Interview with fashion doll designer Rachel Godfroy

Rachel Godfroy is a fashion doll designer. Over the past couple of years, she has been a key member of the Kid Kreations 2020 team, involved in the design, production and promotion of a new range of Collectors Sindy dolls. 

Have you ever wondered how to become a fashion doll designer? Have you ever been curious to know what goes on behind the scenes in a doll company? Read on!

This interview was recorded in 2018 and covers the period leading up to Rachel's new job with Kid Kreations, from the very beginning of her career.

I so enjoyed meeting Rachel and hearing her story and I hope you find it as fascinating as I did. 

Illustration of Rachel Godfroy

From the first brave steps, past the lows of rejected unicorn designs up until the rocket rise of the Lottie doll, Rachel shares insights into her career as a fashion doll designer.

Q: Have you always collected Sindy dolls?

I remember I [once] walked into a branch of Woolworths in Cambridge and I picked up a magazine (I used to collect the Sindy magazines back then) and they had changed the face to the new smirky Sindy and I dropped the paper and went ‘Oh she’s not Sindy, what have they done?!’ And that was it for me for Sindy for years. I had all these ‘80s ones. I kept them. I didn’t want anyone to chuck them away. I kept them in a secret place because you weren’t supposed to play with dolls when you were 15. Every so often I’d dress them in my bedroom then put them back in again.

I tried to bring Sindy in when I was doing my art foundation course. I did a Sindy statue and people said ‘no that’s rubbish’! And then on my fashion course I wanted my final collection to be on Sindy, I wanted people to wear these massive Sindy heads like that so they become Sindy and all have big buttons and everything else. And my tutor [said] no, grow up Rachel, you can’t do that.

Frankie: And this was art college? Sometimes it actual stifles artists rather than helps them.

Rachel: It did. So when I decided I was going to do toys for my career I though at least now I’ve got a valid [reason] to have Sindys and go round toy shops. I’ve collected so many Sindys now and I’m loving it.

Q: Where did you study, and when did you get interested in doll design?

I went to Nottingham Trent Uni and I did a lot of fashion design and I was only in my early 20s. I’d been to loads of fashion shows and everything was really great. But I realised that I didn’t really like the fashion scene. I found it quite difficult. You were going to be either kind of a broke fashion designer or you were working for 50 shirts an hour.

Frankie: Like high end couture or…

Rachel: yes or slaving in an office really. That’s how it seemed to me at the time. I thought maybe I could do costume design or I could be a fashion stylist. So I graduated, and that Summer, I had no idea what I was doing at all and I walked into a branch of Woolworths and saw a Sindy doll there which was that awful neon twister twisty one!

Frankie: [laughs…] Do you still hate it as much or has it grown on you?

Rachel: Yes! No! No I really hate it. Like a weird thing with Barbie I ‘spose. It looked like an American kind of version of the doll. It was ridiculous.

“So I decided that… I was going to redesign Sindy.”

So I decided that what I was going to do was redesign Sindy at the time. I thought what am I going to do? I had no idea, I had no idea about toy companies or product design or anything!

Frankie: So did you have in mind that you would approach the company first, or were you going to work on this project yourself?

Rachel: I did it all myself over the Summer, which was brilliant and I just thought, “ahhh my gosh this is a wonderful thing and I really want to do it.” And there was nobody else I could really speak to about it. Everybody was really hush hush [more on this below]. So I delivered what I thought was going to be like the new Sindy doll from what I used to love in the 80s.

Q: What was your first big break?

I’d studied A Level design and during the course there was a toy section in it. They’d given us toy companies just you know [to contact] for work experience and I found out that Hasbro was making Sindy at the time. So I just phoned them up! As you do [laughs] And they said ‘well, actually we haven’t got Sindy anymore but this new company is starting up - Vivid Imaginations are the ones who are going to be producing’, and I thought ooh that’s going to be quite interesting. And I phoned them up and I said ‘I’ve got these amazing ideas’. And they said alright OK come and see us. And I remember thinking ‘oh what am I doing?’.

Frankie: That was very bold wasn’t it?

Rachel: I felt so nervous! What was I thinking I was doing, you know?

