Liana Richardson landed her design dream job after graduating in 2017.
Her name is Courtney Moore. She rocks “totally rad” ’80s gear—from acid-washed denim and splatter-print dresses to Care Bears pajamas and a cool watch—and she loves heading to the arcade to play games like Pac-Man.
Lest you think a time machine has taken us all back to 1986, it bears mention that Courtney is an 18-inch-tall doll. Specifically, she’s the newest American Girl character—the creation of a team led by Liana Richardson. The fashion design alumna landed her doll-designing “dream job” with Mattel after graduating from the University in 2017.
Granted, Richardson isn’t a child of the ’80s in a chronological sense, having been born in the middle of the next decade and raised in the Portland, Maine area. Still, the time resonated.
“My dad was in an ’80s hair band called Kid Razzle. I’m talking huge hair. So, the era felt familiar for me,” she recalls with a laugh, noting she never had an American Girl in her youth because of the price point. “The ’80s were such a fun, interesting time, though, when consumerism met indulgence. Working on this project was very exciting for me.”
For the wildly popular series, Courtney follows in a long line of historically themed premium dolls. They include Addy Walker, who shared a message to “keep love alive in the face of hate and fear” during the Civil War; Molly McIntire, an American Girl on the WWII home front; and Kaya, who urged people in the 18th century to “respect and protect the Earth because we are all connected.”
As with previous iterations of a brand which aims to instill young girls with confidence and character, Courtney’s backstory was also meticulously researched.
The 8-year-old’s story takes place in 1986 and “reflects the pop culture of the decade from sky-high hair, neon-colored fashions, music television and video gaming to major historical moments surrounding women in government and space exploration, as well as larger cultural shifts around blended families and emerging technology.”
She’s one of the best Pac-Man players at her local arcade in “Orange Valley, California” and hopes to create video games that feature more female characters. She’s from a blended family, and loves playing her Molly McIntyre doll which, ironically, debuted as a product in 1986.
“The ’80s are back, and we’re thrilled to celebrate this pop culture-defining decade with girls and their parents through Courtney,” says Jamie Cygielman, general manager of American Girl.
When the Courtney doll went public in September—in a partnership with the Girls Who Code nonprofit which will sponsor four $5,000 scholarships for girls interested in computer science or a related field—the debut included a Today Show introduction headlined by the Go-Go’s.
Establishing that origin story was only part of Richardson’s role in bringing Courtney to life. Landing a job with American Girl straight out of undergrad was a major step in transferring a fashion design education into the world of designing dolls.
The History of Costumes and Textiles course that I took at Jefferson was a major help. –Liana Richardson
An interest in comics and costuming brought her to Jefferson—then called Philadelphia University. She specifically cites professors Carly Kusy and Katie Casano for helping her translate the fashion design skills into the field she aspired to join.
“They were really open to helping me, even in portfolio class, to make this happen,” says Richardson, who created all of Courtney’s outfits and fashion accessories. “The facilities and the DEC program really served me well. It laid a great foundation that you can’t get at other schools.”
Getting hired by American Girl meant a move to Middleton, Wis. She started working on contemporary fashion lines before adding a role on the line’s historical team to her job description.
The process went quicker than normal, with the last-minute project taking the place of a process that generally lasts up to a year. (The ‘80s concept bumped another project from the queue.) A seed of inspiration came from seeing the popularity of nostalgic shows like “Stranger Things” and the resurgence of Mattel’s She-Ra and the Princesses of Power.
Richardson started studying the fashion of the era (i.e., puffy sleeves and high-waisted denim pants) and the general history of the 1980s, including the burgeoning computer world; women returning to the workforce in greater numbers than ever before; divorce becoming more commonplace; and the Challenger explosion which claimed the life of teacher Christa McAuliffe.
She scoured old Vogue and Teen magazines, as well as the J.C. Penney and Sears catalogs for inspiration “to see what young girls were circling for their Christmas lists.”
“We saw this as a huge opportunity to not only resonate with girls today but also with their parents and grandparents, who are the purchasers. It was a perfect combination,” she says. “The History of Costumes and Textiles course that I took at Jefferson was a major help.”
Richardson, who has since left Mattel in pursuit of an MBA, studying brand and product management at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, says the experience was both fun and insightful.
Dolls are really teaching nurturing, compassion, empathy and emotional-intelligence skills. –Liana Richardson
“These were really tough topics to work into the storyline, but in a lot of senses, they’re still lingering today,” she says of observations watching children interact with the dolls.
Beyond the doll itself, she mentions lessons learned along the way about the world of toys and how they interact with youth development. She notes that watching the toy-testing room during the creation process offered insights into those exchanges. In one case, a young girl had set up a funeral scene for the dolls.
“The stories they play out are fascinating,” Richardson says. “Though the funeral was dark, it was interesting to see how dolls are used to help children process difficult situations, and how to behave in them, not to mention conflict resolution and emotional processing.
“Mattel has done an incredible amount of research into how doll play helps young children develop. Dolls are really teaching nurturing, compassion, empathy and emotional-intelligence skills. I’d recommend that more boys should be playing with dolls too and hope Courtney is really well-received.”