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'What I create are glorified little artworks that wear clothes.'

December 18, 1986|STEVEN R. CHURM | Times Staff Writer

Chances are you don't know Sheila Trevino, but you've probably seen her work. She designs mannequins for department stores like Sears and Bullock's.

To most shoppers, mannequins simply are the stiffs in the display windows modeling what's hot in the fashion world.

To Trevino, they are an art form overdue for some recognition.

The days of rigid mannequins with one hand on the hip and the other in the pocket are disappearing, Trevino said. Today's versions, particularly among female mannequins, are more expressive, and the bodies of both sexes are much more detailed.

Trevino, for example, created a line of mannequins she called "Vigor." Inspired by the fitness craze, she designed the bodies with lots of well-toned muscles. It was a big hit in the fall of 1985 at an annual New York trade show where retail chains converged to discuss the latest ways to market their wares.

"What I create are glorified little artworks that wear clothes," Trevino said recently during an interview in her Bright Avenue studio in Whittier's Uptown Village.

The walls of the studio, once a Mexican restaurant, are covered with pictures of male and female models. Stacks of current fashion magazines and books are everywhere. She studies them, trying to determine what's in and what's not in body types. Most of Trevino's mannequins are tall and lanky, the ideal shape, she said, for showing off clothes. "When I'm working, I have a tape measure around my neck," she said. "I look like I'm half tailor and half sculptor." As a rule, her male mannequins are six feet tall with 40-inch chests and 33-inch sleeves. The females range in height from 5-foot-10 to 6 feet, and have a dress size of 8.

In eight years of molding clay into mannequins, Trevino, 37, has carved out a comfortable career, which is why she wants to assist less successful sculptors. She recently helped form the California Sculptors' Alliance, a nonprofit group that she hopes will serve as a resource center for artists. The alliance plans to produce a statewide registry of sculptors and their specialities. The group will also keep a job list for those searching for work.

Trevino said she often turns down work. "A Japanese car manufacturer wanted me to do some human dummies for crash tests. But I didn't have the time," Trevino said. "That's the kind of call I would have referred to the alliance."

Trevino considers herself a sculptor, "someone in love with the human form." Yet, she acknowledges that much of the mainstream art world does not view mannequins as legitimate art pieces, although they are one of the more visible forms of public art today. A major department store chain, she said, buys several hundred mannequins a year. Each mannequin costs between $800 and $1,000, and has a display life of about five years, Trevino said. For years, bigger chains bought most of the mannequins and then resold their older stock to smaller outlets or discount houses. Competition, however, has driven even low-end stores to update their mannequin inventories.

"At their most basic, they are simply hangers for clothes," said Trevino. "But retailers have found they are one of the most effective ways to sell. . . . "

In the late 1970s, Trevino said, retailers began to rethink how they merchandised their goods. It was about that time that Trevino obtained her fine arts degree at California State University, Fullerton and went to work for a mannequin maker as an in-house designer. Out of high school, she opened a bridal shop in Norwalk, but grew weary of the six-day-a-week grind and the administrative chores as the business grew. So she closed Mrs. Trevino's Bridal Shop and went back to school to study three-dimensional art. Equipped with a background in fashion, she moved into the mannequin industry as it was taking on a new look.

"For a long time, stores tried to get away with showing clothing on strings, suspending garments from ceilings," Trevino said. "But it wasn't working anymore. People started saying, 'I want to see it on a body.' Even a size 14 woman wants to see the dress on a body, even if it's on a perfect size 8 mannequin."

Retailers took the message to heart, and today the industry is highly specialized, said Pat Vitsky, a spokeswoman for the New York-based National Assn. of Display Industries.

"In recent years, the clothing industry has tried to reach various buying groups by targeting their sales pitches," said Vitsky. "They are using more ethnic mannequins, and expanding their lines of children's and men's mannequins. . . . " She also said a wider variety of retailers is now using mannequins--airport gift shops, hotel boutiques and even automobile dealerships.

Several years ago, Trevino's entrepreneurial instincts sensed this shift and she opened her Uptown Village design studio. She sells her creations to mannequin manufacturers or directly to department store chains.

It's a job that often spills into weekends and takes Trevino away from her husband and two children. It takes about a month to complete one mannequin, from the first drawings to the clay model to the hollow fiberglass shell that is shipped to the factory to be mass produced. The finished mannequin weighs about 40 to 50 pounds, and must be perfect, no blemishes or defects. "That's the difference," Trevino sighed, "between them and us."

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