Frankie: But you’d been working on this thing all Summer and you had a portfolio…

“…they thought I was a spy from Barbie”

Rachel: Yeah and I had - I suppose it was kind of mood boards and designs of what the doll should look like. And why she shouldn’t be like the American style Barbie that Hasbro brought out. And I got in and they ushered me into this really tiny room, and I just thought ‘oh my gosh’. But they thought I was a spy from Barbie [Mattel] apparently [laughs] because they’d had some odd people phoning up and trying to find out about what they were going to do to launch their new doll which was going to launch in January. And by this time it was October / November time.

Frankie: so when you said it was hush hush is that what you were talking about? The launch? It was when Vivid first took over, and they wanted to make a splash.

Rachel: Yeah, yeah this must have been November 1998. And I brought out all these mood boards and showed them the designs and they kind of went all quiet. And they were looking at each other really strangely and I thought ‘oh no, they hate it!’ And they said, ‘just hang on a minute’ and they went and they’d a paid a marketing company thousands of pounds to do this marketing and they brought in the mood boards that this marketing company had done and they were almost exactly the same. Which was weird. And they said because I had a background in fashion (I’d done my degree in fashion) ‘well maybe we’ll just take you on as an apprentice’.

Frankie: So it’s kind of interesting that you were sort of in tune with them. It may have been something to do with the fashion or the mood of the times that you picked up on.

Rachel: Yes it was incredible.

Q: What was your first assignment?

Rachel: My first job was to style these Sindy dolls. I was dressing them and styling them.

Frankie: So a designer had already designed the outfits? And then you were putting all the bits of the outfits together?

Rachel: Half of the designs hadn’t been done, so I was helping out with that. [shows images] I did the outfit for a Crystal Fairy Princess and it was supposed to be all crystally and pale lilac. And they changed it to kind of pink in the end. A lot of these outfits had been designed [at Hasbro]

Q: How far ahead do you work in the doll industry?

Frankie: Is it like the fashion industry normally is where you work a year in advance?

Rachel: Yeah at least. At least a year specially if you’re going to have to take a mould if you’re bringing out a new doll you’ve got to have a mould of the doll before you can even start working on the actual doll body and doing the outfits and stuff.

Q: What makes designing for dolls different?

Rachel: You have to work like a couturier because you have to work on a teeny tiny kind of doll like you would on a mannequin. So I basically had a Sindy doll torso that I had to take apart. And I had to learn how to sew for dolls because it was so different. It’s so massively, massively different. There were a couple of designers who were designing for Sindy at the time, who had come from womenswear… they’d give me this tough leather to work with. I’d say ‘you can’t put that on a doll’.

Frankie: so it’s the thickness of the fabric… What other things do you have to consider?

Rachel: Ooh and also it’s the thinness of it as well. I’d been asked to do these tiny cocktail dresses. Really, really almost like [nylon] tights fabric. With glitter in it and it was so difficult to sew. And I’d just got to the end of one at about 2am in the morning and the whole sewing machine just like swallowed the entire thing into the engine.

Frankie: How horrible!

Division of labour

Rachel: I was just like OMG! And in manufacturing as well, the more seams you have, the more expensive. One person does one seam and passes it on. So the more seams you have, the more people have to finish off the outfit.

Frankie: So it’s completely ‘division of labour’, so you’ll have hemline lady or hemline man and then onto the neck person…

Rachel: Exactly.

Frankie: And they just do hundreds and hundreds…

Rachel: So they wanted to eliminate shoulder seams and that kind of thing. So the less seams that you have, the better. So we had a denim jacket that was actually folded. Because apparently when two pieces are put together and they’re sewn by one person, that’s where the labour comes in. So if you can just fold things somebody can quickly do it so it’s much easier to do that.

Simplicity

Frankie: Actually I discovered this myself last week, because I made a couple of T-shirts for the first time. I studied sewing at school for O’Level so I did pattern cutting a bit and I ran into these problems immediately. Ended up with this really weird looking thing… And I got some advice from the guys in the group Collectors Corner [Facebook Group], and I think Ruth suggested this idea where you cut it all out in one piece and then it just folded over. I realised that’s part of the attractiveness of the doll designs is that they have perhaps this element of simplicity in them which gives them elegance because of the cut.

