint had little interest or understanding in authenticity (something I should have known better given my previous excretious experience with their horrific design interpretations regarding my eternal love, Gone With The Wind). Not only had they not paid very much attention to the actual dress, they recommended fabrics that were also wrong in terms of scale. Now, I know they want to produce it in something inexpensive, but if this was to be a trial showing them my abilities, why wouldn’t I give them my all? Right? After all, I can be accused of many things in my life…some of them even true – but half-assed is not one of them, thank you very much.

There was a shawl, too.

There was a shawl, too.

So naturally, I chose a matte silk poplin instead of taffeta (remember, this wasn’t the gown she wore to the charity bazaar) – and silk poplin had the right drape for the skirt, tailored well, and would look fairly rich (poverty hadn’t really hit home in Atlanta quite yet, despite there being only one chicken to roast for Ashley’s Christmas dinner). For the buttons, rocaille beads were suggested, but I went with matte Japanese seed beads because they needed to match the finish of the poplin. The crowning glory, the hat, was crafted over a custom-formed buckram crown in emerald silk velvet with one perfectly dyed ostrich feather hand-trimmed to mimic the single feather used in the original. To be scale, it had to be hand-cut with embroidery scissors to create a precise shape of an full-size ostrich feather that was steamed and sculpted across the brim of the hat. Finally, the hat ribbon was made of silk taffeta, dyed to match the velvet…and one particular little feature not easily seen unless studied – what appeared to be a red or magenta stripe running the length of the ties.

See???

See???

Of course, my interpretation of the costume and hat was worthy of its own Oscar, but I was happy to received $500 from the Franklin Mint for my trouble. A check…and a rejection letter explaining that I had not used the correct fabrics, and that my interpretation of the costume would not suffice for production – but thank you for your submission. Oh, really? So I did what any normal fanatic would do, I penned an extraordinary letter detailing to the Mint that they were the ones who were not only wrong, but obviously didn’t seem to care about reproducing details to the level of satisfaction that existed within their customer base (how many of you have done this, hmmm?).

The Franklin Mint's Offering

The Franklin Mint’s Offering

I never received a reply. A shame really…someone with my sense of detail and memory…oh, how you could have benefited ten and ten thousand times over from such a skill.

MY submission.

MY submission.

And I won’t even entertain a word about the fabric on the ties not being the right kind of taffeta…I merely improved on the original…whatever.

First - you kill all the designers...

First – you kill all the designers…

My attempts to interview with Madame Alexander for a design job is so worthy of telling, it will actually have its own post – so sorry to tease you while midway through this subject…it’s just there’s so much to tell, kittens.

Good design is subjective...

Good design is subjective…

But no…I never designed for Tonner. I did, however…manage production for a few years – and despite tip-toeing through a sea of delicate moods and egos requiring kid skin gloves to manage, I did learn a wealth of information about how a doll is made…and more so, how much it costs to make that doll. You see, every step has a dollar figure associated with it…and to know and understand each one of those dollars brings you closer to dolly nirvana. Well, not really…but you’ll be enlightened, nevertheless…

Everyone thinks differently...

Everyone thinks differently…

Labor and Materials. A doll is made up from materials and the labor to produce it. When reviewing labor costs, you have to have an open mind. For example, how many of you sew and sell your products? How much do you charge for your labor? Most of you will say, ‘not enough.’ And therein lies the single most problematic variable in the pricing of a doll – the labor. Labor of which you, the customer, so highly devalue. When you call a doll over-priced, you just slapped the shit out of the designer, sample maker, production worker, sales and marketing bastards, management and customer service and that’s only the broad categories.

There is a cost associated with each and every one of them...

There is a cost associated with each and every one of them…

Most comments I’ve read almost exclusively refer to price in the materials that make up a doll’s physical form or costume – but virtually never address design or fabrication. Oh I heard you back there…overhead, right? Wrong. In the classic pricing of any manufactured product, you will have materials, labor, and indirect expenses that are calculated on many pooled operating expenses…and that nasty little bitch called profit, which every capitalistic venture is entitled to, right? Well…kind of. Profit is the reward a manufacturer pays itself for doing its job well…and if done very, very well…then they would have great profits. The exact opposite should be true…but often as the case may be – it is not.

Yes, but how much?

Yes, but how much?

