Mattel’s Helen Self on the key to successful design relationships between licensors and licensees

Helen Self – Manager for Consumer Product Design EMEA at Mattel – on why Barbie is an inspiring brand to design for.

Helen, it’s great to connect. To kick things off, how did you find yourself working in design? What set you onto this path?
I’d been interested in design from childhood; I was always drawing and making clothes for my dolls. According to my mam I’ve always loved fashion, since my toddler years – I was a bit of a nightmare according to her!

Ha! And when did that love morph into actually working in fashion?
I started on my career path in fashion working for several high street manufacturers in the London fashion mile, then progressing to working in retail for Adams childrenswear and Next Sourcing in Hong Kong.

I’ve been really lucky to work with companies and manufacturers that have taken me around the world, learning with hands on experience in manufacturing facilities and head offices. I then went to work for Blues Clothing specialising in licensing as design manager. This gave me the experience of working with multiple licensors and brands.

“As I’m from a licensee background, I understand the pressures, manufacturing challenges and capabilities from the other side of the fence.”

You’re now Manager for Consumer Product Design EMEA at Mattel. Talk us through what that role entails.
My role changes daily – there’s no one typical day! I work closely with my partners and colleagues to inspire design using our brands, from creating asset packs for licensees, working on pitch decks and presentations for retailers to designing collections for our DTR partners. As well as working closely with our global teams on trends and guides, I also have been fortunate to work on a number of designer halo programs with our BarbieStyle team, who create one-of-a-kind dolls and amazing posts on Barbie’s Instagram site.

Folks can check that out here. Let’s dive into some recent work. The Zara x Barbie collab scooped awards last year. From a design perspective, why do think that resonated?
It was the clean modern look that we help create with Zara, tapping into Barbie’s fashion heritage and iconic style. The dolls were dressed in the Zara collection, so you could buy into adult size clothes and also the limited-edition dolls dressed in the same outfits. The trend-led collection married the two fashion brands perfectly.

Helen Self, Mattel

Sticking with Barbie, there’s been so many interesting collections launch for the brand recently, across areas like fashion, bags and beauty. What is it about the brand that makes it great to design for?
Barbie is such an iconic brand that has moved and changed with the times. The fact she is the original fashion doll, means we can be flexible and celebrate her fashion heritage. We have many different fans from our children through to adults looking at nostalgia and the cool factor she brings! She’s had so many careers and looks over the years, which means we have lots of areas we can tap into.

I also love the philanthropy side of our company, where we inspire girls to reach their full potential. I remember in my HR onboarding, the video made me shed a tear – it was so powerful. It makes me proud to work for such an iconic brand.

“I look at my licensees and want them to feel that I am part of their team and they are part of ours.”

Lovely. Now, you work with different design teams within licensees. What’s the key to a successful licensee/licensor design relationship?
I think as I’m from a licensee background, I understand the pressures, manufacturing challenges and capabilities from the other side of the fence. It’s all about building your relationships. I’m really fortunate, my licensees are all so talented and really lovely to work with. I look at my licensees and I want them to feel that I am part of their team and they are part of ours. I love to share ideas and love it when they share ideas with me, I find it very inspiring.

Are there any recent launches that we should highlight as being ones you’re especially proud of?
Yes there are many; I’ve been so lucky to work on some amazing projects across the spectrum.

The Primark HBA range we did this year was amazing. We worked closely with the teams at Primark and the licensees to create a new fresh look for the retailer. We used a cross section of dolls on the packaging and product showing the breadth of diverse dolls to promote the message of inclusivity.

At the other end of the fashion spectrum, I was privileged to work on a project with South African designer Gert-Johan Coetzee on his Barbie runway collection. I worked with our amazing @BarbieStyle team and the designer to create a one-of-a-kind doll to represent a typical South African aesthetic and a miniature dress from his runway collection showstopper. It had over 30,000 crystals hand stitched and a six-meter train!

Helen Self, Mattel

Looks great. Last question – where do you find inspiration? How do you fuel your creativity?
I’m inspired by anything and everything from Instagram, people around me and my colleagues, to keeping up to date on my favourite designers from catwalk to high street.

I love going to the V&A and the fashion and textile museum to see their latest exhibitions. I’m also massively into vintage fashion, particularly the Fifties, but I also love the Sixties and Seventies eras too… The prints are very vibrant and full of colour, which I find inspiring.

Helen this has been great. Thanks again for taking the time.

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