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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  • Tommy Sosco

    Dolls are cute. However I am seriously considering a very interesting doll from Their dolls have an educational side to them and are designed to help instill pride in our daughters and sisters.

  • Chica

    Try Oprah for financing. She has BILLIONS!!!!!

  • ecfromdc

    nice job!

  • Soror Ivy

    I suspect you will be getting sued. Sad to say, but true.

    • Soror


  • VicNeely

    A woman with the vision create and set a bar.



  • Ruth Manning

    It would be nice if some dolls were made to represent GDI's (those of us who graduated from college, but chose not to become Greek). I have many Greek friends, but they are not doll collectors. I also have non-Greek friends who might buy a GDI doll. I have considered buying one of these dolls, but I can't decide whether to get one to represent my mother, who was a Greek, one whose dress color I like, or one that I like the most out of all the Greeks. I wish Mrs. Graves the best in this noteworthy endeavor.

  • innovatoor09

    Congratulations to her! We need more dolls that look like us for young girls.

  • I could appreciate the dolls more if some were darker and with nappy hair. They just look like a negro Barbie. Big deal.

    • Kay

      Africans and their brothers and sisters globally come in many shades with many textures of hair and its unfortunate that you lack the intelligence to understand or except that. Very rarely do African Americians visit popular websites 2 bash other races. But it seems as though your love and admiration constantly drives people such as yourself to websites focused on African American topics. So the next time u lay in the sun or in the tanning boothe please ask yourself "Why am I so desperate to look like, act, and seek out the race of people I hate so much? It's funny because truly I feel sorry for you because you're probably unemployed and uneducated. There are books that you can read and courses that you can attend that would arm you with more knowledge of world we live in……

      • Kay

        And before I loose focus on the importances of this story I'd like to congradulate and applaud Miss Graves for her enterpreneurship. It is strong and inteligent women like her that will help to leed this country out of the mess it is in. Thank you and I AM INSPIRED by you Miss Graves!