But now here’s another glaring problem with doll pricing that almost anyone smaller than Mattel, Integrity or Madame Alexander experiences…not much attention is paid to actual costs of materials, direct labor and indirect expenses. Many will look at what the doll should cost, or its perceived value…and hope that will put the books into the red. Unfortunate really…because that’s precisely why the bigger companies are bigger – they analyze, study and have such a strong understanding of every single penny that goes into its products, and the economies of scale that affects it, too. If it doesn’t work in their cost analytics, it is changed. Every moment they resist change, they lose revenue and subsequent profits. Look, I used to review cost data for the U.S. Navy for the production of the TRIDENT Missile Program…I know a thing or two about quantitative cost analysis (and I’m pretty, too). Still with me? Good…because this is going to become very important a little later.

Does anyone ever read your resumé...really?

Does anyone ever read your resumé…really?

Design Labor. How much does Jason Wu add to a Fashion Royalty doll to cover his design labor? What would you say Robert Tonner is paid per original sculpture that his company produces? But wait…it’s not just the actual product design – you also have packaging design, too. And then there’s sampling – sample makers must translate a sketch into a pattern that will move into production. If you can recycle a pattern, or even pattern pieces, you can save a great deal of money. Many do…and just as many do not. So that’s one of the first things in a design to examine – just how original is the pattern – was it re-used from a previous design, or was it drafted new and fresh for this and this doll alone? Say what you will about recycled pattern pieces, but Mattel’s been doing it for ages – and successfully so. They not only have found a clever way to make the old into the new, but they are also taking advantage of the learning curve that creates manufacturing efficiency across all product lines. It’s sweet and lovely when you see a completely original doll design…but honey, you are going to pay for it…dearly.

Paying the price...

Paying the price…

Consider the sculpt, too. Is it new? And not just the head, mind you…but that maddening demand for increased articulation in body jointing. Because it’s not just sculpting – it’s also engineering you are paying for. Then there are the materials, which are coming up next. The bottomline is that before this thing even gets to production, it has already cost a company thousands of dollars – some are much better at accounting for them and building a pricing structure than others.

Who are you calling cheap?

Who are you calling cheap?

Materials. Some prick had the gall to review an early Tyler outfit and declare the fabric cheap. The fabric in question was a laminated silk velvet, and the pariah making the exclamation hadn’t even a clue what it was, or how much it cost. Madame Alexander showed Solstiss lace on an early Alex fashion doll…and substituted net with stitched appliques so bottom-scraping-cheap, that is was actually embarrassing, yet the Alex faithful stood beside their girl in her defense. There was no logical defense, the material substitution was poor at best…and when you compare it to a hand-made lace crafted in France for hundreds of dollars a yard compared to something that was mere pennies per yard, the thought of someone actually defending the action was insanely suspect.

Bait and Switch

Bait and Switch

And it wasn’t the first time it had happened. The fact of the matter was that this was clearly not a substitution of equal value…and some bitter asshole out there was going to defend it in the sake of his…what…reputation? How do you defend something like that without shriveling up and withering away into the internet abyss? Ultimately, the collectors did speak out by not supporting Alex in terms of sales…and she faded away into obscurity as so many of the 16-inch fashion dolls have over the years. And to those that remind me this is about the love of dolls..I can only agree. I never said Alex was ugly…but I will say the creation of Alex as a response to Gene, and subsequently Tyler (though it was really more about Tyler than Gene), was an utter abomination in the face of fashion doll lovers worldwide. And that is why I hate Alex. You can love her all you want…but I never will (there’s still more to this story – but it will be told another time, kittens).

This just hurts my eyes...

This just hurts my eyes…

Whoa…wait…that’s just the costume! Remember the doll is made of stuff, too. And here are a few more things for your accounting ledger. Is the doll resin, porcelain, vinyl or hard plastic? Which would you think is the most expensive to produce? No…I’ll wait a moment. Before you answer, think about how the material is actually going to be formed into the doll itself. What kind of mold is being used? Hard plastic molds are blocks of steel that are bored out to withstand the repetitive high temperature and heat of injection molding. Hard plastic is desirable because it is strong, and very inexpensive to make. But that mold is going to cost you tens of thousands of dollars to pump up front. And this, my friends, is why there’s such a big movement in the resin market. Resin doesn’t require anywhere near the up-front costs that making injection molded plastics do. Porcelain is the same, but not as durable. Forget vinyl for anything needing structure, because it’s too soft.

I only look expensive...

