Updated: Oct 21
There are so many meanings we put into the word “a man”... My today’s guest discusses this issue in his recent TEDx talk. To be honest he is very well positioned to do that given he is a successful businessman, a swimmer, a skater, a cyclist, a skier, a wakeboarder, as well as an owner of a stunning collection of 12 thousand dolls, has Asia's largest collection of Barbies, is an author of the amazing barbie book…
The incredible man who even let us have a 3D walkthrough of his Singapore house!
- Hello Jian, I would normally ask my interviewees to introduce themselves. However, I think it is a rare occasion when you do not need an introduction. So, I have a challenge for you: how would you introduce yourself in a single sentence :-)?
I'm a regular guy whose entire identity has been taken over by his 12,000 strong Barbie collection, due to accidental internet fame.
- You are a businessman and an instagrammer and I know for the fact that these are two full-time roles, how do you cope?
I think that life is only as complicated as you make it out to be. Yes, I'm a partner in an advertising agency, and yes, I Instagram, but I do both with entirely clear objectives. I work for passion and I Instagram for fun. If the passion dies at work, I find ways to resurrect it (like how we just won Toys"R"Us as a client which brings me immense joy, even if it's just to put on my portfolio). If Instagramming stops becoming fun, I have no qualms about closing the account. I know a lot of people take "influencer" status very seriously, but if I needed to summarise my priorities, I'd say I'm a career-guy first, and my instagram is just there for me as a photo journal of my own hobby, and the only person I do it for is for myself. It just happens to be public.
- In 2013 you were named the "largest male collector of Barbie dolls in the world"! How did you start? What or who inspired you?
I've always seen that as a fat joke. Because it's the collection that's the largest. Not the collector.
I've always loved barbie, even before I knew she was "for girls". I had my first - stolen from my sister - in 1984 and I've never looked back. Back then she was just another toy. No labels, no prejudice. Just a kid having fun with his toys.
- How big is your collection now, Jian? Are there only barbie dolls or have you ever been tempted to collect any fashion dolls or other toys?
I've got about 12,000 dolls now but honestly, I've given up counting, because it doesn't matter. It's not a competition. I also have a lot of Blythe, Bratz and Monster High dolls. I used to live in the middle east, so my Fulla collection is pretty extensive too. I was also the Global Media Strategy Director for the Transformers brand for a while, so I've got possibly 500 Transformers and a lot of My Little Pony. I also launched Hasbro's Disney Princess into the Singapore market in 2016, so while i have the full collection, they were partly work.
- Your book “Flushable Fashion” is a world sensation. It’s a true celebration of biodegradable fashion. What inspired you to look at the tissue as a material for barbie fashion?
I used to travel a lot for business and for leisure, and one day on a 14-day business trip in Sri Lanka, I got bored. The hotel was not near clubs or bars or malls, and I'd be done with my day at 7pm, and had to entertain myself. I had a travel doll with me, and she got a little toilet paper dress, which I instagrammed. My followers were vocal in their praise, so I figured I'd spend the next 14 days making a dress a night out of hotel toilet paper.
Since then, the dresses have been made on every trip I've made - so the book, #flushablefashion is more like a travelogue, and showcases dresses inspired by each country I've visited. I actually only had the courage to publish a book because multiple magazines have written about the toilet paper dresses, including Bored Panda, NYLON, Harper's Bazaar and VOGUE Italy, which to me legitimizes the craft.
- Have you ever had your flushable fashion collection displayed for a general public (museum, exhibition, etc.)?
I've actually done a public exhibition in Singapore's toy museum before as a precursor to the Singapore launch of my book. During that exhibition, we also conducted #flushablefashion workshops.
I eventually launched the book globally in Sri Lanka, back at Mount Lavinia Hotel where it all began. It was surreal because they were so hospitable. It was truly a book launch to remember.
- Have you always had an interest in fashion designing or did you have other career plans whilst growing up?
I've never been interested in fashion. And I've never wanted it to be a career. I've always wanted to be an advertising man, so I worked toward that goal. But I'll admit that as an ad guy, I've also been given multiple opportunities to talk about dolls in a professional environment, which means opening new audiences to the message. I've given a TEDx talk recently that was titled "Becoming a Man" and discusses how despite the Barbie baggage, she's taught me lessons in manhood that no one else could have.
- I really enjoyed reading your book and I liked the analogy with Kudus –Sri Lankan lanterns. I think this is such a powerful message to live LIGHT – in the sense of both being the light to people around us as well as trying to live lives light with minimum baggage. But how does that fit into the “collector” label? This title comes with the accumulation of things!
Apparently they're called Kuudu. I learnt that after the book was published. haha.
I think the lightness here refers to an emotional lightness - collectors take their collections VERY seriously. Limited editions, one of a kinds, autographed boxes.... I've never let that influence the way I collect. I buy only what I like, regardless of how "exclusive" or common it is. I don't let people influence what I buy either. But on the flipside, I've always been very ambitious, so that also means that if necessary, I will have the money to pay for something I really want. My job also gives me access to a lot of people, countries and events which I'm very grateful for. I actually have all my Grease dolls signed by Olivia Newton-John because we did PR for her concert in Singapore. And Disney Legend Lea Salonga has autographed my Jasmine and Mulan dolls.
