When I first happened upon Bri Foster's handmade dolls, it was like uncovering a long-forgotten memory of dancing on juice-stained carpets littered with glitter and Barbie clothes. As soon as I gazed into the downturned, melancholic eyes of her Poppy rag doll through the computer screen, I was transported to a magical land I hadn't visited since childhood.
Bri's dolls are more than just a nostalgic novelty, of course. With their pearl accessories, chic hairstyles, and floral adornments, they are works of art that celebrate femininity. The dolls often have sparse clothing, just a tulle bow around their hips, yet they appear confident and unashamed of their traditional ragdoll form. Rosy cheeks and pouty lips imply a sort of sensuality, but this isn't sensuality for male consumption. It feels almost like a feminist reclamation of the art of dolls-- a plaything that has often been used to impart harmful ideas about gender roles and femininity. These are dolls that can speak for themselves.
It's a combination of adult sophistication and childlike nonchalance, of interior worlds and exterior influences. The dolls exist in a sphere of intoxicating innocence-- the sort of innocence where one does what one pleases without fear of repercussions-- without the thought of repercussions even entering one's mind --like children that carelessly track mud into the house as they're escaping imaginary monsters. If I could afford it, I would buy all of Bri's dolls just to catch a glimpse of that feeling again.
What are your inspirations and what lessons have they taught you?
I’m fairly eclectic with my inspirations. Sometimes it’s a colour, a texture, or a shape that evokes an emotion in me, and then I try to achieve that emotion in my work. I love going back to the roots of my European ancestry through folk art, music and movies. Surface design and handwork are so vital to these historical traditions, and I apply a lot of these techniques to my own work. I also love fantasy and whimsy, and anything ultra-feminine. My favourite designers are Simone Rocha and Molly Goddard, as they create these pretty, dreamlike worlds through their clothing.
When and why did you start making dolls?
I started playing around with the idea of making dolls about a year ago to create something strictly for expression and art. I had been working as a fashion designer and working in costume for theatre and film, and then the pandemic hit. I suddenly found myself with a lot of time on my hands, so I started working on the dolls more seriously. For years I had been struggling to find a way to express how I was feeling inside, while also using the variety of skills that I had learned along the way. I still wanted to focus on fashion, without the complication involved with running a clothing brand. Dolls were the perfect way to utilize my design and pattern making skills, while also incorporating fine surface design techniques like embroidery and beading. The pandemic really created space for me to start exploring that. As I’ve continued making dolls, I’ve found the process to be very therapeutic, and I enjoy watching the project transform organically.
Do each of your dolls have personalities? Can you describe some of them?
I would say that they are more of a crew representing independence, femininity, and whimsy. They are sophisticated, and they love fashion, but with a less-is-more approach. They have an innocence and quiet confidence about them that I hope can inspire us all to feel more comfortable in our own skin.
How would you describe your customers?
Since my dolls are designed as art pieces rather than toys, many of my customers are people working in fashion, including clothing designers, textile artists, and stylists, as well as photographers and visual artists. Within this community, there's a real appreciation for the art and craftsmanship that goes into making these dolls.
Why are your dolls mostly unclothed?
When developing the dolls I toiled over how to make just the right clothing. It had to be sheer so that the beadwork could be seen underneath. It also had to be simple as not to overcomplicate the process and take away from the actual doll. At the same time, I wanted it to be timeless to offer appeal in the long term. After what felt like a hundred clothing samples, I decided to scrap it all and just go no clothing at all. I wrapped her in a piece of tulle and realized that was all she needed. Her tulle and accessories have become her clothing and her expression, and they give the owner more freedom for interpretation. Some of my dolls come in full body printed fabric meant to look like pyjamas. I found it to be a more elegant and streamlined way of giving her "clothing."
You're a costume designer, an artist, stylist and an educator-- how have these experiences shaped your doll-making process?
I had originally gone to school for Fine Arts where I learned to observe the world in an entirely new way, and then process those observations into works of art. Afterwards, I went to Teacher’s College to teach high school students the same ways of observing and producing art. But my true passion lies in clothing and costume design, so I pivoted and went back to school for Fashion Design. Art school taught me to observe, and then make a mess but with intention, while fashion school taught me to refine that mess into something beautiful and functional. I’ve always enjoyed problem-solving, and through these skills, I’ve been able to envision the result I want to achieve, and then execute the steps to successfully take me to that result. The combination of these skills has definitely shaped who I have become as an artist. On top of creating, I also teach pattern making, sewing, and tambour beading and embroidery. Now that I’ve had some more life experience I would love to go back and teach high school students again, in a workshop capacity.
How long do you think that you will maintain the doll shop?
Well, it's just the beginning, so I’m excited to see where this journey will take me. I have some larger goals for the future of my work, but for now, I take it one day, and one doll at a time. Ultimately I would like to work for myself full time, with the ability to create jobs and hire other women to work with me.
What will be your next project?
I’m currently working on some custom orders and collaborations. I have so many ideas for dolls, so I will continue to produce new dolls over the coming months, as well as the option to customize dolls. There are a few little surprises to come as well, with the expansion of my brand into some new areas.
How does your identity as a woman inform your work?
As a child, I was such a girly-girl, but I kind of rejected it in my teenage and early adult years. In the past several years I've come back around to embrace that ultra-feminine side. I can't deny my love for all things pink, puffy, and glittery, but this time I'm really owning it and making it personal to me. I'm a feminist, which I hope comes through in my work. It’s important that we not feel shame about ourselves, but rather we feel strong and proud of who we are as unique individuals. I think femininity is extremely powerful, whether a person is born in a female body, or identifies as a female, and I want my dolls to empower people.
In the about section of your website, you mention how dolls evoke nostalgia-- what's your favourite memory associated with dolls?
I collected dolls as a young girl. I was totally obsessed with them, and I actually still have many of my childhood dolls. My favourite was this knit doll named Karen that my great grandmother had purchased for me at a craft sale when I was about 4 years old. I did everything with her. She had long black hair, but for some reason, I decided it needed to be replaced with bright hot pink hair, which was my favourite colour for about a decade. My grandmother taught me how to latch hook it on at the age of 5 or 6, so I suppose the doll making seed was planted.