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Ralph Pucci: The Art of the Mannequin

May 2015 - Design Retail

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Mannequins tell all at the Museum of Arts and Design’s new retrospective exhibit encapsulating three decades of design icon Ralph Pucci’s work.

“Most people think you go to the Yellow Pages, call and order two white, two black mannequins, and it’s over,” says Ralph Pucci, the renowned mannequin designer whose three decades of work is being celebrated in a retrospective exhibit,
“Ralph Pucci: The Art of the Mannequin,” at New York’s Museum of Arts and Design (MAD).

“We wanted to show that great mannequins are works of art,” Pucci explains, listing remarkable collaborations he has created, like Ruben Toledo’s surreal “Birdland” and Patrick Naggar’s abstract
vase-inspired “Nile” form. Currently on display, “The Art of the Mannequin” invites guests to understand the historical context of mannequins in the fashion, design and visual display industries, and to enter the intimate, magical
world of Ralph Pucci through an exhibit of his major work, featuring time-lapse footage and a re-creation of his Chelsea studio. Visitors can even
catch an interactive session with Pucci’s dynamic longtime sculptor, Michael Evert. “One of the things about mannequins that we all love, and you can really feel in the show, is that they kind of stand outside any existing categories,” says
Glenn Adamson, director of MAD. “They’re sort oflike sculpture, they’re certainly about fashion, they are kind of product design…they fit all these categories to some extent, but there is something special
in and of itself.”

Pucci believes this show will shine a light on the entire industry—the creativity, excitement and energy that the visual world has to offer, but often has been overlooked. “It should make you think, it
should make you smile, it should challenge you,” he says, adding: “Obviously having a solo show at MAD is our proudest moment.”
The “our” is a nod to his parents, who started the Pucci Mannequin Repair shop in the basement of their Mt. Vernon, N.Y., home in 1954. “We have come a long way,” he laughs. “The Pucci
family owes everything to this industry. Hopefully, through this show, we have given something back.” Soon entering his 40th year in business, Pucci joined the family company after majoring in journalism in college, and entered an industry that was, at the time, focused on “realistic mannequins in very elegant poses.” Pucci, who has become a great industry leader, respected for his business-savvy and “artiste” persona, recognized the need to go
where his competition wasn’t. Drawing upon his athletic youth, he created signature action mannequins during the “workout phenomenon” of the ’70s that were literally used as sculptural signage to direct San Francisco Macy’s
shoppers to the men’s department.

“That was our first breakout collection,” Pucci recalls. “From then on, I knew we had to always go in unchartered waters. There have been many different trends, some accelerated by economics of the times, some by the freedom of the times, but in the end, the mannequin must wear the clothing and should bring excitement to the stores.” Michael Evert has been his sculptor for more than 25 years, and Pucci continues to challenge him. “If we just did realistic mannequins, or for that matter, action mannequins or whimsical mannequins, Michael most likely would have gotten bored and moved on,” Pucci says. “In this stage of our careers, we are two jazz musicians riffing on ideas.” Thirty of Pucci’s big-idea-inspired mannequins displayed at MAD reveal that the artist is a sort of cultural compass, tracking—and encouraging—changes in society’s attitudes and interests for decades. He’s embraced the beauty of Olympic athleticism, natural-looking bodies (in a collaboration with model Christy Turlington), curvaceous bodies, different skin tones and ethnicities, and playful, surreal “creatures,” like one-eyed “Swirley” aliens. Pucci was so forward-thinking that his creations from the ’80s feel suited for conversations explored in fashion branding today. Mannequins, says Adamson, are not only reflections of what’s going on out there, but they become agents of change. “So the fact that these mannequins were actually going into department stores, where millions of people were seeing them, helped to change people’s ideas about fashion and about
the human form,” he says.

