A connected New Yorker is changing retailers' perception of the role of mannequins in stores...
Mannequins should be elegant, modern, edgy and hip, says Ralph Pucci. And he should know. Pucci has gained an international reputation for mannequin design through turning what was once considered a mere prop for a frock shop into an art form.
His vision has its roots in a family-owned mannequin repair business founded in New York City back in 1954. For 22 years his parents toiled over the broken, scratched and twisted bodies of department store models. His father repaired the bodies, his mother made wigs, often working through the night on figures collected during the day.
Then Pucci joined them in 1976 and took the enterprise in a whole new direction.
'We hired a sculptor and started to make our own mannequins,' says Pucci in his newly released book Show.
'After learning the ropes, enjoying the 'creative types' who purchase the mannequins, I began to see great opportunities in the mannequin business.' He told the New York Daily News last September: 'These are life-size pieces of art. They have movement, motion and sexiness. No one was really doing anything interesting with the form.'
The first great success came in 1980 when he designed a range of male and female models in athletic poses launched under the model Workout. US department store icon Macy's bought hundreds of them, painted in high gloss black and used to create an Olympic-themed environment. The now defunct Marshall Field's department store in Chicago, J Wannamaker's in Philadelphia and the Broadway in Los Angeles also bought into the range.
'I hit on something unique and different - all the other mannequin companies are making very proper, lady-like mannequins with make-up, wigs and nail polish. Workout is totally different - it's a sculpture.'
Pucci says the range's success made him realise he could take 'the inspiration, creativity and spirit' of the 80s pop culture and create mannequins 'consistent with the times we live in.' So the family business relocated to a 15,000sqft loft in Soho.
He started designing mannequins as solutions rather than props, crafting ranges for apparel categories rather than offering a one size fits all as most of the world's larger mannequin makers were doing at the time. He partnered with designers and sculptors to give the works unique style and shape - no more of the anatomically -correct, upright, cookie cutter mannequins of old. These actually had character.
Reclining figures in Greek and Roman statue style suited lingerie
Another collection, Avalon, was inspired by Roxy Music's album of the same name. Pucci describes them in his book as being in 'severe, satic poses with new wave pompadour, sculpted hair' and made to look like stone by being left 'raw' - unpainted, merely sanded.
In 1985 Pucci created a two metre tall Olympian Goddess for Barney's in New York in partnership with designer Andree Putman. The launch party was in his Soho loft, now converted into a showroom. It was a turning point in Pucci's career thanks to the arrival of Andy Warhol, whose mere presence ensured Pucci's design cred soared - and ensured widespread publicity.
Five years later Putman approached Pucci with a plan to partner in the launch of a furniture range. In 1992 the business relocated to a 30,000sqft factory showroom on West 18th St, Manhattan. A furniture gallery was opened in the penthouse and the mannequin factory took over the 11th floor.
That's essentially how a mannequin maker came to sell US$9000 coffee tables and $100,000 brass commodes to the world's cashed-up movie stars, sportspeople and designers. It's a long way from the dust and plaster of stretching the life of worn out department store figures in his parent's factory.
Since the 1990s, Pucci has worked with a range of artists, sculpture, architects, designers and illustrators to create a broad variety of mannequins which now adorn retail stores all over the world. Collaborators have included children's book author Maira Kalman (Max Makes a Million) and pop artist Kenny Scharf (who worked on a 'Flinstone-esque' range).
Each new range of furniture or mannequins is launched with a show, which have themselves become New York 'happenings' attracting artists, actors, models and musicians - not to mention widespread publicity in the art and business worlds.
While mannequins launched Pucci's name on the creative stage, he says furniture has become more and more important to him in recent years - both professionally and artistically.
He says his love of sculptural mannequins easily evolves into sculptural wooden furniture pieces of design partners. But he still concentrates on the original vision to create mannequins that stand out from the mould.
'I continue looking for the hand of the artist to be seen - nothing mass produced. I'm constantly looking for something new and different: timeless, not trendy. I've always felt mannequins should be elegant, modern, edgy and hip. Furniture should be eternal, exquisitely made, something cherished forever. Art should make you think,' he writes in the forward to his book Show.
By Robert Stockdill