I was in Miami in October, strolling past the retail shops on Collins Avenue in South Beach, when I saw two mannequins in a store window that caused me to stop and stare. I wasn't the only one staring. The mannequins -- one wearing a tight white bikini and the other a flirty miniskirt and a T-shirt tied at the waist -- were modeled after women who'd had breast augmentation surgery and gone in for DDDD cups. These buxom Fiberglas beauties weren't in a head shop or an adult video store, but rather at Deco Denim, a family-owned Miami retail group specializing in brand-name denim and casual wear.
I've never been one to complain about our culture's obsession with beauty, to worry that shows like "Extreme Makeover" normalize plastic surgery in an already looks-focused society. You won't hear me ranting against Botox treatments at the mall. "Which mall?" is more likely my response, "And how much does it cost?" But these mannequins with their massive chests crossed the line from a little harmless obsession with appearance to a society run amok.
I grabbed my husband's hand and jerked him to a stop in front of the store. "Look at that!" I demanded. He was already looking. I was suddenly conscious of my own chest and its relative lack of girth. It's easy to feel physically inadequate in South Beach, to see oneself as too short or too fat or too insufficiently swathed in lime green Spandex. Perhaps mannequins with boob jobs were just a South Beach thing?
Not so. When I returned to Manhattan, I noticed two of the top-heavy models in the window at Mystique Boutique, a trend-focused, budget clothing store in SoHo. I did a quick Internet search and turned up a dozen sites selling the super-busty mannequins -- generally Chinese imports costing as little as $150, about a tenth the cost of top-of-the-line mannequins sold today. I gaped at "Olivia" (40 inches/25 inches/37 inches) and "Marie" (40.5 inches/24.5 inches/36.5 inches), introduced in 2005 on Washington state's MannequinStore.com. I gawked at the equally well-endowed "Mary" on StudioRox.com, the Web site of a New York mannequin manufacturer and importer. I saw a "Full Size Realistic Sexy Standing Female Mannequin" -- also named "Mary" -- for $289.99 on the Los Angeles site DisplayImporter.com.
The mannequins were popular in South Beach. Even on those flashy South Florida streets, pedestrians and motorists stop daily to photograph the models at Deco Denim, store manager Amos Cohen told me. Then they enter the store. "This morning a customer bought a swimsuit from the mannequin," he said. "It looks good on the mannequin. The customer had a big top, too, so it looked very nice."
Dress dummies and mannequins have existed in some form since the time of the pharaohs, but it wasn't until the turn of the last century, with the rise of the "designed" department store window, that they were transformed from shapeless props into realistic figures, and became a fixture of fashion retailing. I knew a mannequin's role in life was to help a retailer sell more clothes, and in recent years, help sell a retailer's brand identity as well. But typically they are supposed to be slim and lithe, aspirational, the plastic version of twiggy fashion models. Or so I thought. "Mannequins are considered the ideal beauty of our time," said Marie Davis, editor in chief of FashionWindows.com, an online magazine for fashion and visual merchandising. "But they're also political. Whatever is happening in the world is also happening in the mannequins. They have to reflect society or people won't buy the clothes."
Oh, great. I hate the idea that a surgically achieved, über-chesty look is an ideal for anyone -- beyond participants at an exotic dancer convention. After all, the average size of the American female chest is 34B. And while there were about 330,000 breast augmentation surgeries done in the U.S. last year, that's not a majority of shoppers. Even with the FDA's recent re-approval of the appealingly squishy silicone implants, women with breast jobs are not really a large enough market to warrant their own fashions. At least not yet. With more mannequins with super-bazoombas showing up in stores, how long will it be before more women are asking, "How much is that chest in the window?"
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New York City is the center of the American mannequin industry. While most showrooms are located south of Midtown, on West 25th and 26th streets, the outer boroughs are home to an ever-growing cadre of companies offering cheap Asian imports, like Rox Studio. On a sunny Friday in late November, I took the F train to the end of the line to visit Rox, the birthplace, I had heard, of the endowed mannequins.
