Sunday, August 24, 2003

Designer dresses doll for the Gene scene

Clifton man earns 'Oscar of doll world' for painstaking work on bedazzling gown

By Jim Knippenberg
The Cincinnati Enquirer

George Sarofeen gets sort of squinty-eyed when he talks about the blueish-white dress: "I sewed on 2,000 sequins and beads, one at a time, all by hand. It took me 50 hours."

George Sarofeen sewed 2,000 sequins and beads by hand on the Gene doll's Presidential Ball dress.

The Cincinnati Enquirer/ERNEST COLEMAN

It doesn't sound like all that much until you hear this: The dress is for a 15 1/2-inch fashion doll and those 2,000 sequins and beads are, well, close to microscopic.

Sarofeen, a 49-year-old Clifton costume designer by trade and fashion doll clothes designer by passion, creates clothes for Gene, an upscale fashion doll ($125 new, way more once an edition is retired) designed by artist Mel Odom and produced by Ashton Drake Galleries of Chicago. She, meaning Gene, is considered highly collectible by the world's several million doll enthusiasts. (Doll collecting is No. 2 behind stamp collecting, according to the United Federation of Doll Clubs' Web site, one of 96,000 devoted to some aspect of doll collecting).

Oh, and those 50 hours Sarofeen spent squinting and sewing? Worth every second: Gene, wearing Sarofeen's Presidential Ball gown, was named Doll of the Year by Doll Reader magazine. And more good news: Ashton Drake is manufacturing the doll, so he doesn't have to sew 2,000 beads on all the dresses.

"Doll of the Year ... wow, it's the Oscar of the doll world, considered best in its class. There's no cash prize or anything, just a lot of honor," Sarofeen says as he sits in the second-floor studio of his home. "Until now, my biggest honor was being in the Paris Doll Museum without even being dead," he says, wryly referring to museum tendencies to showcase the work of dead artists.

Gene dolls are available locally at Lots of Dolls, 215 Garfield Ave., Milford, 248-2151. They're also sold through the Ashton Drake Catalogue (call 888-FOR-GENE) and online at
Dead he's not. Busy he is. Right now he's finishing 200 costumes for shows aboard Royal Caribbean's Mariner of the Seas. Other credits include the entire wardrobe for the Las Vegas Hilton's Star Trek: The Experience, three seasons of CCM's Hot Summer Nights, and 21 years of shows for Paramount's Kings Island.

Next? He has been approached by Northeast Bolivian Airlines to design its new flight attendant wardrobes. "We are in the initial process of negotiations and design requirements."

Not bad for somebody who got into the business by accident. Raised in Colonial Heights, Va., he wanted to be in the school play when he was a high school senior, but as president of the Latin Club, he was booked into a trip to Rome. So they let him design the costumes.

"I fell in love. After that, I got my bachelor's in theater at Virginia Tech, then went on to Temple for an MFA (master of fine arts) in costume design. A year into it, I got a call from Kings Island offering me a job. I took it and moved here Jan. 2, 1978, right before the blizzard hit. I never saw anything like that in Virginia."

He stayed here until 1999, then moved briefly to South Carolina and didn't like it. When David, his partner of 27 years, suggested a return to Cincinnati, he jumped at the chance. "Where I live really doesn't matter to my job. I can do what I do anywhere."

More Marilyn or Jackie?

Right now, what he does is dress Gene. That's her over there, standing proud and tall on Sarofeen's studio worktable. Over her right shoulder, a huge cabinet holds his collection of more than 100 vintage Barbie dolls. "To me," he says of Barbie, "she's a pop culture icon and a reflection of the fashions of the times." The dolls atop another case in front wear some of his other designs for Ashton Drake: Gene as a 1950s airline stewardess; Gene as the slinky Shimmering Star; Gene's rival Madra, looking like Joan Crawford.

But Gene in Presidential Ball mode with her sleek ivory sheath and full-length satin opera coat is the crown jewel. "Some people think she's a Marilyn (Monroe) type, but I think more Jackie Kennedy on inauguration day, especially with her long evening coat."

He's been designing for Gene since 1999 and has been hooked on fashion dolls for more than 10 years. "Ever since I was in FAO Schwarz and saw Barbie in a Bob Mackie outfit," he says. "I had to have her. Later, I went to my first doll show and popped my first doll down for all to see. It was sort of trash 'n' flash, all rough around the edges.

After watching an auction during which a Gene doll sold for thousands of dollars, he decided to give designing doll clothes a serious try. "I created a totally authentic 1910 walking dress of ecru lace and ecru silk with three seed pearls hand-sewn on each of the dress's flowers. It went for $2,800. That's when Mel Odom approached me about designing for Gene."

He was intrigued by the story that Odom had built around Gene. "How she was an usherette at a New York theater and a Hollywood producer saw her face and just had to make her his newest star," he says. As the new ingenue in town, she pushed rival doll Madra out of the spotlight.

In demand

Gene is one hot-selling doll. The first wave of sales is when Ashton Drake releases a new doll. Being collectibles, they're produced in limited numbers - sometimes as few as 250 - so when they're gone, they're gone. Next comes the secondary market, where they command even higher prices. That market is mostly doll shows and Internet sites such as eBay, where there were 27 up for auction as of this writing but it was too early in the auction for prices to be impressive.

"I think what makes Gene so successful is because she presents a wonderful fantasy world for everyday people," he says. "It's a harmless fantasy, but a sweet one. I know some people even talk to their dolls, and we always say that's OK. It's when they hear the dolls are talking back that we start to consider them crazy."


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