I only look expensive…

Who thinks resin is some revolutionary new material that is used for ultra high-end dolls? Well, you’d only be partially right. Some resin formulae are quite expensive to produce, others are not. Resin can be easily and inexpensively molded, but it also requires a great deal of finishing (sanding, tinting, and painting). Labor used to be cheap in China…not so much anymore…but it’s still cheaper than the US or Europe. But why are resin dolls so very expensive, you might ask? Because most of the costs associated with a resin doll’s manufacture occur after the design concept is established – meaning, no one had to pay an engineer to cast in wax, finish/detail (which is now pretty much done through digital software – but far from cheap), and spend thousands to develop molds for injection molded plastic BEFORE you even plan production. Sounds complicated right? It is. But for the purposes of this tutorial, the only thing I want you to take away from this is that the doll didn’t just get birthed out of some doll maker’s ass and into a pretty package ready to ship – and it would be a little insulting to you if I actually thought that’s the extent of your knowledge. The doll manufacturing process is very fascinating, and many doll makers are more than happy to discuss it with you, for I’d venture to say each of them are very proud of the resources they have within their reach to create the vision that will wear their brand.

Sweater Swell

Sweater Swell

Putting It Together. OK. We have the design, we have the molds and materials to make the doll. We also have the materials to make the costume…or do we? Costumes can be just as complicated because they may be comprised of several components and/or accessories that must be made. And if any of that involves resin or injection molding, you can just bet that it will add moolah to the bill. And if there are jewelry, shoes, these fabulous new handbags, or one of Tonner’s biggest triumphs, the miniature sweater – you are going to pay bigtime for it. I bring up those choice little sweaters, because I was amazed at how few really understood why they were so special – not just cut-and-sew knit fabrics – but real miniature knits actually made in scale for a tiny body like a human-scale sweater was. Puddings…that was a big deal then…and it still is. It should come as no surprise that the costume can cost more than the doll, unless the doll requires a great deal of finishing attention, as do many resin dolls today. But the plastic ones? Pennies to spit those bitches out of the molds…pennies. You already paid a fortune upfront to make the molds…which is the interesting trade-off. Start ups can’t afford the investment to create injection molds based on a whim. So resin is the better choice. But hard plastic is the best material – it lasts longer, it is more durable, and you can play with a firm hand. There are cheap hard plastics, too…for the companies that paid for those expensive molds…but wanted to squeeze those costs just a bit further by using crap plastic. But that’s enough of that for now…let’s just say that soft heads and light-weight bodies are notcheaper‘.

We've only just begun...

We’ve only just begun…

Far From Over. Now you have to sell it. And that takes advertising, promotions, marketing…shills that gush over how fabulous that doll is and why you can’t live without it. So let’s pay for a website, a print catalog, industry publication advertising, trade shows…the list goes on and on. Everything a company does…everything…contributes to the price of the doll, in addition to the actual cost of the doll. But some companies are more clever about the way they distribute their accounting figures across the board, or install specific cost goals into its designs, or create efficiencies that allow them to expand their perceived value and not have to withdraw features from its products because of rising material and labor costs. Those that cannot manage that part of their business will not be in business (if they haven’t dropped out already).

Just try making one yourself...

Just try making one yourself…

So the next time you say something is over-priced…and it very well might be for all the wrong reasons…ask yourself what that price tag truly represents. More often than not, its an innocent statement, but when used by writers to rally readers into revolution, make sure you actually know what a doll should cost, then you can light your torches for the attack.

Now wait just a minute...

Now wait just a minute…

11 thoughts on “It Only Looks Expensive

  1. Tom: I enjoyed reading this post very much. The behind-the-scenes making of a doll is quite interesting and I’d love to learn more.
    Terri

  2. I wish we could saturate ALL doll-related boards, discussion lists, Facebook groups – whatever other medias that exist! – with this post and it’s insider information. I am SICK of the whining about how much a new issue costs, when it is clear as crystal the folks doing the whining haven’t the first CLUE what they are talking about. Though actually, I have been guilty of this, too.

    Yes, you can get some doll stuff cheaper from Mattel or other big companies like that, but they spent years and years building up the R&D to be able to cleverly reuse designs (as you pointed out) and know a thing or two about the best and most cost efficient fabrics to use in a design and get away with it. Smaller companies like Tonner and Integrity don’t necessarily have those resources, because they are NOW, what Mattel once WAS, companies that are still building up an equivalent fan base, and the resources that Mattel now HAS. Mattel was NOT a doll making powerhouse in the beginning.

    Part of the problem might be that many collectors are used to paying $6.95 for a “playline” Barbie, and just don’t have the first clue what dollmakers (including Mattel) go through in order to produce the dolls. There is more than one thing associated with doll making, and I appreciate the enlightenment you have shared here.

    It is laughable that no one seems to understand that designers like Wu or Tonner also have bills to pay – that they, the designers “owe” their fans, and thus, the rest of the world, their art.

