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Three Harlem's Fashion Row Designers Created the Looks Worn by the Newest American Girl Dolls

“It was all about, ‘Who’s the future? What’s the future?’ And when I look at the landscape of designers, Samantha Black, Nichole Lynel and Kristian Lorén represent what the dolls stand for and what the future of fashion will be.”

A large contingent of the fashion flock may be focused on the Spring 2022 shows in Milan, but the most exciting runway debut (at least for me) was happening on Manhattan’s 52nd Street on Thursday night. 

At the American Girl Place in New York, American Girl staged a full fashion show to introduce three new dolls and book series. Its World By Us collection aims “to champion equality and promote unity,” according to a press release, by telling the stories of three contemporary girls of diverse backgrounds (one is Black, one is Latinx and one is of mixed race) and the social issues they care about: Makena Williams is an artist who uses her love of fashion to speak out about racial injustice; Maritza Ochoa is an athlete and an advocate for immigrant families; Evette Peeters is an environmentalist that’s conscious about her impact on both nature and on those around her. 

Photo: Ilya S. Savenok/Getty Images for American Girl

A big part of American Girl storytelling has always been the clothes that they wear. They help define the characters, while also reflecting the times they lived in and the spaces they occupied. And, for many fans of the brand, the dolls’ outfits were as iconic as the dolls themselves.

To dress Makena, Maritza and Evette, American Girl went to Harlem’s Fashion Row to find three emerging designers that could shape the look of these new characters. (The company also made a $25,000 donation to its ICON360 non-profit, which helps support emerging BIPOC fashion talent.)

“World by Us, to me, was all about, ‘Who’s the future? What’s the future?,'” Brandice Daniel, founder and CEO of Harlem’s Fashion Row, says. “And when I look at the landscape of designers, Samantha Black, Nichole Lynel and Kristian Lorén represent what the dolls stand for and what the future of fashion will be.”

Richard Dickson, president and chief operating officer of Mattel, with Kristian Loren, American Girl president Jamie Cygielman, Samantha Black and Nichole Lynel.

Photo: Ilya Savenok/Getty Images/Courtesy of American Girl

All three women gave Daniel an emphatic “yes” when she first called.

“Brandice reached out like, ‘I have a project I think you might be perfect for. I can’t tell you what it is yet, but would you be interested in working with American Girl?’ I was like, ‘Absolutely,'” Lorén says. (Her favorite doll growing up: Addy.)

“As a little girl, the American Girl doll was it,” Black says. “There was a Samantha, and I’m a Samantha, so I was literally obsessed. I felt a connection. All these years later, for me to be able to design, there was no question about it: What needs to be done, because I’m doing it.”

One of Makena’s looks, designed by Nichole Lynel.

Photo: Ilya Savenok/Getty Images/Courtesy of American Girl

Each designer was assigned a doll — Black was in charge of Evette, Lynel had Makena and Lorén got Maritza — and set out to build out their wardrobes, marrying their own aesthetics and fashion sensibilities with the characters’ stories and values.

“I’m the designer of NL the Label, [which] serves the glamorous girl on the go,” says Lynel. “Makena, at her age, is finding her voice, going through her own story. I really wanted to show that she’s a girl with something to say — and what better way than a sequined bomber jacket? That’s a statement piece and it shows, ‘I am here, I am bold, I am beautiful with beautiful things to change the world.'”

Makena’s personalized denim set by Nichole Lynel.

Photo: Ilya Savenok/Getty Images/Courtesy of American Girl

Makena also wears a denim set, as it’s one of Lynel’s specialties, that’s been hyper-personalized with patches and feathers. “At that age, you want to be unique and to make things your own,” she says. “As a fashion designer myself, you don’t want to wear a cookie-cutter whatever everyone else is wearing.” There’s also a glam-ified tracksuit and a beanie that gives a nod to the character’s love of butterflies.

Black dug into Evette’s narrative as an advocate for sustainability (she loves to thrift and upcycle clothes) to inform the pieces she wears, even creating her own story around how certain prints ended up in her wardrobe. 

Evette’s DIY tie-dye by Samantha Black.

Photo: Ilya Savenok/Getty Images/Courtesy of American Girl

“I put her in a hippie ’70s vibe — she’s all about the Earth, and with that there’s tie-dye, but she tie-dyed it herself using all the plants she has pulled from gardening,” Black says. “[Print] mixing is super Sammy B, but it’s also true to that girl.” 

It was important for Black that Evette’s clothes were true not only to the character’s values, but also to her lifestyle: She wears a bucket hat because she spends a lot of time outside, for example; she’s covered her clothes in patches that read “Peace and Love” because “that’s what she strives for, that’s what she’s looking for, that’s what she cares about.”

