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Well, hello…

Yes, I realized I have not posted in months. Well, I am a grad student, and if you have not heard it before, grad students, particularly in the sciences, are slaves. In other words, I was very busy.

So I do realize that I did not do a review of BeForever or the most recent winter release or even the crazy amount of sales AG has put out (desperation, anyone?). I may never get to it. Time will tell.

So, I am writing today about a new hobby I have decided to take up, as an attempt to de-stress. Running/exercise does do wonders for me, but it does not fill up my creative need. So I decided after seeing the price of this sewing machine drop on Amazon to the lowest I could recall, and looking at the price of Isabelle’s Studio, I decided the sewing maching was the better deal.

There were many reasons that led to this – it was not a spur of the moment decision. Probably about a year ago, I began thinking about taking up sewing, mainly to fulfill my need for modern and trendy clothing for my dolls. I love Etsy, and do still shop there on occasion, but face it – it gets pricey. I see simple dresses being listed for $25+. That is going above my comfort level.

To further add to the whole comfort level thing – I am a poor grad student. Clearly, the average grad student stipend does not mix well with the high-end American Girl hobby. That last post where I had a complete Cecile and Marie-Grace collection? Well, most of it has been sold to help fund a flux of expenses that pop up only every so many years, and they all came at once for me. Selling items off, careful planning and saving, and catching Jill’s Deals and Steals have helped tremendously, but the recent prices of the past two releases had put a significant kibosh on what I buy direct from American Girl – and I have not been impressed with the quality or look of the outfits either lately. So I have somewhat come to a halt with my spending (though I do still have a few accessory sets on my wishlist for 2015). Again, what better way to distract me from feeling poor and unable to buy new shinies than to try to make my own?

It has been interesting so far. My grandmother loved to sew, but I had no interest in it as a child. I had some child sewing machine that I think I used a few times and got quickly bored with it. I am sure my grandmother in heaven is either smacking her forehead and/or very happy to see me trying to learn how to sew.

I am literally a newbie. I have never handled a sewing machine in my life, and here arrived a digital machine with 60 stitches. I have no basis at all for how clothing is constructed. I doubt I will ever use more than 3-5 of those stitches, but whatever. After it arrived, I went to Jo-Ann’s to pick up a few materials to work with – came home with a floral calico print, a solid white woven material and a solid white knit material. Silly me, I decided to try a tank top first, and use the knit material. It was not as much of a disaster as it could have been, but there was a lot of swearing involved when the thread got tangled multiple times.

This was a month ago, and I finally got around to touching my sewing machine for the second time today. I settled this time on a gathered skirt set – only rectangular cuts of woven fabric were needed, seemed like a much better beginner project. The result was much better than the tank, though I still need practice. Feeling on top of the world, I tried to also make a skater skirt using the same sold white knit material as I used for the tank. It could be much better, but I am slowly gaining confidence in techniques I am sure anyone who has actually taken a sewing class or is an experienced seamstress knows. But again, I am poor and can’t afford sewing classes, so Google and free patterns are my best friends.

I will add pictures of my “creations” when I do not need to use flash on my camera. I hate using flash.

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The Life and Death of Cécile and Marie-Grace

There has been a lot of misunderstanding by the general public as to what exactly happened with Cécile Rey and Marie-Grace Gardner, two co-current historical dolls that were released in June 2011. They were announced to be archived in May 2014, making their run the shortest of all historical main character dolls to be released, at a whopping 3 years.

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So what exactly happened. In this post I will attempt to clarify what went wrong, and why American Girl is expunging the collection from their warehouses.

For a while there was speculation of a New Orleans doll to be released at some point. With the archivals of Samantha (1904), Kirsten (1854) and Felicity (1774), we saw subsequent releases of Rebecca (1914), Cécile and Marie-Grace (1853) and Caroline (1812). Speculation is with the archival of Molly (1944) last year, we will see a 1950s doll to replace her. So basically as American Girl is archiving the older dolls, they are releasing new dolls in time periods that are fairly close. Word was Kirsten was not doing well anymore toward her last few years, due to a shift in children’s interests. Let’s face it – when Kirsten was released in 1986, country decor, Little House on the Prairie, and Oregon Trail ruled. 20 years later, not so much.

Prior to Cécile and Marie-Grace, there has been other best friend dolls released to go along with the movies – Nellie in 2004, Elizabeth in 2005, Emily in 2006, Ivy in 2007 (this was not a movie release), and Ruthie in 2008. While Elizabeth seemed to do fairly well thanks to her thick blonde wig, the face of the matter is the best friend dolls were not huge sellers for American Girl. They were essentially $100 accessories to the main character dolls. This is one matter to keep in mind as we go forward.