After a 15-minute walk through a litter-strewn, semi-residential area of Queens, I came to the Rox Studio showroom and warehouse, located in a row of cement-block buildings called Jamaica Industrial Park. Across the street, laundry hung on a line behind a narrow brick house. Sounds of manufacturing -- drilling, hammering and the churning of a giant cement mixer -- rang out across the neighborhood. On a metal door painted gray, a piece of paper flapped in the wind, attached by a piece of strapping tape. "Main Entrance," it said.
Inside Rox Studio were a handful of windowless offices with flat gray carpet and low ceilings, connected to a huge warehouse. Fifty slender mannequins and three hyper-buxom models stood around a large, rectangular showroom in various states of undress. I walked over to the somewhat slutty-looking "Jessica," who was naked except for a wig of ash blond corkscrew curls and a cigarette hanging from her mouth. She stood next to the red-haired, mega-breasted "Anna," and the similarly huge, African-American "Anita." In a smaller photo room, the chesty "Mary" stood naked and wigless. Her high, round breasts came up to my collarbone. They were bigger than her face, the nipples painted Bazooka bubblegum pink.
Roxanne Xu is the studio's namesake and designer. She was dressed casually, in a black zip-up sweat shirt and jeans, her black hair pulled back into a loose ponytail. She works in the showroom with her husband, a youthful Chinese novelist who would perhaps have looked more at home at an East Village literary reading than in a warehouse, eating dumplings from Tupperware with his fellow workers. Xu came to New York from China to study fashion design at the Fashion Institute of Technology and then "fell" into the import business, she explained, after she asked the fabricators at her family factory in China to create inexpensive dress forms with American proportions for her fellow students. Xu claimed to have invented the enhanced-breast mannequin last year after seeing a Broadway dancer with a "really big bust -- when she walked onto the stage, people cheered." She took that applause as a cue to create a new "sexy," chesty form, and have it produced at her family's factory in southern China. Rox Studio introduced "Anna" and "Mary" in 2006, charging $150 plus shipping for each.
When Xu first created the busty mannequin, she sketched a picture of the figure she desired, and sent the drawing to China, asking the fabricator to add the new bust to an old form. It took several tries before she got what she wanted. The sculptor in China could not believe anyone would want such a large chest. "I kept saying, 'Bigger, bigger,'" said Xu. "But the sculptor could not accept this at first."
When he did, he put the chest in the wrong place. "He originally made them dropped down, like on a real person," Xu said, gesturing to a place on her own slender frame about halfway between the neck of her sweat shirt and the waist of her jeans. "I said, 'No, this is not a real person. Raise them up.'"
Up close, the breasts weren't the only part that looked fake. The bodies were smooth and fluid, without the angles and wrinkles of real people. Their rose-pink nail polish was spray-painted on, often covering more than just the nails. As with all mannequins, they had seams in their wrists and shoulders and hips where a visual merchandiser would unscrew the limbs to put on the clothes.
While traditional, high-end mannequin makers employ classically trained sculptors to mold mannequins from live models, factories such as Xu's knock off preexisting forms. Copying saves about $5,000 in artist and model fees per design, and manufacturing with cheap Chinese labor cuts costs even more. The results may not look great up close but they're good enough for many customers. Xu said she didn't want to compete with the top-end mannequin makers because she'd have to retrain all her workers to do finer, more detailed work.
Xu said business is booming for her normal-shaped mannequins, and she even has her eye on another market -- the male equivalent of her big-busted broads. "One of my customers asked me to do that. He wanted it sticking out, extra big. But the quantity was too small. It costs $2,000 for a new design, even in China. Less than 50 pieces, it's not worth it. Two or three people ask, and then I'll make it."
