Bratz Was Ahead Of Its Time. Culture Finally Caught Up.


Bratz Was Ahead Of Its Time. Culture Finally Caught Up.

The history and evolution of the dolls with a passion for fashion, and the creators using them as an art medium.

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During one of her DJ sets, a fan gifted Suffy Baala, who goes by the moniker Goth Jafar, her first-ever Bratz doll, from the brand’s collaboration with the Nigerian fashion designer Mowalola. The 26-year-old renowned New York-based DJ had grown up loving Bratz but never owned one, despite the fact that the dolls had become increasingly important to her in recent years during her gender transition.

“It’s the best gift I've ever received to this day,” Baala tells NYLON. “I was just so emotional. I always said that once I start making bank, I am going to buy every Bratz doll I ever wanted as a kid. I felt like it was a cute healing of my inner child, especially with a Black designer.”

The Mowalola collection is just one of the recent Bratz collaborations that is strikingly on the pulse of culture. This summer, Bratz released the Mini Bratz x Kylie collectibles, which includes six Bratzified miniature figures of the youngest Jenner, along with accessories, including Norman, one of her beloved Italian greyhounds. Other recent Bratz collaborations include GCDS, Puma, and more. It’s all part of Bratz’s cultural resurgence in the last few years — a time in which Bratz has become the No. 1 doll brand on TikTok, and a slew of Gen Z and millennial creators and collectors have been inspired to make their own Bratz-inspired art, including clothing, accessories, and makeup.

There’s a lot to attribute Bratz’s cultural resurgence to: the 20-year trend cycle that’s been favoring blinged-out Y2K nostalgia for the last few years, a style that Bratz embody, or the fact that people who played with Bratz as kids have grown into adults with expendable income and agency.

And while it’s been a summer of Barbiemania, it’s more broadly the Year of the Doll, an apt time to reconsider the place of the doll in 2023. (As it turns out, Barbie can’t get enough of Bratz either: Eagle-eyed fans who saw The Barbie Movie will notice the Bratz reference in the film, during the scene when Sasha is shown briefly sitting at a table with her friends Yasmin, Chloe, and Jade — the name of the Bratz dolls, who are listed in the credits as “2001 girls,” the same year Bratz was founded.)

Growing up, Baala was never allowed to play with dolls or toys marketed to girls. She loved Monster High and Barbie, but Bratz always had her heart. To her, they were the cool girls of the doll world — and now serve as a source of aesthetic and spiritual inspiration.

“Since I’m on a trans moment, I consider myself a doll, building myself from the ground up,” Baala says. She says wants to look like Bratz Fashion Pixie. “The aesthetic is hyperfeminine and weird in an abstract way. They’re so beautiful to me. It’s unreal. That’s what I want to come off to the world: unreal beauty… I feel like I know I’ve made it in life when I have my own Bratz dolls.”

Bratz’s cartoonish, hyperfeminine aesthetic was ahead of its time. Introduced in 2001 from MGA Entertainment, at a time when there was limited diversity in the doll space, Bratz came on the shelves with a glittery, edgy aesthetic that hadn’t yet been seen. Unlike other dolls at the time, they were racially diverse.

“I think everyone under the sun tried to make a competitor to Barbie, and everyone failed, and no one had success with diverse dolls,” says Jasmin Larian, the creative director of Bratz.

Larian was there at the beginning. Her father, Isaac Larian, founded MGA and showed then 11-year-old Jasmin an illustration of a Bratz doll, to which she replied: “It’s cute.” Her father named the Bratz doll Yasmin after Jasmin, and she grew up designing miniature collections for each of the dolls, which set the wheels in motion for her to eventually found her clothing company, Cult Gaia, which dropped a collaboration for both doll and human clothing with Bratz last spring.

When Bratz were first introduced, they were called the Bratz Pack: four best friends, who all were sold together. Larger retailers campaigned to only buy Chloe, the white doll.

