Mannequin look-alikes mirror top fashion trend-setters

By , Staff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

Their facial expressions and body movements may be frozen in fiberglass. But today's elegant store mannequins look so remarkably lifelike that you think they might speak or walk out of the window. If they appear to resemble people you know, it is because they were actually modeled after people that you might have met -- at least in advertisements or movies.

These look-alikes are part of the new theatrics that have invaded the field of visual merchandising, a field that also includes dramatic lighting effects, colorful backdrops, and a sense of verve and action. Saks Fifth Avenue here even wafts mood music, suited to its clothing displays, out over its window shoppers. The allure is both persuasive and entertaining.

Shopping, judging by New York's stores, is still a major leisuretime activity , and people want to be delighted and excited by beautiful store environments. They appear to appreciate the varied ambiances created by display department talent.

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The challenge, apparently, is never to allow showbiz to overstep certain bounds, nor to overwhelm the merchandise being shown. Which is why one New York headline referred to mannequins as "fashion's silent salespeople."

The displays must, ideally, inform, provoke interest, suggest a life style, and pinpoint certain significant fashion trends. They also must help customers visualize how the clothes might look on themselves and show them how to put a total look together, including hair styling, makeup, bags, belts, shoes, and jewelry.

The small but vital mannequin industry is dominated by a few names here and abroad, including Adel Rootstein, a London manufacturer, Greneker of Los Angeles , Hindgaul Inc., a Copenhagen maker (all of whom have sales offices in New York) , and D. G. Williams, a 41-year-old Manhattan firm that also makes top quality men, women, and children mannequins. All these firms exhibit new models at twice-a-year trade shows in New York, at which stores order fresh new faces to help them convey the current look of fashion.

A visit to the D. G. Williams showroom here at 498 Seventh Avenue reveals some of the know-how involved in making these life-size dolls. Mannequins of women are usually about 5 feet 10 inches tall, as are the real fashion models they imitate. They have trim 24-inch waists and 34-inch bust and hip measurements, and they wear size 8 or 10. Men mannequins are usually 6 feet or 6 feet 1 inch tall. Models of children, of course, run the gamut from toddlers to bouncy teenagers.

Ralph Oestricher, president of the firm, is the second generation to carry on the business founded in 1939 by his uncle, Bernard Oestricher, with Dot Williams and Ralph Adler. In the 16 years since Mr. Oestricher joined the firm of which he is now president, the mannequin business has undergone the revolution to life-likeness and theatricality. Prices have also advanced, he says, from about

Most of the Williams mannequins are sculptured from such well-known fashion models as Rene Russo, Janice Dickinson, and Patty Hansen. The black model Beverly Johnson and the Chinese model Beverly Lee also have sat for the company's artists.

As live models of different ethnic backgrounds began to project high fashion in the 1950s and 1960s, Mr. Oestricher explains, their features and characteristic stances were soon captured by the mannequinmakers. That trend continues, including the reproduction of classic Nordic features and sleek blond hair of top Swedish models. Mannequins are known and sold by their names, so store displays are populated by Susans, Sophias, Barbaras, Beverlys, Beckys, and the like.

Since many celebrities and people prominent in public life also influence the look of mannequins, he thinks the more petite proportions of Nancy Reagan, who is a size 6, could mean that mannequins with more petite proportions may be in greater demand. He says they are almost never asked to do mannequins of large-sized or older women, although they have done a few half-sized models for stores such as Lane Bryant. Most mannequins, he says, project a young look. Models in their early 30s are still acceptable.

"In June," Mr. Oestricher explains, "we began a very decided return to elegance, softness, and romanticism in our mannequins. Our models now hold themselves high and regal. They appear self-assured, natural, wholesome, and intelligent. The slouch is out. So is the hard aggressive female look, and so is the blouson-sportswear look. A graceful ladylikeness is definitely in."

The pretty, fresh-faced mannequin called "Miss Peggy" in the center of the Williams showroom was actually modeled after Fran, Ralph Oestricher's attractive wife. She assists him by following forecasts in hair, makeup, and fabric color trends in order to make each mannequin accurate in every fashion detail, from skin tone to lip color. Right now, Fran says, cosmetic colors being applied by their makeup artists include rusty orange, coral, soft clear red, and natural pink. Hair in the wigs, she says, is generally chin or shoulder length and full , and some coifs are, once more, being backcombed. Eye shadow is taupe or gray, and eye liners are still smudged.

Each company has, or hires, sculptors who make clay models of the subjects. From these, the molds are made for the fiberglass forms. Each new handmade mannequin is then usually copyrighted. Nellie Fink, vice-president of Adel Rootstein, says her company's sculptors do head-to-toe replicas and that some of their mannequins recline, perch on the edge of desks, or appear to run or jump. This English company makes $600 mannequins to resemble not just fashion models but popular singers, movie actresses, college professors, magazine editors, and members of the British aristocracy. The only criterion, says Mrs. Fink, is that they be people who influence fashion.

Most mannequins weigh about 25 or 30 pounds and come apart at the waist, arms , and wrists. They can be repaired, have parts replaced, be refinished and recycled. They may have dramatic impact and create wonderfully romantic auras, but they can't talk back, so display artists find them easy people to work with.

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