Besides, the designer is content with girls. "To me, they seem like a real person," said Xu, who admits to buying clothes for the mannequins when shopping for herself, and then returning to the show room to dress them up. So far, Xu has sold her bust-enhanced forms to only a handful of stores and individuals. She's confident sales will grow, though she acknowledges that it's too soon to tell. I had to admit, I did see the potential. After 30 minutes of staring at the super-sized chests, they started to look normal. They looked good. When I walked over to "Judy," a more typical female form, she looked too flat, boyish, almost deformed. Where were her big, happy pink nipples?
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Steve Kaufman, editor of VM+SD, a trade magazine about visual merchandising and store design, assured me that hefty-chested mannequins did not have, well, legs. "The high-end stores -- Saks, Neiman's, Bergdorf, Bloomingdale's -- are not looking for outsized figures," he explained on the phone. "They don't change out mannequins every six months; they're too expensive. They want a timeless look. They're looking to show off their garments, and their garments hang better on a classic mannequin with small breasts and slim hips. The boob-job mannequins are way too trendy."
I headed to the West 19th Street showroom of Rootstein Mannequins to see for myself. If Rox Studio is the Forever 21 of the mannequin world, Rootstein is Gucci, the global leader in the art of the Fiberglas form. Rootstein mannequins populate the windows of Chanel, Hermès, Bergdorf Goodman, Lord & Taylor, and Neiman Marcus. They can be seen in the Christmas window displays on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, at Harrods in London, Takashimaya in Japan. They are the best of the best. "We're like couture, and the rest are like rag trade," said Rootstein's creative director, Kevin Arpino.
Arpino was outside smoking a cigarette. He was taking a break from making the Manhattan showroom look like a swank hotel lobby to display the company's two new collections for Winter Market -- the mannequin-district open house. Winter Market was being held in conjunction with StoreXpo, New York's annual visual merchandising trade show, running the first week of December this year.
Arpino wore low-slung jeans and a long-sleeved striped T-shirt with an anchor-shaped button appliqui on the front. He gave me a tour of the showroom-cum-hotel. Mannequins dressed to the nines stood in groups before painted black walls, huddled in sunken conversation areas, and lounged around on chocolate carpet. A young female mannequin in black sequined shorts and black tights rested her taut Fiberglas tush against a bar stool. Another stood in a floor-length evening gown of black beading on black mesh. Others wore lavender fox wraps, glossy black feather stoles, Chanel-style bracelets. These were classic mannequin bodies, long and lean. The clothes they wore looked spectacular. I no longer felt flat-chested. I felt critically underdressed.
Up close, the Rootstein figures were about as far from those at Rox Studio as Guangzhou is from New York. The mannequins weren't standing at attention in stick-figure poses, but rather leaning and sitting and resting their forearms on each other's shoulders. Their skin was sprayed with an orange-peel paint to give it a realistic texture. The makeup, done by artists using oil paint, was perfect. One female model had chapped-looking lips. A male model showed the slight linear protrusion of veins under his skin. A tall male form sculpted from an Argentine model named Felix had such shiny black hair, full lips and liquid good looks that I briefly considered leaving my husband for a mannequin. These mannequins, many of them multiethnic, looked like real people you might see on the street, or rather, like beautiful actors playing real people on some imaginary, fabulous street.
Every Rootstein collection takes a year and a half to create. Arpino comes up with a concept, then casts models who fit his vision. The models pose for three weeks, two hours a day, for one of the company's three classically trained sculptors. A sculptor molds clay over a wire armature, and this clay sculpture eventually becomes a plaster "original." The plaster original is taken apart and fitted with hardware, then used to create a Fiberglas mold. Each Fiberglas mannequin is hand-laminated into its mold. The finished Fiberglas bodies are then sprayed with the orange-peel paint in one of 10 skin tones, and the makeup is done to each customer's specifications.