Second, dark skinned dolls do not sell as well as light skinned dolls. I am not being racist, only pointing out a fact. Word from unnamed employees of American Girl state the ratio to be from around 7 to 1, meaning 7 light skinned dolls sell for every dark skinned doll. In the historical line itself, it is no surprise that Kit, Julie and Caroline are the best sellers, and Kaya, Josefina and Addy are the lowest sellers.

So given those two points, American Girl came up with Cécile and Marie-Grace, best friend characters in New Orleans in 1853. Time period-wise, they were meant to replace Kirsten (and some speculate Addy as well). To emphasize, best friend characters were not huge sellers for AG coming into this release. Yet, likely due to dark skinned dolls being poor sellers, they released a white best friend doll to go along with the black doll to likely ameliorate sales. The debut release included the following items:

You may notice some of the links have different names for the items. I will get to that in a moment. The book series was also a shared series, in which half the books were for Cécile, the other half for Marie-Grace. They were co-authored by Denise Lewis Patrick and Sarah M. Buckey, respectively, and illustrated by Christine Kornacki. The story focused on the Yellow Fever epidemic of 1853.

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There are initial problems just in the whole set up of this collection. One you have best friend dolls, a concept that previously only has mediocre sales. Two, each doll only had three books, which did not allow you to get to know the character as well if she had six books. Three, the initial release lacked common themes from previous historical releases – mainly school accessories and holiday accessories. While the party and special dresses could pass as Christmas attire, they were in fact worn for a benefit in the story. No holiday link at all. Finally, the initial product names suggested Cécile only had a bed while Marie-Grace only got a vanity. It is important to note the lack of accessories in the collection as well. We get a Parrot and Games set, a very expensive banquet set, and … well that is it. This does not exactly scream playability and imagination.

The dolls itself also caused some stir. Cécile has the Sonali mold, but also very curly hair – not the brushable kind, the kind you can only finger curl. So not only was she a dark skinned doll, she had hair that was not style-able by general standards.

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Next we had Marie-Grace, who with her long light brown hair and blue eyes should have been a sure winner. However AG decided to create a new facemold for her, dubbed the “Marie-Grace mold” by collectors. The Josefina mold was clearly the base mold, but was then tweaked to have a pointier chin and a bit of an overbite. Many did not take well to the new mold.

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She also had multiple long pincurls, which on some dolls, were rather wild, and easily could be in the way with general brushing. She also had a complex hairdo (crossover braids), which was not simple to undo without cutting the elastics, and obviously not a simple enough hairdo for a child to redo. The half braids also left Marie-Grace’s hair an odd mix when fully down – half was wavy, half was straight. Some also criticized her outfit, a bright pink dress with odd trim that did not exactly translate well in doll sized proportions.

So we have a collection where the dolls, books, outfits, accessories and furniture are not a hit with the target market. Huge no-no for American Girl. And the lack of sales on the collection were clearly a problem, as the collection went on sale only a scant five months later at 25% (November 7-13, 2011).

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American Girl advertised it as a sale commemorating 25 years, hence 25% off. Collectors familiar with AG sensed something fishy. Interestingly, a few other changes began popping up, including:

  • “Cécile and Marie-Grace” became “Marie-Grace and Cécile”
  • “Cécile’s Bed & Bedding” became “Half-Canopy Bed”
  • “Marie-Grace’s Vanity” became “Vanity & Accessories”

In spring 2012, Cécile and Marie-Grace had new additions to their collection. Not surprisingly, the outfits and table and chairs were marked as “limited edition”. Folks speculated that this was another sign of poor sales – by marking an item “LE”, it would increase urgency to buy the items. The release included:

On December 6, 2012, the real kicker came in that these dolls were NOT doing well. The doll and accessory set and the half-canopy bed were on Jill’s Steals and Deals for 60% – $50 a piece.

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Why would AG put the dolls and the bed at such deep discount? Being a business, AG has a warehouse to keep product stocks. They set certain expectations of sales, and pre-order items from their factories in anticipation of predicted dates in which items may begin to run low. Given slower sales of Cécile and Marie-Grace, items were not leaving the warehouse, and more were already on the way. AG needed to clear out space.

In weekly and daily sales, items from this collection continued to appear through 2012. Stocks of Marie-Grace dolls appeared at the MCM Benefit sale in 2013. And yet again, the dolls, now with outfits, appeared on Jill’s Steals and Deals on October 9, 2013.