Evette’s second look by Samantha Black.

Photo: Ilya Savenok/Getty Images/Courtesy of American Girl

The main difference Black sees between the American Girl fashion she grew up with and that of the company’s contemporary dolls is that they feel much more personal and relatable to kids today. “They’re so much more explorative now,” she says. “Little girls can find outfits that match their personalities… [Before] it wasn’t like, ‘Oh, this girl dresses like me.’ Whereas now, they do… Girls can connect even more.”

According to Lorén, Maritza’s wardrobe includes subtle references that millennial parents, who might be buying these dolls for their own kids, will likely catch: “I was channeling my inner Sporty Spice — I’m a big Spice Girls fan, so you see a lot of influence from that.”

Maritza’s very ’90s-Mel-C tracksuit by Kristian Lorén.

Photo: Ilya Savenok/Getty Images/Courtesy of American Girl

Lorén drew from her own athletic youth to create Maritza’s super-sporty looks. “I was thinking back to that time, ‘Who was I watching on TV?’ Layers were a big thing, so I took that component when I was designing,” she says. Then, “in terms of blending it with my brand aesthetic, I like bright, vibrant colors, so I kept that at the forefront of my color palette.”

Maritza’s second sporty look by Kristian Lorén

Photo: Ilya Savenok/Getty Images/Courtesy of American Girl

This wasn’t the only fashion on display on Thursday night. American Girl is about to hit a big milestone — the brand is turning 35! — and it’s taking this opportunity to revisit and reimagine the signature outfits of six of the beloved historical dolls, with the help of an influential figure in New York fashion.

“When we were looking at who would curate the American Girl historical figures, it needed to be a designer who was iconic, who has made such a huge mark on this industry and who we knew would really take this project, dig all the way in and really give it what it deserved,” Daniel says. “Carly Cushnie was a no-brainer.”

Cushnie was tasked with creating new versions of the outfits worn by Felicity (!), Josefina (!), Kirsten (!), Addy (!), Samantha (!) and Molly (!) — a big undertaking, considering how much these characters mean to so many people, and also that the designer didn’t grow up with them in the U.K.

“It was a lot of pressure, because people are so attached to certain dolls, especially if they grew up with a Samantha or a Molly,” she says. “And they have all these different outfits as well — they’re so intricate and thoughtful, and [the fashion] goes back to different parts of the story. It’s amazing, when you think about it. For me, it was about learning the story and each character and reimagining that in a new way that still spoke to the true original.”

Carly Cushnie on the American Girl runway.

Photo: Ilya Savenok/Getty Images/Courtesy of American Girl

Cushnie went deep, pulling out elements from each character’s original wardrobe, as well as their interests and plot lines, as laid out in their respective books, to inform the modernized pieces. Felicity may have lost the corset, but her new dress gives a wink to that era with a ribbon lacing details on the sides. Josefina’s original look informs the color palette of her flowy, red and white floral jumpsuit. Kirsten’s updated blue ensemble features a ruching detail that Cushnie notes “was common at that time.” Addy’s beloved quilt from the books was incorporated into her modern sleeveless pink flare dress. Samantha’s “very much feminist, but also very feminine” sensibility translates into a very of-the-moment organza puff sleeve tee and printed sequin midi skirt. Molly’s still patriotic, this time in a sporty red, white and blue jumpsuit that Cushnie imagines “she would enjoy performing in.” 

These Cushnie-fied dolls will be auctioned off on eBay to benefit of Girls Who Code.

Felicity by Carly Cushnie.

Photo: Ilya S. Savenok/Getty Images for American Girl

View the 6 images of this gallery on the original article

Beyond simply giving these designers more exposure through American Girl’s platform, this project can have a much bigger, wider impact, Daniel argues.

“In the last year, we’ve talked about the systematic challenges we’ve had as Black people. It’s so hard to be what you don’t see,” she says. “In this case, not only will these girls get the chance to learn about these incredible characters, but they’ll also get to see these amazing designers and go, ‘That’s an opportunity for me. That’s a possibility for me.’ It’s really about opening the minds of the children who watch this and show them what they can become.”

Black is most looking forwarding to seeing these dolls in stores, and being able to set that example for a future generation: “I’m a part of history. It’s super cool and something that little girls love so much; they’ll know that I, a real person, had a part in that, and that’s super special.”

“At that age, I didn’t always open up magazines or look on runways and see the girl next door who looked like myself,” says Lynel. “I’m so happy that other little girls get to dream bigger and better by seeing these fashions and reading these stories.”

“If I could help a child figure out who they are and what path they want to go on, so they can use it for good, sign me up,” Lorén says. “I’m there.”

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