NEW YORK -- Some fashion designers try to break the mold of conventional fashion. Robert Tonner uses conventional fashion to dress the mold.
Tonner, a graduate of Parsons School of Design and a former designer at Bill Blass, left the Manhattan style scene and moved to rural Hurley, N.Y., to begin a "collaboration" with Tyler Wentworth, a 16-inch doll with a wardrobe that's the envy of many real-life fashionistas.
Tonner has created a three-dimensional persona for Tyler. She is the designer of both ready-to-wear and couture clothes, and she has a boyfriend (Matt O'Neill), a favorite restaurant (Little Luxuries Manhattan) and friends in high places (Sydney Chase, owner of the Chase Modeling Agency, and public relations guru Carrie Chan). All the other models Tyler mingles with gives Tonner endless bodies to dress.
Tyler's personal style is sophisticated and timely but not trendy, and if she were real, she'd likely favor Oscar de la Renta and Carolina Herrera, Tonner says.
In Tyler's closet - and in the Tonner Dolls 2004 catalog - you'll find a chic ruched red gown, a printed trench coat, a cashmere hoodie sweater and a fur trimmed knit dress.
"I start with the fabrics just like I did on 7th Avenue. Basically I do the same thing as all apparel designers," explains Tonner, who begins each day by reading Women's Wear Daily and fashion magazines. He says he follows trends closely and pays attention to Fashion Week and other big fashion events.
"OK, there are some things I can't do, like a crystal-pleated ballgown skirt, so some doors close, but I can do very expensive fabrics because I need such a small amount ... something that normally only a couture house could do," he says.
Tonner recalls approaching a maker of sequin-covered fabric who was at first very condescending when Tonner said that he was looking for embellishment for dolls' dresses, but once he explained that he'd need 1,000 yards of $90-per-yard fabric, the sequin maker changed his tune.
"A couture designer will sell only three dresses; we'll make thousands," Tonner says with a satisfied smile.
Dolls are an "odd art form," Tonner acknowledges, and doll collection is in the midst of a revolution. It's not just about the Barbies or baby dolls that little girls play with or the china dolls that collect dust on a grandmother's shelf, he says.
Many 20- and 30-somethings are interested in dolls and, especially, doll clothes as a creative outlet, he says. "There is much more emphasis on clothes now. There even are real heels on doll shoes! Today, dolls are being used as a mannequin."
Tonner adds: "(The collectors) redo the dolls' hair and makeup, they'll sew garments, sometimes they'll even create their own pattern."
Gowns seem to be a favorite item of collectors. In fact, the first Tonner Doll item ever to sell out was a rayon and silk brocade pantsuit in ice blue.
Tonner, though, prefers daytime looks because they are usually more fashion-forward.
Coming from a ready-to-wear background, he has a checklist for himself to make sure each season's "line" is well balanced. "I ask is there enough color? Prints? Different styles? Enough graphic detail?"
If he doesn't, he'll hear about it from collectors.
The Tonner Doll Club counts about 3,000 members and there are even bigger broad doll collectors' clubs. "They're a very vocal group ... They talk about the catalog like Monday morning after the Oscars," says Tonner.