In 1972, a doll named Blythe wandered into American toy stores. Made by Cincinnati toy company Kenner, she was cute in a disturbing goth sense—her head was disproportionately large compared to her lithe, plastic body, and with the pull of a string, her eyes would blink and switch colors, from blue to pink to orange. Alas, the kids of America weren't quite ready for the doll's friendly-yet-freaky Betty Boopish aesthetic, and Blythe went out of production after only a single year.
Fast forward to 1999. Doll collector-slash-hipster Gina Garan begins taking pictures of the vintage ladies with an old SLR camera. Fifty-one-year-old Junko Wong, founder of the Tokyo-based creative agency CWC, falls in love with the photographs. In 2000, Wong takes Garan's photos and creates a stop-motion animation holiday ad campaign for Japanese department store Parco. Blythe becomes an instant success and, like all cutesy things with big, adorable eyes (hello—anime, anyone?), a Japanese obsession.
Phew. Did you get that?
Like anything brought back from the dead, Blythe popularity seems to have grown rapidly to near-Frankensteinian proportions. Called neo-Blythe, the dolls have now been re-created in Japan by Wong at CWC, bringing in an estimated $3 million a year. Limited-edition dolls are made for corporations like our very own Nike (which had one made in 2003). Issey Miyake, Prada, Gucci, Vivienne Westwood and Versace have all dressed Blythe for an annual charity fashion show. And as of last week, Blythe hit Portland—in a traveling art exhibit called "Behind Blythe" at Just Be Complex/Compound Gallery.
The Portland art world is ripe to receive such an exhibit. The local scene is saturated right now with young artists caught up in the idea of "faux nostalgia." Galleries like Motel and Compound consistently feature pieces from young artists, like Trish Grantham and Jen Corace, that echo an almost Disney-esque sweetness juxtaposed with the loss of innocence. This enthusiasm for the '70s-era Saturday-morning cartoon subconscious parallels the market profile of current Blythe collectors: "They tend to be women in their 20s and 30s," Wong told WW last week. In other words, girls who were either in nappies or born well after Blythe disappeared from the shelves of Toys "R" Us.
Who knows why we're nostalgic for the '70s? After all, we're still making the same mistakes, oil prices and all. Wong has an idea: "At CWC, we call it 'The New Sincerity,'" she says. "People with that inner spirit want to go back to the '60s and '70s, when it was a more sincere time, when it was OK to be nice, OK to be good."
In 2005, Blythe is sincerely still a bit scary-looking. But maybe—just maybe—we can appreciate her innocence this time around.
Check out the Blythe doll exhibit, including the limited-edition Nike University of Oregon track star Blythe with her own 1972 Nike Bag, at Just Be Complex/Compound Gallery, 107 NW 5th Ave., 796-2733. Ends Nov. 28. Free.