From Barbie to Lottie: How this doll company is battling jaded stereotypes

16 Jul 2018

Ian Harkin on stage at Inspirefest 2018. Image: Conor McCabe Photography

Tackling toxic masculinity and saccharine stereotypes, Ian Harkin tells the Inspirefest audience all about the story of Lottie Dolls.

“How did a guy end up having a doll company?”

Ian Harkin, CEO and co-founder of Lottie Dolls, took to the Inspirefest 2018 stage (complete with an Astro Adventures figurine nestled in his breast pocket) to regale the audience with the tale of how his toy company came to be.

After a somewhat lacklustre experience in the field of accountancy, Harkin spent a few years on the business scene in London. When his fiancée sadly passed away, he was spurred into making a change. “When things like that happen to you, like real challenges in your life, you take the opportunity to look at everything that you’re doing. You appreciate every single moment that you have – family, friends, the people that matter to you.”

Selling up shares in his business at the time, he partnered with Lucie Follett to fill a gap in the market for a wholesome doll, and thus Lottie Dolls was born.

Harkin admitted that he never really felt comfortable buying toys for his nieces in a market filled with plastic fashionistas representing almost comically unrealistic body standards (Bratz dolls, anyone?).

Citing research carried out by Dr Margaret Ashwell which found a correlation between playing with fashion dolls and the development of body-image issues, Harkin outlined the need for a positive alternative.

With backing from child psychologists and play experts, the team created a doll that focused on childhood and “the challenges that kids face, from bullying to obesity, to stereotypes” rather than another Barbie-esque figure that represented a warped view of adulthood and beauty.

As he explained, the Lottie Dolls are “all about empowerment” for both girls and boys, tackling the stereotypical pink world of Baby Borns and easy-bake ovens with the same ferocity as the aisle of toxic masculinity filled with fast cars and fake guns.

Flouting opinions from retailers on what the product should look like, Lottie Dolls followed its own path – though this led to some difficulties. A lack of buy-in meant Harkin had to take a massive risk and sell his home in London to foot the bills. Luckily, it all worked out and Lottie Dolls now employs 16 people in Donegal and is in more than 36 countries across the globe.

cartoon of ian harkin

Illustration of Ian Harkin at Inspirefest. Image: Liza Donnelly

Naming Allie, Abigail and Hayden as some of the kids that have inspired Lottie Dolls – as well as Taylor Denise Richardson, AKA Astronaut StarBright, who also spoke at Inspirefest – Harkin confirmed that all products are now inspired by “diverse kids with diverse interests”.

Wildlife Photographer Mia is just one example: a doll with a cochlear implant that isn’t marketed as a doll with a cochlear implant – she just happens to have one. “We want to normalise kids with different abilities.”

This is the route that Lottie Dolls will continue travelling down, with plans in the pipeline for a doll with autism as well as a project with Richardson that was revealed later that day on the Inspirefest stage.

Harkin concluded: “I used to be worried about the future but, with these kids, we shouldn’t be worried.”

Inspirefest is Silicon Republic’s international event celebrating the point where science, technology and the arts collide. Ultra Early Bird tickets for Inspirefest 2019 are available now.

Shelly Madden was sub-editor of Silicon Republic