Rachel: Yeah exactly. I think a lot of the time, specially with the older versions of Sindy when you look at what I used to play with in the ‘80s, they’re all very much like that. A lot of their T-shirts, boating tops were all the same, they were all made out of literally one (and all the leotards) one piece of material folded down. It’s really physically hard to do. If you try to do the shoulder seam on a swimsuit, I mean it’s nuts, you can’t do it. That’s what I really admired about when the Bratz dolls came out and it was very controversial. When you looked at the manufacturing that went into those teeny tiny outfits… I don’t know how on earth they did it you know? It was brilliant.

Frankie: Perhaps they had some secret machinery?

Rachel: I know, yes!

Frankie: I don’t know whether you can get a special sewing machine?

Rachel: I changed my sewing machine about 10 years ago, I have an amazing sewing machine that has a little kind of plinth underneath that slots across. And it’s got one tiny pin hole in it where the needle goes through. So you know that’s not going to pull off or anything, which is great. And it’s got a setting for silk and stretchy things. It’s the only way I can work with really tiny things. I’ve been taught how to do all of this on the job.

Q: What other dolls have inspired you?

I found a doll in Japan called Takara Jenny who had a flexible body. So I used to ship them over (although they did break quite easily).

Frankie: Do they have hinged knees? Are they like the cycling ones?

Rachel: No, no they were amazing. They were actually all-in-one. So they had a rubber body and a skeleton underneath which was plastic and hinged and a rubber body over the top that they kind of moulded onto it.

Frankie: Oh fantastic!

Rachel: Yes, and apart from the neck there were no joints on it whatsoever.

Frankie: How interesting.

Rachel: It was really amazing. After that Pedigree got back to me and said look, we’d like to you to work on some of our sample dolls. They had found a flexible doll’s body which they were pioneering themselves! Completely separate from Takara Jenny. I don’t whether it got sold in Woolworths… but it had a massive market in Turkey which was huge. I think because Barbie and Disney hadn’t got to Turkey yet. I think that Pedigree had quite a few connections in Turkey. Because she was blonde haired and European they really liked it out there apparently.

Frankie: So did they end up actually producing those?

Rachel: Yeah they did! This is some of the designs that we did [shows picture]. They tried to redesign the face of Sindy after that one (the Vivid one). This is the one I did for Vivid imaginations.

Frankie: She’s got quite Japanese [large manga style] eyes. Did you design that one?

Rachel: Yes. This was for the Millenium.
Weirdly enough, Pedigree had never ever seen this [Rachel’s flexible doll design] and they developed one themselves anyway! It was really strange, it was really great.

Frankie: Zeitgeist I suppose.

Rachel: Pedigree had really gone into it very scientifically… because they wanted theirs to last. A lot of them, like the Takara Jenny ones, once you’d bent them a few times they’d break. They had all different sized ones, all different figures. The larger dolls couldn’t bend - they had so much rubber on them they were actually breaking the thin plastic skeleton inside.

Frankie: So you were actually talking about the prototypes.

Rachel: Yeah, so that was amazing. So many prototypes for Sindy passed through my hands it was incredible.

Frankie: How exciting!

Rachel: There was loads of them that you never, ever saw! Which was brilliant, it was really good.

Q: Can you tell us about some of the Sindys that never were?

Rachel: There was a guy who wanted to do… a Sindy doll… He’d worked with Pedigree many years ago. His name was John Mitchell and he was on the design side of it… (way before my time). And he’d gone off and had his own company and he was now looking for different things to do. He obviously had this love of Sindy. [He wanted to] do a couture range… [To] make the doll really expensive vinyl and make it amazing… I was like “Oh my gosh”. So he commissioned me to do… haute couture outfits. Of course I sent it off, and you know you never see these things again. [But] that was quite fun.

And then I was asked by Ashton-Drake. They said they wanted to do a Sindy doll (this was a few years later and my name got passed). They said we want to do another beautiful vinyl Sindy doll that’s going to be really amazing. Can you do a ballerina outfit? So I made the outfit and tried to combine all the lovely stuff that I love from the ‘80s. But again, I was saying to them that it needed to be an active Sindy. And they were like no, no we can’t do that because it’s a collectors doll, health and safety and all these regulations we have there’s no possible way we could a jointed doll. I was thinking really?

Frankie: Expensive I suppose!

Rachel: Yeah. So that was as far as it went. So that was on the back of a magazine, but then it never got made!

