Turning model into mannequin

Sun Journal

Fashion: Mark Goldsmith carries on his family's business starting with clay creations modeled from life.

March 29, 2000|By Drew Fetherston | Drew Fetherston,NEWSDAY

NEW YORK -- Mark Goldsmith does not create males and females in his own image -- he uses models -- but create them he does, starting from a lump of clay.

His creations are shaped far from Eden, in a Long Island City factory. They go forth naked into the world, some to be clothed by Donna Karan or Thierry Mugler, some to wear more humble garments.

Goldsmith owns Goldsmith Mannequins, the company his grandfather founded about 70 years ago.

"The sign outside says 1938, but that's when the corporation was formed," Goldsmith says. "People in the business tell me we were around 10 years before that."

The company is one of a handful that fashion expensive mannequins for the nation's better stores. Mark Goldsmith is also part owner of another company, Long Island-based Mondo Mannequins, that imports inexpensive mass-produced mannequins from China and other Asian countries.

In setting up Mondo 11 years ago, Goldsmith was in a sense returning to his roots. His grandfather, Mayer Goldsmith, had striven to keep his prices low.

"No one remembers now who we were: a company that was $20 cheaper than the other guy," Goldsmith says. "I realized that if that's all we were, someone was going to bring in cheaper mannequins from somewhere else."

He inherited the company before he was ready to run it. A cousin was in charge when Goldsmith joined it in 1972, fresh from Syracuse University.

`Our mannequins dress well'

Mannequin technology hasn't changed much during Goldsmith's tenure -- they are still made of glass fiber and polyester resin -- but his are made with great attention to quality and detail.

"We seem to have the secret of making a figure that merchandises well," Goldsmith says. "All of our customers say that our mannequins dress well."

That is what mannequins are supposed to do: sell clothing. Still, they tend to embody (and often exaggerate) the ideals of the larger culture. Jasmine, a typical Goldsmith mannequin, is a willowy 6-footer made to show a size 6 dress at its best. The Male Global mannequin is an inch taller and just right for a size 40 jacket.

Dressed or not, the mannequins draw the eye and elicit a response denied most other inanimate objects. Posed in a window, they become frozen theater.

"There's something in our voyeur's mind that enjoys scrutinizing something in stop motion," says W. H. Bailey, an adjunct professor at the Parsons School of Design in Manhattan and a consultant on marketing displays. "When it's properly done, you're drawn into it, and you go away with a refreshing thrill."

The "soul" of each mannequin -- the sum of its shape, posture, attitude, body language and personality -- comes from the eye and mind of Bill Frappier, Goldsmith's creative director.

Frappier studied fashion illustration and worked 11 years as a window dresser, ending as Gimbel's creative director before Goldsmith approached him in the mid-1980s.

Most mannequins are modeled from life. Frappier advertises for models in Backstage, the show-business publication. "I'll be very specific about measurements in the ad," he says. "Most of our models are actors trying to pay their bills, and most of them are very nice people -- nicer than professional models would be, with a lot less attitude."

Turning model into mannequin begins in Mikhail Katok's corner studio on the factory's third floor. Katok, a graduate of the prestigious Moscow Architectural Institute, immigrated here in 1975.

Practicing architecture here would have meant years of menial drafting work, he found. "Sculpture was something immediate, something I could do right away," he says. "And it doesn't require knowledge of the language."

He started with monumental sculptures in Georgia, followed by tiny figures of Olympic athletes that became jewelry and by figurines for fantasy board games such as Dungeons & Dragons.

Then someone approached him about doing mannequins, which suited him better. "It's what I like," Katok says. "The nude young body of a man or a woman I think is the most beautiful thing in the world."

He works in a clay from the Lake Como region in Italy. "It's always soft, takes very good pressure, it glues to itself wonderfully and it doesn't sag," he says.

It takes him about a week to complete a full clay sculpture, and he makes about 50 a year. About half of these are for Goldsmith, for whom he works about six months of the year. The rest of the time, he does mannequins for French and Italian makers.

Stylized, generic features

Around 1970, manufacturers began making black mannequins. Now most are given stylized, generic features that don't emphasize race, though customers may order them in any flesh color they wish.

More cutting-edge clients, such as Barneys, often opt for other finishes; one series is going to the sales floor with a high-gloss automotive paint complexion.

A single model is usually rendered in a series of poses, and reaches the marketplace as a group of elements that can be combined. Heda, a current Goldsmith line, has five different bodies and nine arm positions.

A stock mannequin costs about $700 today. Customers who want exclusive, custom mannequins may pay up to $15,000 to develop the mold; after that, the cost is the same as stock.

Like the models from which they come, Goldsmith mannequins may succeed or fail. Abi, born about 1985, is one of the success stories, having sold about 20,000 copies during her decade of production.

Others don't fare as well.

"We've had series of mannequins that sold under 100 pieces," Frappier says. "It's not a formula thing; there are always going to be series that don't catch on. I wish I knew why."

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