Stiff, hollow and clinical in their uniformity, Mannequins hold a subliminally vital role in our everyday experiences. Enticing us with their thin limbs and blank, featureless faces, they represent a bland, unachievable form of perfection.
With his enduring fixation with both shape and sculpture, Ralph Pucci, the creatively-minded business man, understands the power that is latent in these omnipresent figures. Known for his ability to fuse the strands of art and commercialism, Pucci has developed a unique, nuanced brand that dominates the powerful, little-exposed world of visual merchandising.
With his instinctive minimalism, his love of collaboration, and his persistent re-configuration of aesthetic boundaries, Pucci has broadened the definition of what the Mannequin can represent. His pieces are not one-dimensionally mass -produced, but are works of sculpture that self-consciously play with conventional notions of form, shape and beauty.
The impact of Pucci’s work has recently been explored in an exhibition at MAD, which showcases over three decades of his work, tracing the blurred convergence between the worlds of fashion, art and industrial design for which he is famed.
Pucci’s career began at just 22, when he joined the Mannequin repair company that his parents established in the aftermath of the Second World War. Influenced by the post-war cultural renaissance that was flourishing at the time, he began to look to the world around him for inspiration. Immersing himself in the spheres of painting, music, rock and roll, and fashion, he began to turn the blandly coloured figurines with which he worked into dramatic, vital pieces of art.
Pucci’s first experiment was a collection of Mannequins that were moulded into a series of active, dynamic poses. Jogging, diving, standing on their heads, they were spray-painted in a vibrant, high-gloss palette of red, black and grey. Swiftly, there followed an instillation of dancing mannequins. Alluding to the growing phenomenon of MTV music videos, they perfectly encapsulated the zeitgeist of the 1980s.
Understanding that he could use his quirky figurines to explore the shifting cultural landscape- both in his city and beyond- Pucci began to collaborate with some of the foremost designers and artists of his day. He worked with Anna Sui, Diane Von Furstenberg, Lowell Nesbitt and established a long relationship with the esteemed sculptor Michael Evert, who builds Pucci’s prototypes from wire and clay.
Perhaps the best-known of his collaborative mannequins is the bronze-painted Olympian Goddess, designed in 1986 by Andree Putman, for the opening of Barney’s downtown store. Broad-shouldered and amazonian, the long-necked head had curved features and a waved, undulating hairline. Inspired by classical sculpture and art-deco shapes, the mannequin was critically lauded as a powerful, aspirational interpretation of female physicality. This is a theme that is prevalent throughout much of Pucci’s work: The Mistress is a minimalist interpretation of Marilyn Monroe, whilst Birdland, designed by Cuban artist Ruben Toledo, is a swooping, surrealist sculpture that fuses a women’s torso to a bird’s body.
As well as experimenting with abstract, conceptual forms, Pucci has also worked on a number of commercial collaborations. Giselle is a lithe, long-legged reference to the supermodels of the 90s, whilst his collection with Anna Sui plays upon the painted faces for which the designer is famed.
Pucci’s most famous collaboration was in 2013, to celebrate the 40th anniversary of Diane Von Furstenberg’s iconic wrap dress. Together, they wanted to experiment with role of the Mannequin- to emphasise their importance in the fashion industry, yet challenge the conventions of their role. They wanted to create a figure that could link art and fashion,a sculptural form that could still wear clothes realistically. “We took her cheekbones, we took her mouth, and we abstracted it and made it modern,” said Pucci.
By Isobel Thompson