And then I got approached by Danbury Mint. They made that porcelain Sindy doll which looked very much like the first Sindy. Danbury Mint Sindy. So she’s a porcelain doll, she has a beautiful, beautiful wig. She’s absolutely gorgeous and she came in what looked like the original box, very beautifully made. And when they sold them they did so well on them, that they said ‘look Rachel, can you come in and just find some outfits that would go with her? Anything that looks very ‘60s ish that you think Sindy would do’. So that’s what I did! And then funnily enough, again, it all fell through!

Q: Why did it take so long for another authentic Sindy doll to be released?

Rachel: To be honest I sat in on many, many many meetings and I think because a lot of the toy industry is male dominated there weren’t… I mean I was often the only woman in the room and I was trying to explain about fairy princesses… In fact only a few years ago I was having an argument about unicorns and horses and why unicorns were going to be so big. Ha ha! And they went ‘no, no, no, no’. And I was like, ‘yes!’. So I think that a lot of the time when things were relaunched, they weren’t relaunched either the right way, they weren’t advertised in the right places, like I think that was advertised in ‘People’s Friend’.

“I mean I was often the only woman in the room and I was trying to explain about fairy princesses”

Q: What age group of children do manufacturers aim a doll play line at?

Rachel: Fashion dolls were aimed at 3 to 9 year old girls. The age gap then was really quite big still compared with today.

Frankie: The age gap then was different from today. How do you mean?

Rachel: Yes, definitely. The age gap now is so much narrower. You’re talking about when girls get to about 6 years old. That’s it for dolls. They’ve gone on and they’re doing other stuff.

Frankie: They don’t play with dolls after the age of 6?

Rachel: No, 6, 7 at the latest. They might play with dolls if they’re 8 if they’re in their house [already] but they will never ask for dolls for Christmas or anything because they’re over it by then.

Frankie: So that’s just based on fact, factual research?

Rachel: Yes. So for me, I’d done a lot research anyway on child play psychology as it were. I never actually studied it, but I read a lot about it - children, especially girls - how they play and all that kind of stuff. Throughout the years the toy companies had their own research which I read as well which was great. A lot of research from all over different places.

Frankie: Quite large eyes, a smile…

Rachel: Yes. She had to look really friendly, that was the thing. And the bosses were saying to me, although we love the side glancing face, kids like dolls that are looking at you. So that’s what I had to do.

Frankie: I wonder if it’s different than the experience of buying something. Because between ‘60s to the ‘80s you might have had a situation where the parent is choosing for the child. Whereas perhaps now, or in the period that you were designing, children are looking at the shelves saying ‘I want that one’ and it’s going to be the one with the direct eyes.

Rachel: Yes, exactly.

Frankie: So the 8 and 9 year olds - what are they playing with?

Rachel: iPads. [laughs] It’s mostly digital. A lot of stuff they do online.

Frankie: In fact, I should be able to answer the question myself because I have an 8 year old neice! But she’s just 8. But her Mum doesn’t like dolls much… But me and her Grandmother [like dolls]. Her Grandmother likes Blythe. She likes My Little Pony but she’s always liked baby dolls but I think that’s partly Mum’s influence as Mum doesn’t really like dolls but she likes babies! She likes Sylvanian Families. It’ll be interesting to see, now that she’s 8 what she’s into. I wonder what she’s getting for Christmas?

Rachel: Yes, I think especially if you look at some of the programmes like CBBC at what’s going on for 8 and 9 year olds. They’re watching each other! There are a lot of kids YouTubers who are 8 or 9 years old with 3 million viewers, unboxing toys and doing stuff in their bedrooms.

Frankie: They really like being allowed to watch the gaming chat shows. They have their own favourites and they’ll be lying next to each other on the sofa, my nephew will be watching one and she’ll be watching another one. And I’m just like ‘turn it off I hate it’. They literally don’t pause for breath and they’re talking about nothing! I think, how is this interesting? How can you be engaged by this? I just don’t get it.

Rachel: No, I don’t. My daughter’s 15 now and they’re still into all of that.

I was watching the rise of JoJo Siwa (I think probably your niece will have heard of her) and she’s like this girl who always wears her hair in a big pony tail with bows. There used to be a JoJo Siwa doll actually. She was massive the last couple of years. She’s not so massive now. All the girls wore their hair up in a ponytail with bows in their hair. And she was a YouTube star from a reality show called Dance Moms. She’s made millions. Nickleodeon signed her up. It’s all about beating the bullies and a positive message. She’s a real loud kind of American little girl you know.

