The Moment: The elevator doors open onto the second floor of New York’s Museum of Arts and Design to reveal a wall of some of the most exotic and delightful store mannequins known to retail mankind. The exhibition, “Ralph Pucci: The Art of the Mannequin,” has been such a hit that the museum has extended its run through October.
And one designer who was especially delighted to see the show for the first time on Thursday night was Anna Sui, who created the stylized mannequins that appear in her stores with Pucci in the 1990s. Only Sui was not among the people walking through the galleries. She was part of the exhibition, sitting for two hours in a facsimile of the Pucci design studio as the sculptor Michael Evert created a mannequin head in her likeness (pictured, below).
In a black dress with a white floral print, and studded black sandals, she sat still, with a smile firmly in place. Evert, with his white shirt sleeves rolled up, set to molding a mound of clay, spinning layers, etching the eyes, nose and mouth, until the object before him looked more and more like Sui.
“I’ve always been fascinated by mannequins,” Sui said. “They give you a chance to create a character, or a symbolic person for your brand. It’s so important to show clothes with a head on top, so then you get a scale of the person. Even though the head is not you, you can picture it. And then, why not make it stylized? It’s your fantasy person.”
When Sui was starting out, her friend, the designer Zack Carr, told her that no one would really understand her brand until she opened a store, where she could put her entire vision together under one roof. As she scraped together funds, and sought a space in SoHo, she and her friends began buying furniture at flea markets and painting those pieces in black lacquer, while spending weekends making her “dolly heads,” using Styrofoam and plaster to create the forms that would eventually become her displays. When she was introduced to Ralph Pucci, who had been creating mannequins that were more like art since the 1970s (his collaborations with Andrée Putman for Barneys New York – mannequins with the shoes built in – are considered legendary). Together, they turned Sui’s dolly heads into full figures, with skin of the palest blue, purple, or green.
“All of the idiosyncrasies of my dolly heads went into the mannequins,” Sui said. “Through the years, the black lacquer furniture, and the purple walls and red floors of my stores, all became icons of the brand, but so did the dolly head – to the point we did a perfume bottle based on that.”
Why It’s a Wow: Mannequins, as we can see from this exhibition, tell more of a story than many of us even realize, even though many designers and retailers spend an enormous amount of time and energy to perfect them into clear representations of their brands. In fact, their impact is quite strong, something Sui was reminded of years ago when she visited Syria as a tourist, before the turmoil there.
“It was really strange,” she said. “All the mannequins were the same, wearing a dark coat from neck to below the ankle, all on the same form with an upswept hairdo but wrapped, too, in these long coats. In every window you saw, it was always the same mannequin lined up. You would see black, navy blue, burgundy and gray coats. That was what women could choose from to wear. It was just so uniform, and eye opening, to see how that reflects what women are expected to wear there.”
Western designers, of course, celebrate mannequins that are all about individuality. At her home, she has a mannequin, a giant doll really, modeled after Diana Vreeland, given to her by the artist Greer Lankton. She dresses Diana up in vintage Courrèges, and poses her with guests who have passed by, from supermodels to Marc Jacobs to Liza Minnelli. Her point is that a mannequin is another way to give clothes a personality.
Learn More: Need more examples of the power of retail displays? If you think mannequins are worthy of fetish, don’t forget the 1987 romantic caper Mannequin, with Andrew McCarthy and a rather stiff Kim Cattrall. If you think they’re creepy, perhaps revisit the episode of The Twilight Zone, when a young woman buys a gold thimble in a department store from a saleswoman who turns out to be…