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Mannequins With 'Soul'

From a lump of clay, Mark Goldsmith's firm sculpts forms for high-end stores.

March 17, 2000|From 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, which 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.

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.

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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 thrill."

The "soul" of each mannequin--the sum of its shape, posture, attitude, body language, 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.

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."

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.

Around 1970, manufacturers began making black mannequins. Now most are given stylized, generic features that don't emphasize race. 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.

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