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An Interview With Ralph Pucci

Retail Design April 2004

An Interview With Ralph PucciAn Interview With Ralph PucciAn Interview With Ralph PucciAn Interview With Ralph PucciAn Interview With Ralph PucciAn Interview With Ralph PucciAn Interview With Ralph Pucci

Ralph Pucci is a fascinating man and by some standards might be considered a Renaissance Man of the 21st century - or at least a patron of the arts of our times. Also, he is truly a child of the Display/Visual Merchandising industry since he was literally reared in an environment of forms, figures and fantasies. Back in the 1950s when Ralph Pucci was quite young, his family established a niche as the repairers and rehabbers of mannequins. In 1976 Ralph not only claimed his independence but he also took over the reins of his family business and a new era began not only for Pucci Mannequins but for the industry that now preferred being referred to as the Visual Merchandising industry.

Ralph Pucci quickly created a furor in the new industry when he started introducing mannequins in lifestyle and athletic poses that captured the essence and spirit of the Calvin Klein ads and the photography of Bruce Webber. 'We kept very much in the mood of those avant garde times. We set ourselves apart by spraying mannequins black or red and took a far more architectural approach by producing mannequins reclining and relaxing. And, we've always encouraged artists and creators I to be involved in our process to keep our vision fresh.'

Since the beginning Ralph Pucci has invited in and surrounded himself with artists, sculptors, illustrators and designers who have created new and exciting lines of mannequins and forms. Among the top talents he has worked with are designers such as Karl Lagerfeld, Anna Sul and Andree Putnam, illustrator Kenny Sharfe and Reuben Toledo and many leading models in their day.

His collections have run the gamut from realistic to dealistic - from fantasy to fun.

But mannequins were not enough for the exquisite taste and the entrepreneurial talents of Ralph Pucci. Today, his 16,000 sq. ft. showroom on West 18th Street in Manhattan is not only filled with tastefully displayed forms and figures but in the gallery-like settings he presents furniture -'new classics' - sculpture, fine art, graphics and specially selected artifacts. His showroom not only draws people from the visual field but store designers and decorators as well.

With that as an introduction-let us let Ralph Pucci speak for himself.

MARTIN M. PEGLER: How has the mannequin industry changed since your parents started the Pucci Mannequin Company over 50 years ago?

RALPH PUCCI: When I started in this business 30 years ago, most of the mannequins were realistic in very lady-like poses, wigs, make-up, nail polish-very safe and predictable.

Over the years there has been the opportunity to be more creative. The Visual industry encourages us to 'think outside of the box' and be different. I work with the best fashion illustrators, models, photographers and artists in the world to create unique, well sculptured modern mannequins that reflect a hip society of today.

MMP: You have reached out to artists, sculptors and designers to create the endless 'looks' and 'types' of mannequins that Pucci produces. What do you look for when you commission/create/design a new mannequin?

RP: I look for newness. Something hip, hot and of the moment.

MMP: Are the mannequins in your collection in any way a representation of your own design sensibilities or do you do them for their commercial value?

RP: My mannequins are my design sensibility but I am a businessman. MY role is to create and present exciting mannequins that are reflective of the time we live in.

MMP: Retailers are now talking about the Retail Brand Image. Mannequins have always been part of that 'branding.' As a mannequin manufacturer as well as someone who has been in the retail industry for many years-what kind of mannequins-realistic, stylized, abstract - are most effective for creating that 'image'? Who might best invest in which kind of mannequin?

RP: A store has to decide who they are and what they are trying to achieve. They should choose a mannequin that is consistent with that particular image. I think Diesel has a very clear idea of who they are.

Their advertising, store design and clothing are fun and hip, but they miss big time on their mannequin presentation. They use a headless mannequin - very boring! I have a mannequin designed by the illustrator, Jeffrey Fulvimari - he recently illustrated the Madonna children's book 'English Rose.' This mannequin would be perfect: hip, young, edgy and groovy-just like the Diesel image.

MMP: What advice would you offer to a 'mom 'n' pop' retailer - one with a small store with maybe one or two windows - regarding selecting a mannequin? What would be best for him or her? How many types? How often should they be changed? How does he keep his presentations looking fresh, new and still distinctively his?

RP: A mom 'n' pop shop should keep it very simple. It all depends upon the merchandise the store sells, of course. Again - what does that store stand for and represent?

Pick a mannequin that fits this design philosophy. To keep fresh I would buy an abstract mannequin and repaint the mannequin color every three months. Repaint the walls in the window. Hook up with the best young students from the design schools to create windows even have them create product and sell it in limited editions.

MMP: Where do you see realistic mannequins today? What is the 'look'? What changes do you see in the near future?

RP: I think the realistic mannequin is a dinosaur! It looks dated even in the best store environments. It is a very tired look no matter how well executed it is.

MMP: What do you visualize a realistic mannequin will look like in 10 years?

RP: Realistic mannequins in 10 years will look the same as they did 30 years ago-boring!!

MMP: Do you see 'animated' or 'robotic' mannequins - with programmed actions - in the future?

RP: I find 'robots' cold and impersonal. I prefer the warmth, simplicity and beauty of artists/sculptors such as Brancuzzi, Noguchi and Giacometti.

MMP: I understand that Pucci has done specific mannequins based on runway and photographic models as well as celebrities - Jose Barain, Aly Dunne, Ank Duong, Franke, Verushka, etc.

