MSU alumna lives the American Girl dream
Many people consider the American Girl doll brand to be the Cadillac of dolls. To own an American Girl doll and become an active American Girl consumer is a dream come true for many kids.
For Apparel and Textile Design alumna Rebecca DeKuiper, she was able to take that dream many steps further as lead designer of the “Girl of the Year” brand for American Girl, headquartered in Middleton, Wisconsin.
Growing up in Traverse City, DeKuiper and her sister each had an American Girl doll, which sparked in DeKuiper a desire to design and create.
“We spent a lot of time making clothing and accessories for them, and they went with us everywhere,” DeKuiper said. “I had a Kirsten doll and, at one point, I cut her hair into a bob and got in big trouble. Now I get paid to cut dolls’ hair. I like to remind my mom that I was just training for my future career.”
DeKuiper graduated from the Department of Art, Art History, and Design with a B.A. in Apparel and Textile Design in 2005.
“I think there is sometimes a misconception about what careers are available if you study art and design. For me, and my parents I’m sure, the thought of graduating with an apparel design degree was daunting,” DeKuiper said. “I knew it was what I loved doing, but I didn’t know if I could actually get a job in the field. It wasn’t until I started job searching that I found there were so many possibilities to use the skills I learned in my degree.”
DeKuiper now utilizes those skills gained at MSU every day and credits her study abroad and internship experiences with helping her land the job at American Girl. Her last semester before graduating from MSU, she did a study abroad in London and an internship at Amanda Wakeley, a London-based lifestyle luxury brand.
“Study abroad was an invaluable experience that took me out of my comfort zone and prepared me for success in the industry,” she said. “When I got home, I felt like I could take on anything. I not only experienced a new culture, I was able see different aspects of the industry. This ultimately helped lead me to my current career path.”
DeKuiper started working at American Girl in October 2006 as a special project employee/intern. Since then, she has been promoted to associate designer, product designer, senior product designer and now lead designer.
“I’ve been at American Girl for most of my professional career — almost 12 years. One of the reasons for that is that my job is always evolving,” DeKuiper said. “I love designing for American Girl because I get to work on such a diverse range of projects. One season I am designing a dance costume and the next it’s a space suit. I am never bored!”
As the lead designer, DeKuiper is responsible for helping to create a character doll who is then featured as the Girl of the Year. “I also work closely with our editorial, marketing and technical design departments to ensure the product is accurately represented in books, marketing and retail,” DeKuiper said.
Each year, American Girl introduces a new Girl of the Year character with its own story and 18-inch doll as well as several outfits and accessories to reflect the character’s lifestyle, interests, and activities. Since 2009, DeKuiper has been part of the design process for the last 10 Girl of the Year dolls.
“When I started to take a lead role on the team, I became more involved upfront in the development of the character,” said DeKuiper, who has since developed and designed two of the groundbreaking characters for the Girl of the Year line: Logan, the brand’s first boy doll, which was released in 2017, and the 2018 Girl of the Year, Luciana Vega, an aspiring astronaut and the first American Girl doll to be immersed in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math).
As part of her research for Luciana’s character, DeKuiper traveled to NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, for a behind-the-scenes tour where she met with astronauts and space suit engineers and even got to drive a rover vehicle.
A lot of research is done to make American Girl characters as authentic as possible. “With each character, we also use a panel of experts to help make sure we are getting all of the details correct,” said DeKuiper. “They are an invaluable resource in the design process and so much fun to work with.”
DeKuiper says her favorite part of working for American Girl is carrying out the American Girl mission “to create girls of strong character.”
“I really believe in that mission and in the power that our characters have to shape girls’ lives,” she said. “I love to hear from girls about a particular story that helped her through a difficult time or shaped their life in a positive way. That’s what keeps me motivated every day.”
Adapted from a story by Caroline Johnson.