Beyond Barbie – Designer Brings Black Dolls to Market

March 23, 2011  |  

by Mary Worrell

Walk into any toy store or big-box retailer and you’re sure to find a wall of dolls and accessories, mainly of the Barbie variety. Parents can find almost every incarnation of Barbie and clothes to match every occasion, but Niccole Graves is still dissatisfied with the selection when shopping for her two daughters.

“When I go to the store, the selection of black dolls is minimal,” she said. “People like to see dolls that look like them.”

Graves is a 40-year-old radiation therapist from Chicago who in recent years decided to pursue her dream of creating dolls that celebrate African-American women.  While working full-time, she is slowly bringing Trinity Designs onto the market with hopes of one day being the number one designer and manufacturer of minority-inspired dolls.

It’s a huge undertaking.  The doll industry is dominated by a few major players and those companies aren’t interested in sharing any of their secrets, Graves said.  Couple that with challenges such as sourcing materials, designers, sculptors, and a manufacturer, and you have a venture that few would decide to pursue.  But Graves is on a mission to create something that she can pass on to her children.

Trinity Designs is fairly young, having launched just two years ago. Graves is a member of the Delta Sigma Theta sorority and started the company with an idea for a doll that would symbolize the sisterhood.

“You can find rag dolls, figurines, and statues, but you can’t find a fashion doll.  I decided I would make one for myself,” Graves said.  “I decided I wanted a bigger doll.  I went with a 16-inch doll and had a prototype made. I have a seamstress that sews the clothes, a lady that designs doll hair, and a doll sculptor. It took a little over a year.”

Graves shared the prototype with her sorority sisters who also wanted one.  Form there her idea grew to include other sororities. Fraternities and sororities may seem like a small niche market, but it’s a niche that likes to celebrate membership with clothing and other gear reflecting the tradition.  Graves designed dolls with hands that would be able to move. Each sorority’s doll makes the group’s unique hand signal. They also sing.

Navigating an industry like doll making, which unlike restaurants and retail operations lacks any kind of how-to manual, is challenging for this first-time entrepreneur. But Graves doesn’t take the veterans she has working with her for granted.

“My doll sculptor has been very helpful and gives recommendations,” she said. “But no company is going to take you under their wing.”

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