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Silent saleswomanThrough the years

Mannequin's a little stiff, but very persuasive

You can spend an awful lot of time in a store without noticing its mannequins. From a retail perspective, that's sort of the point. Mannequins aren't meant to be noticed, exactly. They're often faceless, even headless — cookie-cutter forms for displaying a scarlet silk frock or a sleek suit.

But make no mistake: From a store-image standpoint, mannequins matter. Their plastic grins and Manic-Panicked wigs speak volumes about the brand's customer and why she shops.

"A good mannequin is the silent salesman," says Ralph Pucci, chairman of Ralph Pucci International, a mannequin company that has been used by Saks Fifth Avenue, Neiman Marcus and Nordstrom. "If it's the right mannequin for the right merchandise, the mannequin will sell the clothes."

At BCBG, the mannequins' jutting clavicles are dusted with sparkles. At Barneys Co-Op, mannequins are fashionably androgynous and Smurf blue. Sisley's glamor girls and guys have thick, glossy manes and look ever so bored. Each one offers a clue about who shops there: BCBG's customer needs a sparkly frock for Saturday night. The Barneys client is stylish but quirky; she has a sense of humor. And it's almost certain that Sisley's Euro-chic regulars have never uttered the word "C-Mart."

Over the past three years, women's retailer Chico's has been rolling out new mannequins: Out went the Spartan forms that the company had been using. (Devoid of faces, hands or curves, the angular creatures were as close to two-dimensional as possible.) The chain's new mannequins resemble cheery, retro pinup girls, if pinup girls wore comfy tunic tops and cotton capris.

"I think they've made a smart move," says Claire Brooks, president of brand consulting company ModelPeople. "Chico's is about a fun dreamland of upscale resort wear." The new-and-improved mannequins "have that fun, full-of-personality vibe," she says.

Sometimes mannequins do get noticed, and not in a good way. At Victoria's Secret stores, pseudo-Giseles with splayed legs and come-hither expressions have drawn complaints from some shoppers (and long stares from others). After a recent sales decline, the company's chief executive said the chain had gotten "too sexy." The brand's vampy televised runway show is probably the bigger issue here, but can those mannequins really be helping?

"Whenever you're in that whole lingerie category, you don't want to be so cutting-edge that you become Frederick's of Hollywood," says Britt Beemer, head of America's Research Group, a firm that studies consumer behavior. "You're trying to appeal to the mass market."

Few shoppers, mass market or otherwise, will ever visit a store because of its mannequins. They're there for the fair prices, the good service or the no-questions-asked return policy. A mannequin's function is far more subliminal: It coaxes customers through the door and onto the field of dreams that is the selling floor.

"Shop windows create this aspirational world," Brooks says.

"The mannequin has to say, 'This could be you.' ''

18th century

The pint-sized precursor to the mannequin, the poupee de mode, is popular. French design houses sent these dolls, which came dressed in the latest fashions, to the royal courts and elsewhere to showcase new styles.



19th century

The rise of the department store, with its glittering plate-glass windows, paves the way for life-sized mannequins. Many are detailed and realistic-looking, with glass eyes and real hair. Some are also made of wax.



1920s

Highly stylized, art deco-inspired mannequins appear. "You start to see experiments with somewhat abstracted mannequins, with flat planes rather than curves in the body," says Valerie Steele, director of New York's Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology.



1960s

Fiberglass becomes a popular method of making mannequins — and the perfect pairing for the period's mod fashions. Twiggy's lanky limbs are immortalized when she gets a mannequin of her very own.



1990s

Abstraction — featureless, even headless figures based only loosely on the human form — is a fashionable concept. But that's not to say mannequins are getting less real: Some even have nipples.



2000s

Proof that it's not just a size 4 world: Plus-sized mannequins and ladies with junk in the trunk — sometimes referred to as "J. Los" — make it big in stores.

Sources: Valerie Steele, Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology; Claire Brooks, ModelPeople

Mannequin's a little stiff, but very persuasive 04/25/08 [Last modified: Thursday, October 28, 2010 11:54am]

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