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The possible sets were:

  • Cécile Doll, Meet Book, and Nightgown for $50
  • Cécile Doll, Meet Book, Accessories, and Special Dress for $60
  • Marie-Grace Doll, Meet Book, Accessories, and Nightgown for $60
  • Marie-Grace Doll, Meet Book, and Nightgown for $50
  • Marie-Grace Doll, Meet Book, and Skirt Set for $50
  • Marie-Grace Doll, Meet Book, Accessories, and Skirt Set for $60
  • Marie-Grace Doll, Meet Book, Accessories, and Party Outfit for $60

The higher number of Marie-Grace dolls that AG likely ordered due to the ratio of light-skinned dolls over dark-skinned dolls purchased was really evident between the 2013 MCM Sale and this Jill’s Steals and Deals.

Sadly, this was confirmation that AG was purging itself of this collection, and wanted to get rid of stock ASAP. Many other items went on sale during Cyber Monday and again during December in 2013, at 50% off, including the Fancy Dress and Banquet Table & Treats. In Spring 2014, more items appeared on sale again for 50% off, including Cécile’s Parlor Outfit ($14), Fancy Dress ($14), Vanity & Accessories ($40), Parlor Desk ($40), and Argos ($14).

Finally, AG announced on May 20, 2014 that Cécile and Marie-Grace, along with Ivy and Ruthie, were being archived. Collectors and AG fans were not surprised – the writing was on the wall for a long time. Cécile sold out on June 20. As of writing (July 12, 2014), Marie-Grace is still available.

So what does this mean?

There were may mistakes with this collection – the lack of playability with both the dolls themselves and the accessories, the best friends concept, a story that swayed too far from the usual format, mediocre illustrations, and an unusual and new setting in the heavily French New Orleans. The sales, particularly the first Jill’s Steals and Deals, greatly devalued the collection – word spread of the cheap price and then no one wanted to buy the dolls at full price, holding out for another sale.

The dolls themselves were also released during two very popular Girl of the Year dolls – Kanani and McKenna. AG marketing and sales staff at stores push the GOTY line over the historical line, given the limited edition status. This did not help with sales of Cécile and Marie-Grace. Many folks held off buying them believing they would be around for at least another 10 years. Then sales came, and people held off, hoping for more sales. In the end, American Girl canned the collection.

This debacle ultimately is going to shape decisions regarding product releases by American Girl for many years to come. Many keep hoping for a dark-skinned GOTY, but AG may view Cécile’s lack of sales as a sign that producing a dark-skinned GOTY would be a huge financial failure. There was a lot of complaining upon the release of Isabelle, a blonde ballerina doll, yet her collection is doing very well for the company. Similarly, Caroline, a historical doll released in September 2012, is also doing very well – the first historical to be noted in a positive light in the quarterly stock reports since Kit in 2008. Yet again, she is blonde-haired.

This is not to say AG will continually emphasize blonde-haired dolls (Saige did well for them in 2013, and My American Girl #61 also opened to much popularity, both have shades of red hair). Prior to Cécile, Kaya was the last historical main character minority doll (with dark hair) to be released, and that was in 2002. It has been 8 years since there has been a brown-eyed GOTY (Jess) and 5 years since there has been a dark-haired GOTY (Chrissa). Customers may be taking the streets and complaining of the lack of diversity in the doll lines, but as the old adage says, actions speak louder than words. Unless American Girl sees sales of dolls of color increased dramatically, they will only produce what sells – which is predominantly light skinned, light haired dolls. Rumor has it the next historical doll will also be light skinned and possibly a red head.

Some personal thoughts..

I just barely got into collecting when the 25% sale launched. I was completely unaware of what was brewing. I purchased my first doll (as an adult), Kanani, that fall, and sat back to take in everything that was new since the late 1990s. I wanted to get Cécile and Marie-Grace eventually, but I had so much catching up to do from Kit, Kaya, Julie, and Rebecca, that they were quite far down on my list.

About last year, I acquired an appreciation for their collection. Yes, the story could have been a lot better, but after reading the mystery books, I saw how this duo was quite special and unique from everything else AG has produced. I now have a complete collection (almost all items bought at sale prices), and it is one of my favorites.

So many kudos to Cécile and Marie-Grace. It is a pity their collection failed, and American Girl will certainly be more mindful of their future releases, but I hope this also gives a lesson to the consumer as well – if you want something, do not delay buying it, and support what you like through money spent, not by complaining on social media websites.