“He’s from Holland. He lives in Amsterdam, but travels a lot.” This is how industrial designer Ian Webb describes Billy, a young man conceived in London but who made his US debut at last month’s New York giftware fair.
Described by Webb as “possibly the world’s first truly gay brand”, Billy is “a deluxe male doll”, according to the promotions, anatomically correct and dressed to fit in with the scene. Seventies band Village People might easily claim him as one of their own, especially in his San Francisco “chains and leather” incarnation.
Billy was born of an idea hatched some five years ago by fashion designer John McKitterick, who has worked for various top fashion houses and teaches in the fashion department at Central St Martin’s College of Art and Design, and marketing specialist Juan Andres. The duo created a handmade version standing about 42cm high and launched it at an Aids benefit. They started producing the handmade, hand-painted dolls in silicone rubber and sold them to collectors for around 160 each. The media coverage of the venture was “phenomenal”, says Webb.
Webb’s involvement started about 18 months ago, when he met McKitterick and Andres. The idea had always been to find a better platform to promote the doll as a political, human rights tool, he says. To make this happen, the three set up a company, Totem International, which has an inverted star as its marque.
According to Webb, Totem’s aim is to build a brand that “can be extended into other areas”. Quality is key to the project and the doll has been developed to a very high specification by Webb and McKitterick, who is overall art director on the project.
McKitterick has been responsible for sculpting the features of the doll, which has adjustable limbs, fixed eyes and flocked short-cropped polyamide hair similar to that of Hasbro’s Action Man. He has, of course, also created the five current outfits, which Webb says copy a range of archetypes: Sailor Billy, Cowboy Billy, Wall Street Billy, Master Billy and San Francisco Billy.
Webb, meanwhile, has been more involved with production and “put together the business side” while Andres is handling sales and marketing. Webb’s west London branding group Webb Scarlet has created the transparent PVC presentation case, which features a photomontage backdrop derived from library shots of the various Billys on location, and the promotional material.
According to Webb, the interesting thing about Billy is that it is so overt, which is, he feels, a major difference from other male dolls on the market. “It’s not meant to be in the gay ghetto,” he says. In the US, sales of the 30 mass-produced doll will be restricted to over-21s to comply with local law, but he foresees buyers of all types and ages because Billy can be bought over the counter.
The human rights angle is also strong – though at present only a blond, blue-eyed model is available. “Billy is non-violent”, says Webb, pointing out that the doll doesn’t tote guns or the other weaponry associated with some male dolls. And manufacture is in Europe rather than the Far East, which, says Webb, has a bad record on human rights.
Rumour about his true origins already surrounds Billy, but Webb is quick to spring to his defence. “It’s not true that he’s made out of recycled Barbies,” he quips.