The Skinny on Mannequins

Dangerously gaunt or lustily full-bodied, they still sell merchandise
Posted February 21, 2007


Are runway models too thin?

The couture industry has been under intense fire lately, as doctors and other critics express their concern about the gaunt models now sauntering down fashion runways. Even governments have joined the fray. Spain recently reached an agreement with fashion designers to standardize women’s sizes and prevent companies from using window displays featuring clothes smaller than a European size 38 (an American size 6).

Since mannequins are fiberglass replicas of whatever female image is considered fashionable, has the pressure to avoid the skin-and-bones chic look spilled over onto visual merchandisers and manufacturers, as well? Not entirely.

Sizing it Up

While most fashion designers discount weight concerns and insist their models still be as stick-like as possible, more retailers are calling for curvier mannequins that better represent the average woman walking into their stores.

“Not all female bodies are a size 2,” says Peter Huston, executive vp of sales and marketing for Fusion Specialties Inc. (Broomfield, Colo.), which recently sculpted a larger, more muscular male and female collection exclusively for Nike. “You have to pay attention to your market. Someone shopping at Nike would be discouraged by a thin, waif-like mannequin.”

Creative director Dwight Critchfield of mannequin-maker Goldsmith Inc. (Long Island City, N.Y.), says the company is being asked to be more daring with active positions and larger sizes. It has addressed the assault on skinny with the sexy, size 16 “Anna.” “She’s confident and strong, not a dull, mother-of-the-bride figure like her historical predecessors,” says Goldsmith’s Ron Knoth. “Natalie,” another Goldsmith mannequin, also strays from the traditional size 2 to a more common 6-8.

In Mondo Mannequin’s Manhattan showroom during the recent StoreXpo winter market in New York, principal Joe Klinow unveiled the “fun room,” as he referred to it, lit a racy red and filled with an alluring fog. It featured three new poses from Mondo’s “Showgirls” line of 16 sexy, curvy bodies that represent a more buxom figure. Kneeling, bending or splayed on a hanging moon, the figures were clad in provocative bustiers and chains. “This collection is a fantasy – it’s daring and perfect for lingerie,” he says. 


Having a great time

So demand is up for curves. And, according to manufacturers, the demand for mannequins in general is on the upswing. “At one time, everyone was influenced by companies like Gap, which didn’t believe in visual,” says Richard Rollison, executive vp of Universal Display & Design (New York). “But it’s cyclical, and now retailers are back on board.”

“It has been a great time for established mannequin companies who have had longstanding relationships with the retail industry,” agrees Michael Steward, executive vp of Adel Rootstein USA (New York). Standing alongside some of the most lifelike mannequins to date in “The Shawfield Hotel” that creative director Kevin Arpino created for StoreXpo, Steward credited the rebirth of brand identity. “After the great homogenization of visual in the 90’s, it has become necessary for retailers to distinguish themselves. Mannequins are an important part of that.”

Victor Johnson, senior manager of visual presentation for Ann Taylor, the New York-based specialty apparel chain, understands why the “silent sellers” are gaining again in popularity. He has helped develop Ann Taylor’s new two-tiered mannequin program: custom Adel Rootstein mannequins for the windows and a rotationally molded mannequin from Fusion Specialties for the store’s interior.

“The mannequin not only has the power to entice desire and stir the imagination, but it also drives traffic and increases sales,” explains Johnson. “Our window program had such a dramatic visual impact that we’re moving forward with more locations for 2007.”

So with more retailers recognizing the value and adding mannequins to their stores, what other trends are taking center stage? At StoreXpo, a number of mannequin exhibitors and showrooms presented their collections to inform the industry of what’s hot, what’s possible and what’s available.

The Great Debate

One great debate continues to rage: realistics versus abstracts.  Realistic styles were prominent at StoreXpo, gracing showrooms and the trade show floor with their lifelike features and poses. Los Angeles-based Silvestri California, whose list of credits includes working with the Academy of Motion Pictures during World War II to produce that iconic statue named Oscar out of alternative metals, had always specialized in abstract design. But realizing the market was shifting, it has made its foray into realistic with “Faye,” a collection of three poses with three makeup styles. “We needed to create a product that offered a high-fashion element,” says Tom Reistetter, the company’s creative director. “Faye makes that statement.”


And Silvestri wasn’t alone. RHÔ’s “Seductive” collection, Patina-V’s “Pulse” and ADCO’s “BeStyle” are all steeped in the realistic tradition.

“No one makes a statement with abstract anymore,” says Charles Machen, sales director for RHÔ Inc. (Markham, Ont.), the exclusive distributors of the Dutch Hans Boodt Mannequins line. “You can’t express the essence of your brand with an abstract design.” RHÔ’s “Seductive” line of slightly darker-skinned, pouting beauties features five poses and a variety of wig options. “Merchandise really stands out with realistic,” Machen says, though he admits, “the client still has to be convinced because of money issues and maintenance.”

Perhaps because of those issues, abstract still has staunch supporters among both manufacturers and retailers.

“Properly designed abstract heads have greater longevity and obtain a more favorable response from customers,” says Goldsmith’s Knoth. He believes an abstract design sells more since customers can project their own mindsets onto the mannequin. “A realistic head has a specific point of view,” he says, “so it can be more difficult for the customer to relate to.”

George Martin, vp, creative director, at Patina-V (City of Industry, Calif.), notes that while realistic mannequins are making headway, abstract designs still have a huge importance at higher-end stores. “Stores like Neiman Marcus and Saks Fifth Avenue tend to go abstract,” he says. “The merchandise sells itself without the need for a distracting realistic look.”

Knoth relates the argument to comparing Picasso and Rembrandt. “Both were great artists,” he says, “one realistic and one abstractionist. It’s great design that matters.”

Rainbow Bright

But realistic or abstract styles aren’t the only way to stand out. From Barneys to bebe, mannequins are showing up in brighter colors and metallic finishes.

“Retailers who want to differentiate themselves are looking for custom colors,” says Mondo’s Klinow. He paraded his spectrum of colors at his showroom on a row of mannequin arms each painted a different hue. “Pastels, reds and browns are very compelling right now,” he says.

Universal’s Rollison feels the basic white that so many manufacturers use is too harsh and unflattering for some merchandise. That’s why pastels, along with gold, chrome and gunmetal, have become favorites among retailers. “Gold and chrome are so viable, not just because metallics are big, but also because they are still neutral enough to accentuate the garments instead of clashing with them,” he explains.

Some retailers still request neutral tones, but they want that same distinction that colors provide. Textured finishes like Universal’s flocked mannequins and Mondo’s woodgrain mannequins offer a tactile contrast to all of the slick, high gloss. “The flocking provides the soft feeling and warmth of a fabric-covered form, but still employs the lifelike anatomy of a full mannequin,” Rollison says.

Despite all the visual stimuli, electronic media and advertising imagery clouding the store environment these days, Ann Taylor’s Johnson believes the real connection between a consumer and merchandise is established through a mannequin. “Mannequin display embodies fashion presentation in its most visceral and approachable form,” he says. “I’m continually impressed by the power of a mannequin on a sales floor or in a show window to stop a customer.”

Click here for our exclusive Q&A on mannequin trends.