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Dolls of all colours

Words: Saveeta Sing

Photos: Milan Hofmans

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Mission impossible

In 1966 a young Dutch woman scoured the country looking for a black doll for her little girl, Ellen, to play with. For the longest time it was a true mission impossible, but the woman never gave up. Finally, when her daughter was nine years old, she found one. Barely able to contain her delight, she hurried home with the treasure. The little girl was disappointed, though. She wanted a white Barbie, like all her friends had, and with blue eyes like her mother’s. The woman was sad but persevered. “Look at her”, she said encouragingly. She’s beautiful, like you.”

When she got older Ellen understood where her mother was coming from. “Children don’t want to be different from their friends and tend to conform to mainstream ideas of beauty. Of course black children can also play with white dolls. But you don’t want them to feel inferior because there are no dolls around that reflect the way they look themselves.”

Empowered by her mother

Ellen has a white mother and a black father. Multiracial, you would say in English. In the past the Dutch called it ‘halfbloed’, half blood, an outdated term that stems from Colonial times and refers to someone who is half white and half black. Ellen can clearly remember how it infuriated her now-deceased mother. “She hated the word ‘halfbloed’ and said I had the benefit of two cultures, that I was doubly blessed; a ‘dubbelbloed’ (double blood), as it is called nowadays. She would always tell me how beautiful I was and that I should be proud of my curls and brown skin. Back then I didn’t understand how important her words were and how lucky I was to have a mother who empowered me as much as she did.”

“Even now, many people think there’s no market for ‘black’ products. I see it as my duty to prove them wrong.”

Ellen Brudet’s parents met in 1958, when her Surinamese father came to Amsterdam to pursue a boxing career. The couple found a house in Amsterdam North, a neighbourhood separated from the rest of the city by a stretch of water. They had a rough time. “The locals had scarcely ever seen a black person, never mind have one as a neighbour”, says Ellen. “My mother was even pelted with eggs and called terrible names. After I was born everyone was curious to see the black and white couple’s baby and would bend over the pram, unasked, to touch the ‘exotic’ child.” Her mother didn’t have the courage to respond directly, but carried her anger inside her; it was to fuel her later remarks to her children that they should not let ignorant people put them down, but be proud of who they were.

Try harder

Ellen firmly believes that instilling pride in children for what may make them different from their peers begins at home. “Black children should be told that their colour, lips and hair are beautiful,” she says. “A doll can be very helpful in reinforcing that message.” Nonetheless, Ellen regularly sees black children in her shop who aren’t keen to own dolls that look like them. “I understand that,” she says. “They’re not used to a black doll, because nobody has one. Just the other day a woman came in with her granddaughter because she wanted the girl to have a doll she could identify with. ‘No, grandma,’ the child kept insisting, ‘I want the white one.’ The woman looked at Ellen apologetically and asked: “What more can I do?” “Ellen told her: “Try harder.”

“Black children should be told that their colour, lips and hair are beautiful… A doll can be very helpful in reinforcing that message”

Ellen Brudet

Dream come true

The little girl became a woman and in 1988 Ellen was pregnant with her own child. Like most parents she wanted the best for her baby but didn’t expect the simplest things to be so difficult. Like finding a card to announce the birth, one that depicted a black baby. Ellen reached out to over 60 shops and publishers but couldn’t find a single one. So she made one herself. It was the same story when her second baby came along 14 years later. Working together with an illustrator to create the card this time, she was overwhelmed by the enthusiastic reactions of family and friends. “Everyone wanted to know where I’d got them from. At the time I had a job and didn’t really think about switching careers, but a seed had been planted.”

Two years after the birth of her second child Ellen’s father passed away (she had already lost her mother in 1998) and she was diagnosed with a serious lung condition. Ellen was devastated. Until, in 2006, she dreamt that her parents told her to stop crying and get creative. The very next day she was offered a place in an empowerment project ‘Women at Work’ and saw it as a sign. “I enrolled and decided there and then to become an entrepreneur.” In 2011 Ellen started out selling cards for special occasions, for people of all colours and cultures. Before long she added bibs and rompers, got herself a market stall and introduced a collection of black dolls you couldn’t find anywhere else in Europe.”