- as well as noted personages for special museums and exhibits. Do you think that there is a strong draw towards models or celebrity characters in realistic mannequins - in traditional retail settings? Do they add to or subtract from the Retail Brand Image?

RP: It is all about the time we live in. What is happening in fashion-artarchitecture. A fashion model/mannequin can be outdated and pretentious if shown at the wrong time. I think it was fun in the late '80s - the supermodels.

That's over! We recently did a mannequin of Christy Turlington in Yoga positions - I believe that was relevant. Christy has championed this movement and she has become synonymous with healthy living, exercise and Yoga.

MMP: What brought about your production of Lowell Nesbitt's 'Male of the 21st Century'? I read that it was inspired by Rodin's 'Age of Bronze' and Michelangelo's 'Slave.' Where do you see it being used and how?

RP: The Lowell Nesbitt mannequin was my answer to photographer Bruce Weber's beefcake boys that were being promoted in all the magazines. I thought the whole thing was a bit funny actually, but when I commissioned the painter Lowell Nesbitt - who was very famous at that time for his giant flower paintings - the collection took on a more sculptural tone; a more athletic spirit. The mannequin was inspired from ancient Roman and Greek sculpture. We were making daily visits to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

We sandblasted the finish - giving it cracks as though it had been outside for thousands of years. I even had Christopher Makos photograph the collection to look like a museum brochure. ls it relative today? Classic sculpture is always relevant.

MMP: Tell me about your work with Ruben Toledo. What does his talent bring to the creation of new mannequins?

RP: Ruben Toledo is a creative genius and a visionary. I do not use these words loosely. He is the leader in the fashion/art world. His mannequin ideas are 'way ahead of the curve' - yet very 'now'.

MMP: Everybody - it seems - is focused on the teen-to-twenties market. Pucci has introduced several lines of stylized mannequins that are targeted directly at that group. How do you see them as unique and where and how do you think they are best used?

RP: The teens/twenties market wants hip and groovy - and you better give it to them.

MMP: Baby Boomers are not 'old' - yet they are not 'young compared to the 'teens to twenties' and 'twenties to thirties' markets that seem to be getting all the play. Do you feel that retailing has gone far enough to reach out to the 'Fifties and Over' crowd? Can't a 50-ish mannequin be produced that is mature but still youthful and vital? Is there a real market for that sort of mannequin-or would you suggest that the retailer stick with a stylized or abstract mannequin for that customer?

RP: I addressed the 50-ish market with a mannequin by the illustrator Robert Clyde Anderson. I called it the Brownstone collection. It was a group of characters that live in an elegant brownstone building. There was the publicist, the banker, gallery owner and the advertising executive. The ages varied from 30 to 60 - but they were modern.

MMP: Tell me about 'Birdie.' Who or what inspired you to produce this size 16 figure. What kind of acceptance has she had? Are you planning any other 'larger size' women? Men?

RP: I have an affinity towards classics: well-made, timeless pieces in wonderful materials. The furniture designers that I represent all believe in quality-hand-made not massproduced.

RP: Birdie was designed by Ruben Toledo. She was size 16-a big but hip girl. The collection was called 11 shapes.' We teamed her up with Paloma - a very petite mannequin in the collection. Stores almost hide big girl clothes. To introduce them, we put ten Birdie and Paloma mannequins in the entrance to our showroom dressed in skin-tight Isabel Toledo clothing. Latin music played and Ruben painted a black and white mural. It was very hot and sexy - something you usually do not associate with big and petite girls. It was a hit!

MMP: Do you, personally, have a special affinity for the Art Deco and Moderne periods? Pucci International now includes - in addition to the numerous mannequin lines, furniture and furnishings by outstanding designers. Pucci has the exclusive rights to the French Ecart Collection that features authentic reproductions of Pierre Charreau and Jean Michel Frank as well as furnishings by Paul Mathieu, Patrick Haggar, Chris Lehrecke and Jerome Abel Sequin among others.

Some of us are old enough to remember the sensation caused when you had Andree Putman produce the Olympian Goddesses that appeared in Barneys windows in the late '80s or early '90s. Now Putman has produced several collections of furniture for Pucci. What's the connection between mannequins and furniture and furnishings? Or isn't there any?

Andree Putman has been a major influence on my life and career. 'The Poison Pill' is her reference to the one extra ingredient added to a presentation that is not necessary. Keep it simple, clean, pure and strong. I always refer to 'the poison pill.'

I remember the opening of the first mannequin she designed for me - the Olympian Goddess in 1986. It was one of the hippest openings our industry ever had. Andy Warhol, Keith Haring, Jean-Michel Basquit showed up from the art world. Angela Estrada, Thierry Mugler from the fashion world-models and editors from all the magazines. It was fun and amazing. It opened my eyes. I had to work with these creative people.

About furniture and mannequins? The connection between furniture and mannequins is the ability to create and explore a clear vision. Furniture should be simple, timeless and beautifully crafted. Mannequins should be elegant, modern, edgy and hip. Art should make you think!

MMP: How do you personally keep up with the times and the trends and still see ahead to what will be coming up next? What or who keeps you abreast of the changing times? What is your 'fountain of youth'?

RP: I'm not afraid to take chances. I'm constantly encouraging and promoting young designers, illustrators, photographers. You have to let the creative mind speak and be heard!

MMP: Many, many thanks for your declarations, revelations and for sharing your thoughts with us.

BY MARTIN M. PEGLER