Move over Barbie! Trini-born pageant and ballroom gown gurus, Bobby and Sally Ackbarali have created their own line of collectible fashion dolls. And with each having a unique style and look, there's something for everyone; even those still feeling a little Carnival 2021 tabanca despite the fact that we are in Lent.
Undoubtedly a showpiece, “Lola” is spectacular in her silver crystals and cascading fringes accented with large, light magenta feathered fans. At least that is the aura she gives off in a video clip as she stands, arms outstretched, in the Ackbaralis' living room in Toronto, Canada. She's a mixture of a Trinidad Carnival individual and a Vegas showgirl Bobby Ackbarali revealed, singing the upbeat opening lines of Barry Manilow's 1978 “Copacabana” to reference her inspiration as he spoke with Sunday Guardian recently.
There's also “Selina” who features an eye-catching fabric from Dubai made with ribbons stitched together, and “Denise” whose dazzling matador-inspired jumpsuit has an overskirt which can accent the woman as a cape in dancing the Paso Doble, dance of the matador.
“Marigold”, made on December 4 and the first in his collection, stuns in an elaborate ivory yellow skirt with gold floral appliques encrusted with crystals and sequins, while Ackbarali's “Angel of Hope” in her silver netting and crystals, splashed with green and blue sequins at the back, shows that despite the dark times, if we keep hope alive, better things will come.
Bobby and Sally Ackbarali's bride dolls.
When you're Bobby Ackbarali with 43 years of creative energy in your veins, you find a way to adjust, even in a pandemic. Exploring themes from ballroom and Latin to beauty queen, evening and bridal, Carnival and Valentines, his designs deliver the wow factor.
Having endured two full lockdowns starting in mid-March last year and again from late November, Ackbarali said his “beauties” came out of “the darkness of COVID”. His Christmas tree gowns were highlighted in this paper last November and brought so much cheer that he was inspired to pour his talent into a new project. At the same time, he soothed his own mental discomfort brought on by uncertainties under COVID, like his and his wife's stalled livelihood as ballroom and ice skating costume designers, a field they got into 15 years ago.
“Trinidadian people are happy-go-lucky. We like to enjoy life. This has been basically like therapy for me. The response from the Christmas tree gowns made me feel alive again and happy, and made many people happy. It brought out something in me.
“This COVID does play with your mental health and my word to anybody who does feel it's affecting them is talk to people or get help because I think I was going through something, but thank God I found relief through this to see better days,” said Ackbarali who has designed 83 doll looks which he gradually decided to offer for sale.
Bobby and Sally Ackbarali's spring and summer inspirations, including “Selina”, (right), in a Dubai fabric.
The Ackbaralis name each doll which comes with a number, the date it was designed and an Ackbarali signature. Make-up and hair are a must in their field of ballroom and ice skating, so the dolls get their own intricate hairstyle and face to suit their outfit which is handcrafted with quality fabric, Swarovski crystals and sometimes sequins. The fit and draping are exquisite on the approximately 12 inch-tall pieces whose chests/busts measure five inches, waists three and 3/4 inches and hips five inches. Ackbarali said moving from human-sized designs was a cinch. All it takes is patience and a true love for the craft.
“For me, it's that when you have a passion for something, nothing is impossible. The same dedication you put into doing what you do every day, you just utilise it in the same way. Whether or not it's for somebody who has a 34-24-36 body, the same methods are applied.
“People may say: he's overdoing everything, but it's my fantasy. It's how I like to do stuff; which is over the top, unique.”
Collecting dolls are a popular hobby or investment even among American celebrities like Demi Moore and Leonardo DiCaprio. While some collectibles showcase the doll itself, Ackbarali's designs are his focal point. Some fans of his work have encouraged him to do replicas of notable designs like the unforgettable Michelle Obama plum overcoat ensemble that went viral for the Biden inauguration in January, but Ackbarali says he is happy to do his own designs.
“I have to do what I want to do, if I pick up a piece of floral fabric from our store and feel to do a dress, I'm doing it. I prefer to move forward and be innovative with what I am doing. To be compared puts a pressure.”
However, if a bride, for instance, is really keen on creating a miniature version of her wedding look, he said he would try to accommodate her, though fabric and the way they behave affect the appearance of smaller creations.
“Sometimes you have to re-draft the whole thing. Sometimes, Sally would look at it and say I don't like it...change that. Then she would say that looks better now. That's how it's been with us for all the years we've been married and been successful. She's very hard in criticising–even these dolls–because she wants it to be something we can look at and be proud of.”
It is this work partnership and understanding that has enriched their 40 years of marriage, Ackbarali informed.
He pours passionately and lovingly into his dolls, approaching each no different from an important client or Miss Universe or Miss World pageant design. Back in the day, models like cultural icon, Alyson Brown, talked about how special he made the girls feel. There's also something about how he brings the nostalgia of 1980s and 90s pageants into the conversation; back when the dynamic duo of Bobby and Sally reigned locally as “queenmakers”.
Ackbarali has designed from 1978 when Kim Sabeeney gave him his first job in the Miss TT pageant. His gown, worn by Anne Marie Martin, won first place. Marrying Sally in 1980, the designing masters built a repertoire of gowns and national costumes for at least eight consecutive winners of Miss T&T Universe and Miss T&T World. Among these are Miss World 1986, Giselle Laronde-West and Miss T&T World representatives placing in the top six their respective year, Althea Rocke, Gabrielle Walcott and Valene Maharaj.
Bobby and Sally originals were also a staple of Jaycees Carnival Queen competitions, Mastana Bahar and Best Village.
He and Sally migrated to Canada with their son in 1988, opening a bridal design shop. They enjoyed this immensely before delving into designing for ballroom, Latin dance and ice skating competitions.
Although the wintry weather also inspires him, having gone through some heavy snowfall between February 16-22, Ackbarali is looking forward to spring and summer whose fresh flora and warm colours are reflected in his latest pieces.
Aware of the extra financial strain the pandemic has placed on everyone, he said he was heartened by the sales he has seen so far and urges others to seek out their passions and use them to live life to the fullest even in these unsettling times.
Bobby and Sally can be found on Facebook and Instagram.