“It’s not just that [Ralph Pucci is] registering the way the wind is blowing—he’s actually helping to push a change along.” To stay ahead of the curve, Pucci says he surrounded himself with visionary talent from various
fields. “By collaborating with artists/designers that were not associated with visual/display, such as Andrée Putman, Ruben Toledo, Veruschka, Maira Kalman and Kenny Scharf, they brought a fresh perspective to the mannequin,” he explains. “They did not know the rules, so there were no rules to break—just freedom to explore.” Pucci has collaborated with Toledo, a fashion illustrator, more than any other outsider and says, “Collaborating with Ruben Toledo is easy. You just
have to have no fear where he is going to take you.” For the MAD exhibition, the two teamed up again, along with Ruben’s wife, visionary designer Isabel Toledo, to create an exhibition-withinan-exhibition showcasing some of MAD’s jewelry
collection on smaller mannequins posing on a surreal landscape.

While Pucci always has pushed the boundaries on the functional versus artistic purpose of mannequins,he calls working with whimsical pop artist Kenny Scharf his “most daring move.” Frankly, he says, “I was not sure there was a market for his ‘one-eye’ or ‘three-eye’ aliens. [But] I did know that working with a genius and rebel, as Kenny is, could not be passed up.” Another major career highlight was his collaboration with writer and illustrator Maira Kalman. Pucci fondly recalls reading her imaginative, colorful books, “Max Makes a Million” and “Max Goes to Hollywood,” to his children in the early ’90s. He was thrilled to collaborate with her and translate her characters like “Ada” into mannequins with
big personalities etched across their faces. They are exaggerations of people you’ve seen on the subway and in the street. “I was extremely confident that it would be a success, but a few of my clients thought they would just generate press and not sales,” Pucci remembers. “They sold all over the world, and for a specific time, were my most successful mannequins.”

In a genius move, legendary Dayton-Hudson visual director Andrew Markopoulos bought more than a thousand Kalman mannequins, and printed images on shopping bags and billboards in Chicago, Detroit and Minneapolis. “He took the Maira Kalman mannequin and made it into something more than just a mannequin that wore clothes,” Pucci says. “He made it into a marketing tool to help distinguish and identify the Dayton-Hudson brand.” In taking the Pucci mannequin out of the department
store and into a museum setting, Adamson says they’re trying to contextualize the project within a broader historical framework. Since many museum guests have never heard of Pucci, an educational timeline and the re-created studio help
them to understand how a mannequin relates to pop culture and the times we live in, Pucci explains. “We really try to tell that whole story in the exhibition:

Ralph, the artist, Ralph the designer, Ralph the impresario, Ralph the collaborator—all of those are different aspects of essentially one, unified creative vision,” Adamson says. “The Art of the Mannequin” provides three vantage points. The first is the mannequin unclothed, presented like a classical sculpture with a nearby iPad displaying a brief yet scholarly story on the subject. The second is the production display in the re-creation of the studio where Pucci and Evert work to mold ideas into clay, eventually finished in fiberglass. The last is the section the Toledos present, which is about the mannequins actually on display. The design of the physical journey of the exhibit is the result of a true collaboration between Pucci and MAD.

Pucci says initially he was given total creative control over the studio re-creation, the exhibit and its accompanying book of the same name. Flash-forward and he soon realized, “Our ideas were a bit too slick, a bit too W magazine,” he
says. “MAD wanted the show to be a ‘wow,’ but also be educational. It was the right choice.” Audiences seem to agree: the positive reaction from museum and board members, new audiences and Pucci fans has been entirely positive.
“Somehow, parts of the visual industry became predictable and lost its way,” Pucci says, “Hopefully this exhibit will challenge that thinking, and creativity will become the No. 1 priority again.”

For Pucci, pushing the limits of visual expression in fresh ways for a new audience and stirring up industry standards has always been his motive—putting mannequins in museums, well that’s just a bonus.

As of press time, “Ralph Pucci: The Art of the Mannequin” is scheduled to be on view through Aug. 30 at the Museum of Arts and Design, New York.

By Zoe Zellers