So yeah, I think the lightness is about being able to get what you want, but also being able to let go if ever necessary. Many people ask "which doll will you grab if your house catches fire?" and I'm like, Honestly, I'd grab the ostrich skin Birkin. The dolls are all replaceable. It comes across really really stuck up sometimes, but i've always lived in the "now". So technically, if I lose all my dolls one day, the truth is that I've already enjoyed them.
- In your book you remind people about the basic principle of a plastic doll – it does not matter what she wears, whether it is a fashion made of an old sock, handkerchief or tissue, it will still smile back at you. This is a great statement when we talk about kids' play and their creativity development. However, when we talk about adult collectors of fashion dolls, they take doll fashion very seriously. So, as the founder of high-end luxury brand gtGdolwear, I am interested to hear what do you think about high end doll fashion as a current phenomenon?
To be very honest, it's not something I subscribe to. I appreciate the craft that goes into it, but I can't justify having them in my collection. I think my style is very easy-chic, and it's very obvious if you look at my instagram account, that my dolls are all play dolls. I think high end doll fashion belongs to people that "display".
- Your book is sold as a hard copy as well as a Kindle edition. Personally I prefer hard copies, so I ordered a hard copy of your book as I think this is one of those books you just cannot read on Kindle or borrow from someone, you must have your own copy, so that you can go again and again through those amazing photos. How about you – in general are you a Kindle or an actual book reader?
Actual book. Definitely. I mean, all those images are on instagram at hashtag #flushablefashion, but nothing beats a good tactile book.
- Can you tell me about your recent BE Campaign and its concept?
It's a campaign for a local telco called M1, and it celebrates individuals who dare to be themselves (because the telco can do hyperpersonalised phone packages). There's a malay man who does chinese calligraphy, a 19 year old green activist, an athlete who's an amputee, among others. I'm just one of the people they "celebrate".
- What is the most special doll in your collection?
There isn't one. There are too many. Some are special because they're gifts from treasured people. Some are special because they symbolise ambitions being fulfilled. Some are purely nostalgic.
- How do you store your dolls? Are they on display?
See the walkthrough of my house, which was designed by Visual Text Architects. But recently I've also taken up a storage space at Storefriendly Singapore. It's a great home away from home where dolls I don't need to see every day can live.
- Do you think dolls are a good investment? Or is it rather an excuse?
Speaking as an actual investor, dolls are the worst financial investment you could ever make.
- I think I have seen your mini-me on your Instagram page. Do you have just one mini-me doll or are there a few?
I've made one a year since 1999. He started as a hardcore Australian raver (with lightsticks and pills) and has chronicles some key milestones in my life.
- As a professional collector what advice would you give to someone who has just re-discovered their childhood hobby and started to collect dolls as an adult?
Just buy what you like. Don't think about future value, don't think about exclusivity. Don't let anyone tell you what to buy.
- Personal now, you were named one of Singapore's Most Eligible Bachelors by CLEO, and has become an internet sensation with a substantial social media following and fans from across the globe. You shot to fame pretty quickly so does that bring any difficulty or are you totally enjoying it?
I am the Head of Strategy in a communications agency, and one of the things we do is to help clients manage their public image. So it's something I do for a living. I know how to work an audience when I have to and I know how to be extremely private. My entire digital footprint does not discuss my personal love life, and you'll even notice how if you search in one way, you find "Jian the barbie guy" and if you search another way, you get "jian the professional". I have deliberately curated it that way so I can keep the two worlds discrete.
"fame" has its drawbacks of course, but it also comes with a few perks.
- Where is your next adventure going to take you and what new outfits we should expect to see?
I don't know. Travel is out of the question now, but I've created some sub-series of paper craft.
#havetissuewilleat - is dresses made of restaurant napkins
#havetissuewillwhatever is dresses made of whatever
#angpowcouture is dresses I make during Chinese new year out of Chinese red packets
- What's next on your doll wish list?
I don't have one. I tend to buy what I like along the way, and don't "strive" for anything. If you've noticed, I never use the word "grail". Because there are other things in life which are much more "grail" than an XX barbie. Happiness; fulfilment being some of them. A doll, even a grail doll, is just so insignificant. I have a fantastic family, a great relationship, a great job, and great friends. Those are what I concentrate my "ambitions" on. The doll collection is a by product (or a reward) for that, but it should never be seen as leading the conversation.
- Unbox or not unbox? (& Why?)
Do whatever makes you happy.
- Any links, social media profiles you would like to share with readers, so they can find out more about you and your book?
@jianyang1979 on instagram.
The Jiandoll is on @justlikejian.
The book is on Amazon and Book Depository.
You can google/YouTube "Jian Yang Barbie" and you'll see loads of information.
The New TEDx Talk can be viewed here:
- Great to chat with you Jian! I really enjoyed our dolls talks and thank you for a walkthough your house! I've had a blast!
All photographs have been published with kind permission of Jian Yang.