“My dad famously said: ‘They all come together, period. You don’t get to just choose one. So either take it or leave it,’” Larian says. “I think that was a big risk on his behalf, and luckily, it paid off.”

By 2005, Bratz sales were surpassing Barbie twofold. And over the next four years, the beef between MGA and Mattel turned ugly, in a nine-year legal dispute over intellectual property rights. It was during this time that culture became very vocal in its stance on Bratz.

“The dolls look like streetwalkers,” a father told the New Yorker in 2006. “You know those ‘pumping parties’ where people go for plastic surgery on the cheap? They look like pumping-party victims.”

At one point, Larian says, Mattel allegedly paid the National Association of Psychology to do a report that Bratz are bad for kids.

But Bratz broke a lot of boundaries when it came to makeup and fashion: Nothing about Bratz was sanitized. They looked cool; they had an attitude; they had icy eyeshadow and looked like they just got off shifts at Coyote Ugly. Bratz never changed nor apologized, and now culture has finally caught up.

“Everyone who played with them has grown up, and I feel like it inspired a generation of people to be uniquely who they are without fitting into this mold of maybe what Barbie was at the time,” Larian says. “I think it inspired a lot of the LGBTQ community as well to kind of live in their own fantasy through these dolls, by dressing them, by putting makeup on them, fixing their hair, and maybe showing a side of themselves that they didn’t feel comfortable showing at the time. All these people who were inspired and played with the dolls are now grown up in creative fields and are really forces to reckon with.”

Two of these creators are Andre Arnejo and Malinah. The two met online in the Bratz community six years ago, and both have dreams of working for Mattel or MGA one day.

Arnejo, a 20-year-old student living near Toronto, posts custom Bratz makeup looks as @lalarepaints, where he repaints the faces of dolls with extreme precision: creating a version inspired by Halle Bailey as the Little Mermaid, Alexa Demie, and Gucci’s Spring/Summer 1996 runway makeup. He first got into the only Bratz creative community a decade ago through Flickr, where people would post staged photoshoots of their Bratz dolls, which inspired him to start collecting. Now, he does one repainting project a week, along with commissions.

“I love blending both the factory aesthetic, which is like what Bratz would look like in stores, and blending how the actual makeup looks on a person,” Arnejo says. “Like it doesn't look blocky; it doesn't look two-dimensional.”

Arnejo traces the Bratz resurgence back to 2019, during the viral #BratzChallenge, where online creators were recreating Bratz makeup looks on themselves.

“The community increased three times its size than it was before. It’s gotten so massive,” Arnjeo says. “Doll collecting isn’t really a taboo anymore. Back in the day, it was kind of a weird thing, but now people openly embrace it.”

Malinah, a 20-year-old freelance photographer in California who has been designing clothing and accessories for Bratz since they were 16, has a treasure trove of collections inspired by Playboy, the Met Gala, and Lindsay Lohan, to name a few, which they sell on Instagram as @malinahdoll. They used to design clothing for humans, but found more success designing clothing for Bratz.

“Bratz showed me that I could express myself and like my ideas and my visions. I had done work with models, but there’s drama,” says Malinah. “But dolls are just there. They’re always ready. They always have their hair done; their makeup done.”

Not only are Bratz fans crucial to their own creative ecosystems, the fans have pull when it comes to what MGA makes: The fans are so crucial to the DNA of the brand that Bratz even brought back fan-favorite villains the Tweevils in April, 18 years after they first appeared in Bratz animated content.

“That is a direct response to fans,” Larian says, adding that Bratz’s brand manager grew up as a Bratz fan, even winning a super fan contest when she was 12 years old. “We really, really listen to them as much as we possibly can, and they begged for the Tweevils to come back.” (The Tweevils, Larian adds, are based on Barbie.)

“To put two dolls in a package is a margin destroyer for us,” Larian says. “But we’re like, who cares? This is for the fans.”

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