Q: What was Pedigree Headquarters like?

When I first started at Pedigree, they’d just moved into this wonderful building which had a view of the sea and everything, it had 3 floors. The bottom floor was all reception area. It had a beautiful, beautiful design - all these cases with all the Sindy dolls from the ‘60s onwards in their original outfits, all pristine. A beautiful display case, just turning round slowly. I used to stand and watch them for ages.

Frankie: That sounds incredible. Have they still got it?

Rachel: Yeah, yeah it’s all still there! The top floor was amazing. That was their design place. Because, obviously Pedigree did a lot of annuals. And they’ve got another brand which they bought which is something to do with football. Shoot, shoot magazine. They did a lot of illustrating, that kind of thing. They had all the Sindy stuff up there, and it was a really massive, creative place.

Q: What was it like working for Pedigree?

Frankie: Let’s summarise where we’ve got up to.

Rachel: We’ve gone to where Pedigree has stopped making Sindy for the UK. Woolworths has stopped and I think Sindy’s just being made for Turkey and that’s it. So Pedigree are turning themselves now into more of a licensing agency rather than a toy manufacturer. I think they were saying we want to do an 18 inch doll and if we’re going to do anything with Sindy, that’s how it’s going to be.

Frankie: So they were looking at the [Sindy] brand more as a way of authenticating whatever product they had? Whereas collectors tend to see that word ‘Sindy’ as a very specific meaning - that face.

Rachel: Yes and I think for me it’s difficult, because being a huge fan of Sindy, and then working with the 18 inch doll as well, it was quite difficult… because you have to be enthusiastic and you have to just go, right, well actually you’re going to have to go and do this. You’re going to have to just put that all aside and say this is Sindy, this is what you do.

Because the 18 inch doll was doing so well, I came in then [2016] and they needed a new style guide doing so they got me to do it. This was for the production doll: anyone who wanted to do anything with Sindy the whole entire brand for Pedigree.

Frankie: And they were hoping if they pitched it, if they had this guide, people would say yes I want this one, this one, this one.

Rachel: Yes and they would be able to produce it.

Frankie: It’s so fantastic [looking at the style guide]. I love the Lichtenstein inspired one!

Rachel: It’s great isn’t it.

Frankie: How exciting, what a treasure chest.

Rachel: Well Helen Carter did loads of the outfit designs because she was a fashion teacher. She’s amazing and she knows what all the London kids are wearing.

Rachel: So anybody who didn’t know Sindy - we had to write out a very brief history of what it was and I got some iconic images. What I could find. Some were Helen’s photos actually. So then we had a new world of Sindy.

Frankie: And you’ve got an afro haired dark skinned doll.

Rachel: Yes, the one thing that Helen and I were pitching when we were talking to the boss and Pedigree was that Sindy was not diverse enough, she needs to be more diverse.

So we did a baking Sindy. She came out with cupcakes and everything as well. They have come out with a Sindy kitchen - I designed a Sindy house for Tesco the 18 inch doll (I’ve got one, but I haven’t built it yet! ).

Frankie: So this [style guide] is available and at any moment somebody could licence it [Rachel’s version of Sindy].

Rachel: They could but it’s out of date now already!

[ Little did I know during this interview that the Collector’s Sindy issued in 2021 was already a twinkle in the eye of Kid Kreations - did Rachel already know?!! ]

I was showing this at Sindy Con. Sindy Con happens every year in. It’s called Dolly Con now. It’s the tenth anniversary next year [2019]. It’s amazing, you’ll love it. Bring loads of money! From vintage Sindy to Sindy from a few years ago, they’ve got everything there. And the stalls are amazing.

Q: What personal projects are you working on?

I’m customising a lot of dolls at the moment and that’s my next thing that I’m going into properly. And I’m dip dyeing a whole lot of Sindy bodies to try and get her skin to look as though it’s mixed race. I’ve got loads of really, really cool afro hair and stuff that I can use. But I really want to do that to be able to sell them so people feel like at least they can have a black doll Sindy.

