The name Ralph Pucci requires a double-take. He’s not Ralph Rucci, the celebrated couturier, though both men are known for their art-historical precision and refinement. And he’s not one of the Pucci family of Florence, a brand name famous for the psychedelic prints created by forefather Emilio. Standing slightly to the side of fashion, at the intersection of retail and design, Ralph Pucci is a dominating figure in the world of visual merchandising. A businessman with an aesthetic of rich minimalism, an impresario with a love of collaboration, Mr. Pucci is the Diaghilev of department-store mannequins. The meanings embodied in these “bodies,” which play an important if subliminal part of the shopping experience, are the subject of a new exhibition at the Museum of Arts and Design—“Ralph Pucci: The Art of the Mannequin.”
Barbara Paris Gifford, a curatorial assistant at the museum, in consultation with MAD chief curator Lowery Stokes Sims, has not put together a history of the fashion mannequin, though the show’s svelte catalog contains a smart article on that history, which was influenced by 18th-century fashion dolls, 19th-century articulated artists’ models, and the avant-garde mannequins conceived for early-20th-century exhibitions on the decorative arts. This show focuses on one man’s relationship with the modern-day fiberglass mannequin, a story that began as an inherited duty and soon became an odyssey of artistic invention.
The Pucci Mannequin Repair Co. was established after World War II by Ralph’s parents. He grew up in the family business and, without quite planning to, joined the company in 1976 at the age of 22. The first thing he wanted to know was why the Puccis were repairing other people’s mannequins and not making their own. Seeing room for innovation, his first breakthrough came in 1979—action mannequins! Jogging, diving, doing handstands, these figures caught the coming workout and aerobics craze. Spray painted for added punch in high-gloss red, black or gray, they were a big success. Mr. Pucci followed with a collection of mannequins in dance poses, a nod to that new sensation of the early ’80s: MTV videos.
He’d realized, he says in an interview in the catalog, that mannequins had to relate “to pop culture and what’s happening at that time”—an epiphany that led to Mr. Pucci’s collaborations with contemporary artists and designers, names like Lowell Nesbitt, Anna Sui and Diane von Furstenberg. He also realized that mannequins were sculpture and that each new prototype—to get the execution of it exactly right—called for an artist. Thus began the company’s long association with the sculptor Michael Evert. A re-creation of the Pucci Studio in which Mr. Evert builds the prototypes from wire and clay, situated in a gallery adjoining the exhibition, could be the workshop of a millennial Prometheus (plaster molds on shelves resemble the vertebrae of a giant). Three videos show the making of a mannequin in three stages. In the first of these, Mr. Evert constructs a head shaped like a light bulb, which says it all: These human forms contain ideas.
The exhibition is simply structured, with 23 mannequins dating from 1986 to 2014 arranged chronologically along a runway. It’s a great way to compare and contrast the models, noting differences that might not jump out in a store setting: the palette of skin colors, how realistic the face is (if there is a face), which heads have ears (many don’t), who has arms (the Venus de Milo hasn’t needed them), how the feet are handled (flat or tiptoe, barefoot or wedged), and what the body language communicates. These distinctions serve a larger one: the stylistic or historical approach a designer has brought to his or her mannequin.
Mr. Pucci’s first major collaboration, “The Olympian Goddess” of 1986, sets a bold tone. Designed by Andrée Putman for the opening of Barney’s downtown women’s store, this broad-shouldered Amazon, painted bronze, has an elegant Art Deco head of burnished curves and waves. A looming size 4/6 (stores tend to prefer 2/4), her feet molded in high-heeled pumps, she recalls Helmut Newton’s 1981 photograph “Sie Kommen (Naked), Paris,” its four nude models striding toward the lens wearing nothing but heels and hauteur. Speaking to the power-suit ’80s, the Pucci-Putman goddess was a huge financial success, embraced by many department stores.
Not so successful was Kenny Scharf’s “Swirley” of 2000. A lavender mannequin with a big blue eye centered like the Cyclops, her head narrows upward in a Dairy Queen curl and her cartoonish smile fills most of her face. Mr. Scharf’s design is true to his squeeze-toy style, but was, we are told, “too specific to be perceived as versatile.” One wonders if Swirley isn’t having some fun at the fashionista’s expense, that single-minded eye trained on the next trend. The face on Maira Kalman’s “Ada” of 1994 could also be characterized as cartoonish, but its soulful expression, inspired by the long faces of Amedeo Modigliani, is warmhearted. Ms. Kalman’s collection sold all over the world.
Addressing the aspirational in female shoppers, some of the mannequins call up iconic women. Putman’s “The Mistress” (1988) is a minimalist take on Marilyn Monroe, a meringue with a beauty mark. Former supermodel Christy Turlington, who collaborated with Mr. Pucci on “Yoga” (2001), has seated her likeness on the ground in Siddhasana, a cross-legged position. More complex is “Veruschka” (1996), whose angular pose echoes a photograph of the German model taken by Richard Avedon, in 1967, for a Vogue layout called “Egyptian Desert.” Rendered in black, statuesque and stiffly hieroglyphic, she’s a two-dimensional frieze transformed into a three-dimensional presence.
The most compelling mannequins in the show are the abstractions. Patrick Naggar’s “Nile” (1995), an elongated urn in which the side handles have been freed to become arms, was inspired by ancient objects Mr. Naggar saw at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. This woman is a vessel of antiquity. And “Birdland” (1988), one of many works in the show by the artist Ruben Toledo, offers a surreal vision of female dominion—a woman’s torso fused to a bird’s body. This beautiful yet unsettling piece of sculpture evokes the ship’s prow and the Harpies of Greek mythology, the female mantis and the eternal wasp-waist silhouette. “Birdland” suggests that Mr. Pucci’s mannequins, though their season may be short, are totems of the culture.
Ms. Jacobs writes about culture and fashion for Vanity Fair.
By Laura Jacobs