Ellen is not the first person to sell black dolls. A shop opened recently in South Africa where you can buy barbies in different colours, dressed in Caribbean and African fabrics. Some of the bigger toy shops in the US and Europe also stock a black doll in their product range. According to Ellen these dolls all have white, European features. “I wanted black features, so I designed my own dolls. I chose a well-known manufacturer in Spain to make them, to ensure the best quality and safety guarantees.” After a while she introduced customised dolls: “I found a very gifted artist who uses a magnifying glass and special paint to turn each doll into the spitting image of the customer. We made customised dolls for the child and teen models at the Dutch Diversity Model Agency (DMA), some of whom have conditions such as vitiligo and Down syndrome. One of the models, who had severe vitiligo, suffered traumas as a child because of the condition. She cried her eyes out when I gave her a doll that looked like her, embracing her mini-me.”

“American rapper The Game bought a doll for his daughter and posted a photo on Instagram. It drew ‘likes’ from Drake and Kanye West and suddenly I had 12,000 followers”

A black bunny

Her business with the special dolls continues to grow steadily, but when Ellen wanted to expand to retail premises, she encountered some resistance. “Even now, many people think there’s no market for ‘black’ products. I see it as my duty to prove them wrong.” Coloured Goodies opened its doors in 2016 – the first black doll store in Europe. “For the last four years I’ve also organised an annual event, the Coloured Goodies Experience, where black entrepreneurs can showcase their goods. From 30 participants we’ve grown to 70.”

A major success for Ellen is the black bunny, Nina, adorning one of the many shelves in her shop. Nina is the best friend of Miffy, the famous fictional rabbit created in the ‘50s by Dutch artist Dick Bruna. Just-Dutch, a company that knits Miffys by hand, reached out to Ellen, who was delighted to add the black bunny to her collection. Nina was knit especially for Coloured Goodies, with the rights of Bruna. Clients love Nina and she is Ellen’s best-selling maternity gift. When Ellen visited the Bruna shop in Utrecht, though, she was told that Nina did not sell at all there; nobody wanted a black bunny. Ellen couldn’t believe what she was hearing. “No”, she told them, “people are very interested; you just don’t want to sell it.”

Insta success

Ellen’s shop is located in Amsterdam North, which many would argue is not the best place to sell her dolls. For her it is, though. “My parents spent their lives here as a multiracial couple. I feel a strong need to leave my mark here. Besides, I love North. Why would I want to have a shop anywhere else?” She doesn’t have to, now that social media is on her side. In 2018 American rapper The Game bought one of her vitiligo dolls for his daughter and posted a picture of them together on Instagram. The store’s Insta followers soared from 3,400 to 12,000 overnight. “It even drew likes from Drake, Kanye West and other celebrities. I now deliver all over the States, including to a doll shop in Brooklyn. The customised dolls, in particular, are big over there.”

“Ethnic profiling is still a huge issue. We can’t just sit back. If I can make even the smallest difference with my shop, I’ll keep going”

Ellen Brudet

Ellen is set for a bright future with her shop. She has been nominated for and received several business awards. Her goal is to manufacture her own dolls in the future, giving her full control and making it easier to get them into other stores. “I feel like I’ve just got started,” says Ellen, now in her late fifties. In the beginning I wasn’t that aware that I was making a change and meeting a need in so many people. I’m surprised by how many white customers I have, who buy black dolls as a gift for their Moroccan neighbour, Surinamese friend or themselves. The other day I watched an old Black Panther movie from the ’80s with my son. I was amazed by how little has really changed since then. Ethnic profiling, for instance, is still a huge issue. If I can make even the smallest difference with my shop, I’ll keep going.”