"I’m dip dyeing a whole lot of Sindy bodies"

Frankie: That’s a really good idea because there aren’t very many to get hold of. The Gail one is really expensive, very rare.

Rachel: Oh gosh yes, I’ve got two of them. I bought them years ago, I wouldn’t be able to afford them now they’re ridiculous aren’t they.

Frankie: You wanted to do your own work, more like an artist…

Rachel: Yes I do now. Because Pedigree aren’t producing any more dolls at the moment [2018] I thought (as I’d been doing other stuff commercially) what can I do instead? So I set up this Facebook page called Sindy Style https://www.facebook.com/sindystyleUK/ It was all supposed to be Sindy wearing outfits [refers to doll on table]. I had so much fun doing it, it was brilliant. Pedigree saw them and they said “oh we really love the range.”

Frankie: So you hand crafted these?

Rachel: It was really good practice for me.

Frankie: Where did you get that little dog from?

Rachel: Oh gosh, Claire Accessories did these kind of little puppies. I’m always collecting stuff, all the time. I did a photo shoot of them, so the back of each box has now got a photo shoot of who they are and what they do. [Rachel shows various examples of boxed customised dolls she created.]

Frankie: One of the questions I had for you: did you design fabric [for the doll companies] or did you use fabric that was in production? Or both?

Rachel: I did both actually.

Q: Have you designed for any other doll brands?

Rachel: I helped with the launch range [of Lottie].

Frankie: I just discovered Lottie dolls the other day and I thought ‘these are great’. I love the one that’s an activist. It’s so funny!

Rachel: I worked on the launch dolls. I did 95% of the outfits. They wanted a doll which was different. They wanted a doll which was for little girls. So they modelled her on a 9 year old body. So there’s no make up on her, high heels that sort of stuff. They wanted her outfit to look like what 4 or 5 year olds would wear. She’s got jointed arms and legs but they don’t bend. I think they were quite influence by the Licca dolls in Japan.

Frankie: I discovered those the other day!

Rachel: I collect them - I’ve got loads! I went to [inaudible] in Tokyo - they’ve got a whole department of Licca dolls, and Blythe dolls as well. So yes, a lot of the outfits were inspired by the cuteness of Licca Chan.

So with Lottie, they wanted to make her completely diverse. All different hair colours, all different eye colours, all different skin colours so Lottie could be whatever this little girl wanted her to be. They were really adamant that Lottie was not going to be like a pink Barbie princess. If we did pink on the outfits, it would be an edging or something. Never like proper pink tops or anything.

Frankie: Pink has just got such a heavy stereotype on it now hasn’t it?

Rachel: Yes.

When I had the brief, one thing I wanted to make sure was that girls could dress the dolls easily.

Frankie: Especially as 9 inches are small.

Rachel: Because she’s got a really straight body, she’s really easy to design for. So especially with tights and things you can take them on and off really quickly.

So they launched Lottie and not very much happened for ages, and then suddenly it just exploded in loads of different countries. America loved her and Canada.

Q: Embarrassing moment of your career?

I didn’t realise that half the team from Hasbro had come over to Vivid Imaginations. So they said ‘would you change Sindy’s look and what she looked like at Hasbro?’. And I didn’t know all these people, and I just said ‘oh yes, you know the American Sindy looks awful!’.

Frankie: [sharp intake of breath] oh no!

Rachel: And they were kind of glancing at each other.

Frankie: So did it take you awhile to fit in with the team after that?

Rachel: Yeah it did!

Q: Memorable moment of your career?

Rachel: A Lottie competition with kids designing… an actual theme. So when they did the Star Gazer Lottie doll, that was a little girl called Abigail who came up with that and then, I came in. They asked me to design a European space suit, and they wouldn’t tell me why! So I thought OK! So I went in, and did a Lottie space suit. And they sent out that Star Gazer Lottie doll and she got into space with Tim Peake a few years ago.



Frankie: Oh no! You’re kidding that’s fantastic!

Rachel: I know, it was amazing. It was the first doll in space! Properly in space.

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Rachel Godfroy 2020

Since this interview in December 2018 Rachel has added quite a few more memorable moments to her career!

Here Rachel talks about her recent work on the Kid Kreations bold issue of a new range of Collector Sindy Dolls.

Pop over to Rachel's personal Facebook page and say hello 😃

Long live Sindy! 🥰

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