"Fashion doesn't change much; it's the people in it who change," Arpino explained. "Our mannequins are sculpted from life for that reason. We use models or actors or actresses or people who epitomize today." Rootstein once collaborated with Wonderbra, the models posing in the push-up brassieres to get that distinctive, wonder-cleavage look. But big breasts don't epitomize the times for Arpino, and so there were not bust-enhanced mannequins at Rootstein. Instead, he said, he designs his mannequins to outlive microtrends, such as, hopefully, mega-busts. "They have a built-in longevity," he explains. "We still sell figures that are 15 years old."
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In early December, the low winter sun streamed through the mass of glass that is the entry pavilion of the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center, home that week to StoreXpo, New York's annual store-design trade show -- and the place to see mannequins from companies without New York showrooms. The Javits' glass walls and ceiling, with their visible metal supports, recall the triangle at the Louvre -- only square and soaring and gridlike, affixed to a temple of commerce rather than art; this is Manhattan.
The show itself was surprisingly calm, more like a suburban mall on a weekday morning than like Macy's at Herald Square the week before Christmas. Store designers strolled the carpeted aisles, looking at molded plastic hangers, jewelry display stands in carrot-colored velvet, beer taps wired to logos that flash when a beer is poured.
And mannequins. White plastic mannequins with magnetic fittings from the Australian company OzMannequins.com. Smooth-faced, milky-skinned, alien-like mannequins from the Canadian ADCO Group. Realistic mannequins slumping and moping and pouting about. And one bust-enhanced mannequin, "Jena," a platinum blond wearing a floor-length sheer dressing gown over her DDDD chest. Jena was on offer from the Quebec firm W.M.F. Mannequins.
Owner and Quebecois Zineb Benkiran, who'd just introduced Jena that week, claimed that she'd invented the bust-enhanced mannequin -- at least in Canada. As at Deco Denim in Miami, Jena's presence at the convention caused many people to stop, and then shop. Sales were strong for her more traditional wares. "It's important to make quelque chose qui frappe. Something that shocks," Benkiran said
Benkiran thinks Jena will be most popular with sex shops, but she got the idea from ordinary people. "So many people have had the operation to be bigger in Canada," she said. "Even 15-year-old girls. Me? I'm big already. I want to be smaller. But others like it."
On the far end of the room, a line of mannequins by various producers posed on an elevated "runway," flaunting outfits designed by students from the Fashion Institute of Technology. There were silver-skinned mannequins, glossy pitch-black mannequins, one mannequin with a cartoon face on a realistic female body. There were also cute Fiberglas dog mannequins created by Ronis Bros., and dressed in pizza-parlor checked skirts and crinkly crinolines. This is the kind of Fiberglas ingenuity I like to see, I thought: cute dogs!
I was wondering where I could buy a checkered skirt for my own poodle puppy, when a man who introduced himself as Fred Kettler pointed out the realistic skin tone of a human mannequin he thought I was eying. Kettler is the co-founder of L.A.'s Moving Mannequins, a company using makeup techniques gleaned from Hollywood special effects. The red-haired, pouty-lipped, mottled-skinned mannequin standing next to the dogs was "Jodi," his company's prototype. Moving Mannequins will be the most realistic mannequins in the world, Kettler told me. I watched as Jodi's head rotated several inches toward the dogs, then returned to center. "Clothing looks best on real people," Kettler said. "So the more realistic the mannequin, the better the clothes will sell."
Kettler plans to introduce his first collection of eight mannequins this March, but so far, he explained, there are no DDDD measurements in the lineup. "Our vision is to create a line of supermodels and celebrities and athletes," he said. We're going to lure them because our mannequins look so lifelike. If J.Lo wants to be molded and become a mannequin for her line, we're the ones to do it."
Big-busted mannequins, it turns out, won't be taking over Macy's anytime soon. Their market remains trendy boutiques like Deco Denim. But now I have something new to fret about: Fiberglas celebrities in every window. Party Britney at the Gap. Pregnant Angelina at Pea in the Pod. Talking to Kettler, I suddenly saw the future: the celebrity double as dress form. And all at once those DDDD models seemed harmless -- not the signal of our civilization's decline, but just a bunch of dummies.