There are many under-appreciated people in the fashion industry, but perhaps the most overlooked are the silent, flawless mannequins that display designer clothing long after the runway shows are over.
The Museum of Arts and Design in New York is finally giving mannequins their due in a new exhibition entitled, "Ralph Pucci: The Art of the Mannequin," which features 30 fashion mannequins created by New York designer Ralph Pucci's eponymous design firm, in collaboration with clients such as Diane Von Furstenberg, Christy Turlington and Anna Sui.
Pucci has been surrounded by mannequins his entire life: His parents started the company in 1954 as a repair shop in the basement at their home in Mount Vernon, New York. When Pucci joined as a young man in 1976, he had the idea to create "action mannequins" that reflected the athletic focus of the time and stood in stark contrast to the conventional, ladylike forms that were everywhere. "It gave Pucci a point of view and a strong direction," he said.
But it wasn't until Barneys opened an expansion with the help of interior designer Andrée Putman in 1986, that Pucci realized there was a market for a different kind of mannequin in stores. He and Putman designed the "Olympian Goddess" for the store's opening, which was unlike anything the retail floor had seen before: muscular, metallic and androgynous. "My eyes were opened to what we then went on to develop," Pucci said. The retail world was hungry for unique, sculptural mannequins that reflected modern fashion. By collaborating with clients and designers individually and taking inspiration from supermodels and sculptors of the past, Pucci and his team have gone on to produce a diverse collection of mannequins over the years.
Thirty of them are on display in the exhibition, in addition to a replica of the Pucci sculpting studio. Master sculptor Michael Evert will sculpt live in the museum for two hours on Thursdays throughout the exhibition's duration, from live models such as Linda Fargo, Mary McFadden and Anna Sui. When asked about the most challenging aspect of designing mannequins, Evert said creating exact likenesses is very tricky — he admitted it was on his mind ahead of his live sessions — but that anticipating the clothing the forms will wear is also a main concern. "It's not a nude person," he explained. "It's representing a person who is wearing clothes, but happens to not have clothes on it. If you put on a pair of tight pants, the tight pants are changing your body. And if you try those same pants on a fiberglass mannequin that's exactly like somebody with no pants on, it won't move. It has to be shaped like it's already wearing the pants."
Not all of the mannequins in the exhibit are trying to be realistic, however. Early Pucci collaborators and life-long friends Ruben and Isabel Toledo have two mannequin designs in the exhibition. One entitled "Birdland" is one of the most abstract and was designed to display handbags and accessories instead of clothing. Another standout is the fantastically bizarre "Swirley," which was made in collaboration with painter Kenny Scharf and features bright red lips, a single eye and curved, pointy head.
Pucci has also found fruitful partnerships with fashion models such as '60s icon Verushka and Christy Turlington — women who certainly understand the role of the body in fashion. Pucci worked with Turlington to create a series of mannequins in yoga poses for the debut of her athleisure-precursor brand Nuala in the '90s. "Christy was still a model, but she was really playing up exercise, non-smoking and responsibility," said Pucci. "The mannequins made bigger statements about yoga and healthy living."
In 2013, Pucci partnered with Diane Von Furstenberg to design mannequins for the 40th anniversary of the wrap dress. "We took her cheekbones, we took her mouth and we abstracted it and made it modern," said Pucci, pointing out the resemblance to the designer. "She kept talking about the Terra Cotta Warriors. She wanted it to be a sculpture, but at the same time it had to wear clothes." The result is a mannequin in a subtly assertive leaned back pose with striking facial features. Pucci made them in white for DVF's exhibition — "more commercial"— but is displaying one in gold in the museum.
Surrounded by the range of mannequins and the re-created studio on the museum floor, it is easy to forget that Pucci and his team aren't artists in a vacuum. This is a commercial enterprise, and even though the department store's influence has waned, there is still a large market for mannequins across the country.
"The retail environment has really changed," said Pucci. "There are fewer and fewer stores, but we have the movers and shakers — Nordstrom, Neiman, Saks, Macy's and Kate Spade." His reputation for quality production and artistic collaborations has set him apart, and he says it's the reason clients like DVF come to him. "She wanted it to be inspired by art, that's why she chose Pucci," he said. "All the [department stores] that are doing interesting things are pretty much Pucci clients."
"Ralph Pucci: The Art of the Mannequin" is on display at the Museum of Arts and Design at Columbus Circle until Aug. 30, 2015. Click through the gallery below to see the mannequins on display.