Paul Newman and Pharrell Williams may be fashion icons of their time. But you could argue that no man has defined the look of the past 60 years like Ken. He has been shorthand for the most fundamental male ideal. He has been underestimated and misunderstood. But now, at last, in his Berluti leather, and a corresponding capsule of Berluti accessories at human-scale, he is home.
Maybe this kind of gratitude simply comes with age. Ken has been a muse to designers Jean-Paul Gaultier and Gareth Pugh—the kind of attention that’s made him the envy of his friends Allan Sherwood and Talking Brad (his first Black friend, who debuted in 1970, thank you very much).
Of course, over the hill isn’t what it used to be. Hell, sixty looks a lot different than it did when Ken was young. (Whatever young means.) He’s been a doctor, a pilot, a tennis star, a firefighter, and a lifeguard. (That doesn’t even get into his movie roles—he learned to play multiple instruments for that 2004 picture The Princess and the Pauper, and you don’t hear a thing about it.) He’s won two Olympic Gold medals, for God’s sake! Just last year, he did that stint as a barista. He could spell Barbie’s name in latte milk. How many of the other dolls can say that?
But what’s a career? What are awards? Are these the only measure of a man’s life?
Barbie says he’s never looked better, more modern. If progress, rather than progressivism, is a boomer ideal, then so be it. Let Ken be a boomer. People make fun of Ken, say he’s old-fashioned, but they forget that he’s actually two years and two days younger than Barbie—not to mention only a half inch taller. And he’s let her have her own things since the beginning—her own car, her own dreamhouse, that rollercoaster series of careers. Always comfortable ceding the spotlight. Forever content for her to outearn him.
Think of how far he’s come since 1961, when he was just $3.50, and wearing those dopey red swim trunks and cork sandals. Hard to believe Barbie even went for him on the set of that TV commercial, his hands shaking trying to light her cigarette between takes. His towel was yellow—marketing knew nothing about color theory then—and his hair only came in blonde or brunette. It was nothing like it is now, with our newfound joy in the inexhaustible variety of life, of identity!
And it’s true: now that Ken can be anyone, he’s never looked more like himself. Three body types, nine skin tones, ten eye colors, twenty-seven hair colors, and twenty hairstyles. On any other guy, it’d be vanity. But with Ken? It’s power. A way of seeing. Of understanding.
We never saw him this way until he hit 60. Could it be the work of all these years? The emotional burden of living and carrying history? Ken smiles, looks in the mirror of his beach buggy. Maybe it’s just his killer leather jacket.