    Would you also be willing to fill us in on why some doll lines, which seem to sell out lightning fast, are discontinued, as if they somehow failed to fulfill sales expectations, please?

  3. Tom: Thanks for this fascinating look at the doll industry through a different lens than that of the consumer. At the end of the day, it’s a business and businesses need to make profits. That being said, it baffles me how some manufacturers think that they will continue to hold market share by substituting decent materials and workmanship for lesser quality and expect to continue to hold market share. The only way this makes sense is that it is a deliberate market strategy for short term profit margin or that they have enough stratification within their product lines, because they have different products and price lines to ensure coverage of a wider market. Mattel comes to mind. All kinds of different products, with the cheaper versions produced in mass quantities and sold for reasonable prices. They make their margins on these babies, I bet. High volume, low profit per unit= I should have bought Mattel stock. Hence, they can afford to spend more in production of the higher quality, smaller number editions, step up the materials and workmanship and details and sell less units, to a select market.

    As I hope a savvy consumer, I don’t mind paying more for an item that is visibly and physically better in quality workmanship, design, materials and dare I say it, shelf life. I have learned my lesson the hard way, more emphatically as a shoe whore than a doll collector. After years, of buying obscene amounts of higher than average cost shoes because they were stylish, pretty, made my legs look great, matched an outfit, take your pick and having their insides fall apart after short periods of wear, I finally had an epiphany. (trumpets blowing, lights flashing!) Yeah, it took a long time, what can I say, maybe not a fast learner. Trust me, I owned shoes that were only worn a couple of times, stored and taken out to be worn only to find out they had to be thrown out, ’cause their insides disintegrated , due to cheap man made materials. I abhor paying good money for stuff that doesn’t live up to the market hype expectations. Bugs the living s–t out of me. My AHA moment was spend more on better quality shoes, buy less quantity and inspect carefully what I do end up buying. They will last longer and I can enjoy them more. MORE DEFINITELY IS LESS. I have now applied that hard learned expensive lesson to my doll collecting, so I buy less and try to be more discerning in what I do end up buying. I also don’t pre-order anything at all, because of the bait and switches I have had to deal with.

    Like Miladyblue, I would love to hear your opinion on why some doll lines that sell fast tend to disappear from production never to be seen again.

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  5. Actually I think the whining about doll costs is justified…what it says to me is that doll companies are not effectively explaining to the public why their dolls cost what they do.

    I have to make a judgment on whether a doll is worth the asking price based on what is put in front of me and if it’s a hunk of plastic/resin in a box with some fabric covering it up and nothing else, well then, how is it my fault for either not buying or trying to ask a doll dealer (oh wait a lot of them are out of business and the few that are left are not well educated in doll materials technology and costs by the manufacturer) or a doll manufacturer (or more properly fill out some lame contact form on its website and wait around until someone bothers to answer it with more than an auto-responder (and this assumes that the contact form software is working and/or the human recipient of the form data doesn’t just decide it’s unimportanr and doesn’t bother…this has happened to me recently and you can guess how I feel about purchasing from that company) and not getting my question answered?.Asking for information should not be confused with whining (which is what I should do regarding the company that didn’t respond to my web form submission but for me reaching the company’s owner via another means and him getting a rude awakening as to what exactly his website owner has been doing: bupkis). Whining to me is permissable if someone makes a reasonable effort to assess the doll’s value on his or her own and also doesn’t get a useful response from a manufacturer (or with ever decreasing frequency a dealer).

    And if someone at a doll company wants to show me what they’re going to do to make sure their dolls don’t yellow, get brittle and/or break (or at least try to delay the process from happening for as long as possible) I’m all ears. I hear just as much (to my mind) justified bitching about Genes, Alex dolls and more gone bad (and in a very short period of time) after many people bought into paying retail (or more) for them. Oy vey!

    I think doll companies (and dealers where they still exist) need to stop trying to pass dolls off as ‘investments’ or ‘heirlooms’ and sell them more as entertainment experiences that just happen to come with physical stuff. If we’re going to argue that a collectible has a product life cycle then maybe it’s better to compare my doll to say my media player (VCR, laserdisk player, DVD, BluRay, CD, MP3, computer, tablet, IPTV device etc) and get me accustomed to the idea that it has a useful lifespan (namely how long I can expect to redress, pose and play with it before it falls apart). Just like I can’t expect my VCR to still be working when my heirs get it (assuming I don’t get rid of it before the time comes and I have an estate and heirs who have to deal with it), maybe I should be told that I shouldn’t expect to pass on my dolls to my younger relatives when it is time for me to give them up.

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