Mum who struggled to find doll that looked like her daughter starts her own diverse doll business

Sonia Whiteley-Guest is founder of All About the Doll which aims to bring more diversity to the doll market. Catherine Scott reports.

Sonia Whitely-Guest pictured with her Dolls, Bailden...Picture by Simon Hulme
Sonia Whitely-Guest pictured with her Dolls, Bailden...Picture by Simon Hulme

It was during a business trip to Chicago that Sonia Whiteley-Guest was inspired to set up All About The Doll.

“I am from Pakistan and my husband is white and so my children are mixed race,” explains Sonia.

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“My daughter Lila was six at the time and we had struggled to get a doll that looked like her. They were all blonde haired and blue eyed or black.

Sonia Whitely-Guest pictured with her Dolls, Bailden.Picture by Simon Hulme

“I wanted her to know that there were dolls that looked like her that were just as beautiful.”

So when she walked into the doll department Store American Girl she knew she needed to create a similar thing in the UK.

“There are three floors all about dolls. You can get children-sized clothes the same as their dolls, there is a doll hair dresser and an entire floor aimed at historical dolls. I knew that I wanted to create something here.”

At the time Sonia was working as Brand Director for Morrisons and it took years for her dream to see fruition.

Sonia Whitely-Guest pictured with the Lila doll that was inspired by her daughter.Picture by Simon Hulme

“We had bought a barn conversation in Baildon and I thought ‘it is now or never’ and so I took the plunge and put my money where my mouth was.”

Sonia researched doll suppliers in the Far East as she was determined that her dolls would be as natural looking as possible, but also not anatomically correct.

“I thought about it for a long time and although I wanted the dolls to look quite real I still wanted them to be innocent and to prompt innocent play as they are aimed at four to 11- year-olds.”

And so in 2014 – with six dolls – she launched All About the Doll online.

Maya Moffat with her Teonnie doll in matching flower girl outfit

One was a black doll, one an Asian doll, one boy doll and a red haired beauty, too. The other two were a blonde blue eyed and a dark haired, pale skinned.

“It is about giving children choice,” says Sonia.

“They may not want the doll that looks like them. As parents you make assumptions about what children want. But quite often they go to the opposite of them.

“My friend’s daughter is a red head and she really thought she would go for our red-headed doll Ruby, but instead she chose the black doll.”

Over the last six years Sonia has doubled her collection of dolls and her business has grown particularly over the last six months.

“The boy dolls, and the darker skinned dolls are by far the most popular.”

Mother-of-two Sonia, whose daughter Lila is now 14, has looked quite closely at the psychology behind children’s play.

“We know that imagination, role playing and living out real life, dreams and fantasies are an essential part of our children’s development as they come to terms with how things really work in the big wide world,” she explains.

“Our dolls have been created to support children as they go through the journey of self-discovery and emotional and social development.

“We’ve created dolls that never grow up faster than our children. Our dolls aren’t preoccupied with being grown-ups, they are just going through the process of growing up, alongside our kids.”

While All About the Doll also supplies a range of clothes and accessories, Sonia was determined that all the clothes should be age appropriate.

“There are no proms, weddings or peer pressure. We encourage our dolls and our children to celebrate the age they are now. Our dolls love to dress up for parties; there are a million hobbies they want to experience, a plethora of friends of both sexes they want to play with and ample accessories to bring this all to life. After all, there’s plenty of time for all that grown-up stuff later.

“We’ve done our best to create dolls that reflect the beautiful diverse world we now live in. From porcelain skin and fiery red hair, to the most enviable black curls and dark skin, we know that friendship has no boundaries so whoever you want your best friend to be, we really hope we’ve got it covered.”

Ironically one of their biggest markets is now America where the inspiration for her business came from.

“Our range of 18in dolls cost $50 (£39) that compares to $130 at American Girl and so even with postage and packing we are not that expensive.”

Sonia has been asked if she will include dolls with disabilities in her range of diverse dolls.

“I have been thinking about it but I am concerned that we want to provide what the children want, not what the adults think they should want. There are such a lot of different disabilities, how do you choose? It is something I would like to explore but it needs careful thought.”

In time, she hopes to add more clothes, shoes, equipment and accessories for all hobbies and situations imaginable.

Just before lockdown she was also looking at expanding into retail stores, but that went on hold.

“It is a shame there are so few toy shops around these days,” says Sonia, who is a full-time business and marketing strategy consultant and also runs an Airbnb from a cottage adjacent to their home.

“But we are looking at putting some of the dolls into shops and our dolls are now available on Amazon.”

However, what she would really like is for an American Girl-style department store for dolls.

“I think it would be every girl – and boy’s dream come true. We also want the dolls to be something that pass down through generations.”