"My wife would come home from the toy store in tears. It hurt her feelings. She felt like our daughters were being told the color of their skin made them unimportant,” said Trent T. Daniel, a self-described serial entrepreneur who has worked in everything from television to the software industry, of his wife Sarah. But it was when the Houstonian met Stacey McBride-Irby on the United Negro College Fund’s entrepreneurial Empower Me Tour, he says, that he finally found his true calling. That was in 2010, and McBride-Irby was the acclaimed designer of the popular So In Style line of African-American Barbies. But the same year Daniel convinced her to leave Mattel and collaborate with him on a new line of dolls with a wide range of ethnicities and skin tones. The goal was toys that looked like—and appealed to—kids like theirs.
This month, the fruit of their labors, the Prettie Girls! line of dolls, will make its debut on the shelves of nearly 3,000 Walmart stores nationwide, along with the shelves at H-E-B and Fiesta, and online at Toys ‘R’ Us and other sites. A follow-up line of fashion accessories and a second line, Prettie Girl! Baby, is also in the works. Prettie is an acronym, Daniel told us, for the seven qualities that make girls beautiful both inside and out—positive, respectful, enthusiastic, talented, truthful, inspiring and excellent. All girls.
“This isn’t just a product we created so black people will buy dolls,” he said. “We want to empower girls no matter what color.”
Daniel said that while retailers have long wanted to carry multicultural dolls—Walmart wouldn’t be planning such a large rollout if they didn’t believe there was a market for them—doll designers at big toy companies don’t always have the personal experience to know what families of color are looking for. As an example, Daniel said, consider the case of an African-American mom shopping for dolls for her two daughters, one lighter-skinned, one darker. She won’t buy anything if a store only has dolls that look like one of her daughters, lest the other feel left out.
“It took somebody from the black community to see that issue from a product-development standpoint, somebody with that experience,” Daniel said. “It needed to come from the heart of an African-American woman who has had many experiences.”
A previous line of Prettie Girls!, released in 2013, featured four dolls with 12-inch bodies that looked more adult—think Barbie. The six dolls in the new collection, dubbed Tween Scene, are both larger and younger. And while oversized heads and eyes give them a cuteness that girls love, the dolls’ bodies are more true-to-life, with bigger hips, smaller busts and more diverse facial features. In addition to fostering a realistic standard of beauty, Daniel and McBride-Irby wanted Prettie Girls! to avoid the superficiality that many dolls encourage.
“The Bratz dolls were a wonderful line of dolls, but my wife wouldn’t buy them because of the name,” said Daniel. “I didn’t want my daughters to have the message sent to them that everything is all about the glam and the bling-bling.”
Daniel’s wife Sarah created elaborate backstories and interests for each of the dolls. For instance, Hana, an Asian doll, boasts a quirky personality, a tomboy spirit, a habit of experimenting with her hair and a dream of becoming a pediatrician, a story that is imparted to girls through the packaging as well as in each doll’s clothing and appearance. The intent is dolls that resonate with kids on different levels and don’t pander to stereotypes (think Mattel’s Mexican Barbie in 2013, which was styled with a chihuahua and a ruffled folklórico dress).
“I wouldn’t say we’re an anti-Barbie, because we believe there’s room for both. We wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for Barbie,” said Daniel. “We’re just a different concept that’s more authentically representative of what little girls see in school every day. Diversity is not a side note for us. The Barbie brand is blonde hair and blue eyes, and everything else is auxiliary. There is no star of this line.”
That Daniel’s devotion to his dolls borders on the evangelical shouldn’t be surprising. This is his calling, after all. Then again, his calling is toys. “We had to make sure we didn’t lose the intent of the dolls in trying to deliver a message. It should be fun,” he said. “Kids want to play with hair, and they want to play dress up. I don’t care how many iPads you come out with, little girls are always going to play with dolls.”