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Jian Yang

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When hobby transforms into obsession: local Barbie collector Jian Yang lets us in on the origins and inner workings of his world-renowned doll collection, and his handcrafted doll-sized paper dresses.


Jian Yang

We're In Good Company
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When hobby transforms into obsession: local Barbie collector Jian Yang lets us in on the origins and inner workings of his world-renowned doll collection, and his handcrafted doll-sized paper dresses.

An unusual and imposing sight greets when crossing the threshold into hobbyist Jian Yang’s domain.

Where plain walls stand in other homes, his is lined with shelves upon shelves of serenely felicitous plastic dolls- in all shapes, sizes, styles and colours imaginable. Simple, girl-next-door Barbies pose next to Barbies in grand, if miniature, ball gowns, jostling for space with Barbies outfitted in retro looks from the 1980s. The effect is palpable. After the initial surprise, when taken altogether, they exude a playful and youthful energy - an echo to carefree days of childhood.

Indeed, there are 12,000 of the dolls and counting, making Jian one of the largest Barbie collectors in the world. Every single one has been proudly and lovingly amassed by the co-owner of communications agency Distilleri — and full-time Barbie collector since the age of five. While he’s most known for the collection, his standout doll outfits fashioned from humble toilet paper are just as remarkable, culminating in a book titled #Flushable Fashion.

We meander through the journey of this exceptional collection from past to present day; delving into the unique craft of doll dress-making, and most of all, find out more about the man behind the Barbies: and the future he envisions for them in time to come.

Jian Yang’s first doll, a Great Shape Barbie (pictured right) originally gifted to his sister.

Photo credits:

You are famed for owning one of the globe’s biggest collections of Barbies. Anyone who has visited your home or seen your collection in photos is struck by the impressive display. Can you talk us through what were the origins of this obsession, and how does it look like for you now?

My sister is the one who gave me my first doll. She received it as a Christmas present, didn’t like it, and I did. I think the turning point of when it changed from a casual hobby to serious collection was when I started buying $79 dolls instead of $24 ones. I still remember the first ‘expensive’ doll I purchased — the Scarlett O’Hara from Gone With the Wind edition in 1994. It cost a whole eight weeks worth of allowance, a lot to a 15 year-old! Growing up, I didn’t fit into a particular type of someone who might more obviously collect dolls, or even remotely seem like a designer nor creative. Instead I held a variety of different, sometimes contrasting, interests. Some days I’d be bleeding from a sports injury, being a school swimmer, but kneeling in my Barbie Dreamhouse trying to find a suitable nightie for Barbie to sleep in.

Nowadays, when I encounter my current or new dolls, what stands out to me is their personality. I love their facial expressions, skin colours, hair textures. My collection is eclectically curated, with dolls from the same series grouped together on the same shelf. To the untrained eye, it could be disorganised, but I’m very clear that my home is not a museum. And do I actually remember where each doll is located? Absolutely. Every single one of them.

#FlushableFashion — available in-store at IN GOOD COMPANY at ION Orchard.

“I go by feel. I find the start point of a base material that I like, and go on the journey with the material.”

You’ve published a fun book called #Flushable Fashion which chronicles your miniature clothes for the Barbies. What is the process of your creative craft like?

To be honest, I’m not a fashion person. I’m a doll person. The garments come to me from intuition, and I just know what looks good on those plastic, smiling dressforms, although I don’t have trained technical knowledge on construction, fabric, or cuts. I go by feel. I find the start point of a base material that I like, and go on the journey with the material.

That being said, I work with what I have. I don’t hunt for materials, which makes it a sustainable craft to me because you are not buying a whole range of outfits for Barbie. Rather, utilising textiles that already exist at home — toilet paper, old wrapping paper- this reduces wastage, and teaches valuable lessons on creativity, motor skills, and dexterity.

It started off as a toilet-paper craft. But it has evolved. The range of materials has expanded to include shredded notebook and polymail bags, among others. Experimenting with different styles and materials allows me to diversify, challenging my creative muscles, but still stay true to the core of my craft.

Jian Yang constructs the Signature POUF Bag from leftover fabric.

Alena with IN GOOD COMPANY’s Signature POUF Bag in miniature.

Throughout so many years of collecting, curating, and creating, you’ve accumulated a vast selection of dolls as well as a dress-making portfolio, of sorts. Many would be curious to find out: do you have a favourite doll amongst the crowd? Or a dress you made that you like the most?

Actually, I don’t have a particular one favoured doll. My favourites change as I add new things into the collection. Right now, a current obsession is Gloria Estefan Barbie. I’ve always been a fan of her music and they just released a doll, which I bought immediately.

As for the dresses, a similar philosophy stands. The very concept of #Flushable Fashion is that once they are photographed they are flushed: metaphorically or literally. They cease to exist. Once an image is published on Instagram, the physical item no longer matters. It continues to be engaged with and appreciated intangibly instead.

