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Ralph Pucci: The Art of the Mannequin

March 2015 - Out Magazine

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At the age of 22, Ralph Pucci inherited his family’s mannequin repair business, and capitalized on the emergence of the “super model” in the fashion world—the glossy, glamorous, mortal mannequin with a pulse. No longer cold, stiff, and hollow, his own creations were elegant, athletic, inspiring, whimsical, provocative and fluid with motion.

Collaborating with other artists and designers, Pucci broadened the sculptural definition of what these symbols of high fashion and consumerism could represent. To this day, his diverse mannequins continue to challenge conventions of beauty and design, yet many people may have still never heard of him. In what is being called the first museum exhibition devoted to the “artistic innovation of mannequin design,” the Museum of Arts and Design celebrates Pucci’s ingenuity and honors the legacy of his family’s work with Ralph Pucci: The Art of the Mannequin on view through Aug. 30.

Last year, American Apparel’s East Houston store debuted a new set of mannequins with pubic hair and observable nipples. Prominently displayed in the the storefront display window, a debate raged on websites about whether the imagery was a bold statement about female empowerment or whether the controversial retailer was simply throwing lit matches in a dry field in hopes of drumming up sales around Valentine’s Day. The retailer, while pushing the envelope in a calculated yet potentially offensive way, really was doing nothing that Pucci hadn’t accomplished — with more finesse — decades earlier. Pucci's work stopped bystanders and got them to start talking.

The Art of the Mannequin features over 30 of the designer’s most revered mannequins, along with an installation in the Tiffany & Co. Foundation Jewelry Gallery, curated and designed by Isabel and Ruben Toledo. Displaying Giorgio Vigna’s stunning blown glass bubble necklace “Gorgoglio” and Ted Muehling’s striking silver and coral “Thorn Necklace,” the practicality of Pucci’s half-bird, half-woman accessory mannequins are displayed in a surrealist-inspired, moon-like setting. The most fascinating aspect of the entire exhibition is the accessible, thoughtfully curated design from MAD's chief curator, Lowery Stokes Sims, and curatorial assistant Barbara Paris Gifford. The in-gallery recreation of the sculpture studio will sporadically display the work of longtime collaborator and sculptor Michael Evert and his clay modeling technique, and he'll give art and design fans an opportunity to see the creation of these hand-made mannequins up close and personal when he sculpts in the museum's studios.

In MAD's lobby, guests are greeted with one of Pucci’s most successful and well-publicized collaborations: the “Olympic Gold” sculpture. Situated a flight down from the main exhibit, it was created with gay artist Lowell Nesbitt in 1989. Featuring a trio of muscular, male mannequins, the piece immediately evokes thoughts of a more modernistic approach to Michelangelo’s ‘David’, albeit with a larger Pucci package.

When asked how that collaboration came about, Pucci immediately smiled, explaining: “I knew Lowell really well. Over the years we used to socialize and then he came to the Andrée Putman The Olympian Goddess opening in 1986." That was Pucci's first high-profile collaboration with the French interior designer, for the opening of Barney's downtown women's store. "There were thousands of people and he was very impressed," according to Pucci. "Andy Warhol and Keith Harring walked in and Lowell came over to me and said, 'Ralph, when are you going to ask me to do a mannequin?' And I said, 'Let's do it!' We created ‘Olympic Gold’ and it became a sensational publicity media hit."

People magazine was launching its first issue of the "50 Most Beautiful People," and Pucci explains that the model was chosen as one of those "people." "It sort of reinvented things," he says. "We were taking chances with that collection. Lowell was friends with Robert Mapplethorpe, and then there was the whole thing that was happening in New York at the time. There was so much freedom...we captured that.  No one was doing that in the mannequin world. Lowell would be very proud that his mannequins are featured downstairs."

Pucci says the inspiration board for the sculpture contained lots of Michelangelo, Rodan, and other classical images. "Lowell was a guy who liked to take chances," Pucci explains. "I'm a business man and a producer who likes to take a chance with people that I believe in, and at that time Lowell was speaking the right language for me.”

The artist and designer has since collaborated with everyone from Diane von Furstenberg to Anna Sui and Christy Turlington, but it is only late in life that he's been widely recognized as a visionary designer whose work belongs as much in a museum, as it does in the storefront of Barney’s windows. Pucci’s mannequins have living, breathing personalities (perhaps it's even what triggered the 1987 movie Mannequin, starring Kim Catrall). Walking through the exhibit, it's easy to see why, beyond merely existing as a piece of furniture to drape the latest fashions, Pucci’s mannequins continue to inspire.

By Ryan Lathan