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All dolled up

Cynthia E. Griffin- | 7/2/2008, 5 p.m.

Claudette and Vonnie Benjamin come from a rich heritage that was the inspiration for the business they launched four year business ago.
"When my mother had to move, we found boxes and boxes of fabric, and we had to do something with them," explained Claudette about her Panamanian-born mother, who was a teacher by training but a seamstress by passion.
What Claudette and daughter Vonnie did was tap into their inherited love of sewing, fabric and creative expression to create a line of Afro-centric rag dolls that have a number of distinctive characteristics--the chief one being that the earliest dolls created were 40 inches long, and could be set on a chair or sofa, and the legs could be elegantly draped as the dolls sat.
The duo calls them chair dolls.
"We started the business about four years ago," explained Vonnie of their fledgling company--Pearlie's Dolls, which was named after Claudette's mom.
"But we had been talking about it for a few years," threw in Claudette, speaking with a hint of Panamanian accent. "We play up the black features we consider beautiful; the features that have been maligned about us."
Consequently, although eyes can be added to a doll if a customer prefers, the basic Pearlie's Doll has no eyes and big luscious lips.
The skin tones range from cafe au lait to rich black, and the hair can be made of products ranging from fuzzy, fur-like yarn to thick hand-dyed ropes symbolizing locks.
That is attributable to Vonnie's creative outlook on how the dolls should be.
"Mom used to be a physical therapist, and it kind of bothers her when I would make the dolls with long limbs, but I'm more whimsical."
In addition to hand-crafting the dolls and the clothing, the pair will often accessorize the creations with earrings and other jewelry made by Vonnie.
Typically the dolls are custom ordered for each client who will pick the skin color, hair type, clothing and other details, explained the mother-daughter entrepreneurs. Then each takes about 20-30 hours to complete with everything done by hand.
Neither Claudette nor Vonnie had any special training to make dolls.
"We just decided we wanted to do it, and cut out the patterns from the back of a Trader Joe's bag," explained Vonnie who had bought a few rag dolls herself, and knew she wanted to create something unique.
The doll creations have evolved over the years and now include smaller 14-inch offerings as well as the chair dolls and even a male or two.
But one thing that has not changed is that each must have on underwear.
"That's my mom. Every woman must have panties," explained Vonnie with a laugh.
Although Pearlie's Dolls have been previously available at the Cultural Affair retail shop located on Slauson Avenue, they are now only available directly from the entrepreneurs, (while the ladies search out other retail outlets and develop their Web site).
In the future, Vonnie said they intend to create Pearlie's Dolls that reflect other ethnicities. That thought too is a heritage attributable to her mother, added Claudette, because living in Panama with its rich mixture cultures and people attracted by the canal, gives an expanded sense of culture, style and expression.