Mini-Jian in doll form, one of the several in his Ken doll collection.

Your collection of Ken dolls is less extensive than your Barbies, but no less significant. In fact, it seems to have come to represent different milestones in your life, as you have fashioned them into mini-versions of you. Can you tell the story behind this?

It began in Australia in 2000. I was in my early-20s, at the age when you’re discovering your identity and your place in the world. At the time I was in the clubbing scene, my favourite genre was Rave. I would be dancing in the Asian or Mediterranean corner while there were white kids living it up on the main dance floor. This raised a question in my mind, connected to the doll-collecting front: why do blondes have more fun?

This inspired me to start something new. I took a Butterfly Art Ken, which is a cisgender, white, male doll; moulded black hair onto him and painted his eyes into Asian eyes. I suppose the only Asian male I referenced was my own reflection — so he ended up looking a little like me. He became the first Jian doll, dressed up in clothes I’d wear to a Rave party. Think orange parachute pants, a silver backpack, lightsticks. Subsequent ones commemorated milestones in my life: from smaller ones like buying my first Crumpler bag, to ORD from the Air Force, to getting promoted in my career. Jian doll is like a journal, but in plastic.

The latest doll is a milestone of a surreal quality. With the ION House of Dreams exhibit, suddenly there are 600 of my dolls displayed in the most iconic mall in the country. #Flushable Fashion is in stores and in peoples’ hands. There was an opening event. There’s posters all over ION. That is a ‘moment’ to me. So I made a doll to remember this moment, which is on display in House of Dreams. A bonus surprise — IN GOOD COMPANY made him a mini seersucker blazer, so that he could attend the opening party in style. The Ken (Jian) dolls remind me of what I’m grateful for that has happened in my life.

If you had to bury a time-capsule today to be unearthed when you are 70, what item would you put in the time-capsule?

It’d have to be my 1997 Mattel folder.

In the same year, I began my career as an intern at PR agency Huntington Communications — specifically because they had Mattel as a client, the American multinational toy manufacturer that created Barbie. I personally wrote the press release back then to launch Winter in New York Barbie. It was a special moment, the beginning of my discovery that my hobby and work could really live hand in hand. And, that I could be one of those rare people who truly enjoy what I do.

Today, Huntington Communications has merged with a creative agency to form Distilleri, which I co-own. The folder, as well as Winter in New York doll, live in the office showcase as a serendipitous reminder that sometimes, dreams can come true.

Meet KIRA Barbie — dressed in a Signature SAUNDER Dress made from paper origami.

Dressed in Signature SAUNDER Dress and POUF Bag

From September to October 2022, there will be a collaborative project between ION Orchard and Jian Yang: the House of Dreams exhibition, aimed at instilling the spirit of play through following one’s passion. Tell us more about it- what is a must-see?

The House of Dreams at ION Orchard shows some key Barbie dolls from the worlds of fashion, music, movies, TV and pop culture. It highlights Barbie’s foray into the diversity conversation. We’re also showcasing some local brands, like IN GOOD COMPANY, as seen through the eyes of #Flushable Fashion. This is definitely a first, and I’m proud to be able to show my craft in partnership with the brands I know, love and wear.

It’s the first time I’m bringing 600 dolls out of my house and into a public space. I’m deeply passionate about the Barbie brand, and though some may find it strange, I feel she’s made me into the man I am today. Barbie’s brand belief is that you can be anything — and over the 63 years she’s been on earth, she’s weathered adversity, controversy and a precarious love life with a big plastic smile on her face. Through that, she’s been dressed by some of the most famous names in fashion, met with the most revered pop culture icons and given hope to people from all walks of life. I figure that if she can do it, then I’m going to do it too. So I did. Big plastic smile and all.

Where do you see #Flushable Fashion going in the future? Or your dolls, for that matter? What makes you excited about these plans?

I like to take it as it comes. This is something I do outside of my day job and other commitments. It’s been a privilege to have amazing opportunities to exhibit my collection with people who resonate with it, like at MINT Museum of Toys. The Singapore Tourism Board has also been great people to work with, as they have supported these activations.

I consider myself a proud Singaporean. Though I’ve tried to move away at least twice, I always came home. So one day, I’d love to be able to richly tell the Singaporean story; of a Passion Made Possible.

Visit the ION House of Dreams exhibit at ION Art Level 4, open from September 19 to October 21 2022. It features an exhibit-exclusive doll wearing IN GOOD COMPANY’s own signature pieces, crafted personally by Jian using IN GOOD COMPANY upcycled paper materials.

Special edition Barbie-themed cupcakes are also available for purchase at Plain Vanilla, housed within IN GOOD COMPANY, for the duration of the exhibit.

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