One size fits all” no longer applies to mannequins.
With retailers fighting for customers in the sluggish economic recovery, the generic white, hairless, skinny mannequin is being pushed aside by provocative alternatives that entice shoppers with muscles, unusual poses, famous faces and lifelike bodies.
“The customer shops from the mannequin,” said Jenny Ming, chief executive of youth retailer Charlotte Russe, where poses for new mannequins are drawn from red-carpet celebrity pictures, and feature pierced ears, articulated fingers for rings and flexed feet for high heels. “The Number 1 reason our customers come in is because they see something they like.”
The Disney Stores chain has added little-boy figurines that fly from the ceiling and little-girl ones that curtsey. Nike has made its mannequins taller and added about 35 athletic poses. Armani Exchange has ordered models that will lie down to help shoppers imagine wearing lingerie. A new accessories-only store by Guess features glossy black mannequins in model-like poses on an actual runway, while Ralph Lauren’s new women’s store in Manhattan commissioned mannequins with the face of model Yasmin Le Bon. It is all part of a new appreciation for old-fashioned window dressing. During the 1990s and early 2000s, many stores cut costs by hiring inexperienced workers to outfit their mannequins, and generic was best as the dummies needed to be dummy-proof. But with shoppers getting increasingly persnickety, retailers are expecting their store displays to serve as “come on in” advertising, with the made-to-order mannequins sending a very specific message.
“They personify their brand with their mannequin statements, and they’re looking for something a little more customized or unique,” said Peter Huston, brand president at Fusion Specialties, a mannequin company in Colorado whose sales, almost all of them custom mannequins, rose 48 percent last year.
One of Fusion’s customers is Athleta, the sportswear company owned by Gap Inc. It commissioned mannequins based on a catalogue model, Danielle Halverson, a track-and-field athlete training for the Olympics.
Fusion Specialties digitally scanned Halverson in stationary and action sequences. Then, over about two weeks, seven sculptors created clay renderings of the 3-D digital scans that “hand-etched her from a tiny pile of clay down to the tiny delineations of the sinew in the muscle,” said Tess Roering, vice president for marketing at Athleta, which opened its first physical stores this year.
After making more prototypes, Fusion produced the Dani-quin, as Athleta executives started calling the mannequin, in five variations. The running pose, especially, looks realistic: she is in midstride, with only her left toes on the ground. The Dani-quin, by the way, is headless.
“We wanted to make sure that our customers weren’t worrying about the hair, or anything else,” Roering said.
Michael Steward, executive vice president of Rootstein USA, which makes mannequins for stores like Ralph Lauren, Chanel and Neiman Marcus, said the newfound appreciation for speciality mannequins came as many retailers reassessed the market.
“A lot of people have decided they have to specialize,” Steward said. “Nothing sells the clothing like a mannequin: It’s a subliminal message from the retailer, the first thing people see in the window or in a department when they go into the store.”
When mannequins first were used, they were basically moulded dress forms to which clothing makers pinned garments. By the 1920s, they had developed into torsos with joints attached and slowly started to get wigs, makeup and glass eyes. By the 1960s, when some women stopped wearing bras, “you started to have nipples on mannequins,” said Linda Scott, a professor studying consumer culture at the Said Business School at Oxford.
“That was a big shift,” she said.
But in the 1970s, as retail chains expanded nationally and cost pressures increased, mannequins shifted back toward the generic.
“That’s when you saw mannequins that did not require makeup, did not require wigs, or so much attention to detail, to reduce the costs,” said Huston, the Fusion executive. During the recession, companies curtailed spending wherever they could, and mannequin sales slowed. But after shedding unprofitable brands or merchandise during the recession, the retailers are focused on a specific customer and a particular brand position, and they want their windows to reflect that with custom mannequins.
“Over the past two years, everyone has really had to reassess their business and their client base,” Steward said, “and the market is so competitive that people are just focusing on what they do well, and what they sell.”
Prices of custom mannequins run from about $400 to $1,200 a mannequin, not including the $15,000 or more that places like Fusion charge for development. A mannequin makeover can cost a national chain millions.
Is it money well spent? Not always, said Scott, because shoppers are an unpredictable lot.
“Sometimes they’re imagining themselves in the clothes, sometimes they’re just entertaining themselves on an evening walk, sometimes they’re standing there with a girlfriend talking about how stupid the clothes look,” she said.
And Steward, the executive at Rootstein, said retailers sometimes ask too much of their mannequins.
“Everyone thinks they’re going to reinvent the wheel,” he said. “As I always say, there’s only so many things a mannequin can do: Would you like two heads with that, madam?”