The Silent Beauties of West 19th Street



19th st and 7th ave, ny, ny 10011

Neighborhood: Chelsea

Entering the Rootstein Mannequin Showroom on W.19th Street is just like entering a typical gallery opening, only there’s no art on the walls. Very slender people wearing fabulous clothes stand in groups of twos, threes, and fours engaging in hushed, exclusive discussions. You’re offered a drink and the stereo system plays some kind of sophisticated world music. No one turns to look at you as you approach them and you’re not sure what to do with your hands.

Only after a moment do you realize that everyone in the room is a mannequin. However, you’re not sure if this makes you feel any better.

Junita, for example, will not meet my gaze. I stare at her from across the room and no matter which way I angle my head, her cold gray eyes continue to evade mine and she maintains an expression of practiced indifference.

“What’s she like?” I ask Michael Steward, Executive Vice President of Rootstein America.

“Junita?” he pauses, considering the question for a moment. “Junita is just the most fabulous, gorgeous creature you could ever set eyes on. I mean, look at the body, the legs, the breasts, the face…” he trails off admiringly.

He passes me a glass of white wine and we continue to ogle her.

Junita, like every woman in this room, with the exception of me, is made out of fiberglass. It’s a Tuesday evening and I’m visiting the New York showroom of Rootstein Mannequins in Chelsea. Their product has often been referred to as the “Rolls Royce of fashion display mannequins,” and I can see why.

Rootstein is a British company, started in the early 1960’s just as London was beginning to establish itself as a fashion capital.

Founder Adel Rootstein revolutionized the industry by being among the first to sculpt mannequins from the contemporary models of the time. Models Jill Kennington and Maggie London were the first faces to be immortalized by Rootstein, and many more were to follow in collections released twice annually.

“Adel believed in realism,” Michael tells me. “Fashion in the 60’s was becoming more and more provocative, culminating in Rudy Geinrich’s topless dresses, and some of the Saint Laurent see-through dresses. Therefore, realism as far as breasts were concerned was very important. So one had to have a breast, the nipple shape, and also, with the see-through, you had to color it, it had to be painted, as part of the make-up.”

I nod.

“If you show a realistic face, you have to have a realistic body,” Michael explains.

So, um, does the realism extend below the belt?

“No,” he says shortly, “No it doesn’t.” We are silent for a moment. I sip my wine, feeling a bit lecherous for having asked that question.

“But it would if it was on the catwalk,” Michael adds. “Whatever is going on in couture, we reflect here. I’m sure it will come one day. Unfortunately, or fortunately,” he laughs self-consciously.

Michael himself is British. Formerly a buyer from Rootstein for 22 years while at Burberry, he’s been on this end of things for 2 years. He’s attractive and, of course, well dressed in black pants and a jacket, his face showing a few days of a calculated and well-groomed blond stubble.

As he walks me around the gallery, pausing intermittently to point out particular attributes about particular mannequins, it’s clear that Michael has quite an affection for his “girls” as he’s taken to calling them.

“She’s what we called a tweenie mannequin,” Michael says, gesturing toward Bubbles, a mannequin with very close-cropped hair and long, silver false eyelashes. “She’s not a teenager and she’s not a junior, she’s like a Britney Spears fan. She can look very sexy, but she can also look very innocent. She’s a very sweet girl.”

Next we come to a group of three women and one man.

“One of the most important things you can do when you make a presentation (of mannequins) is make them relate to each other,” Michael explains. “Grouping of mannequins is very important. There’s a tension behind them, a point and counterpoint thing going on. There has to be a story, that’s what attracts people. It’s subliminal.”

I’m still adjusting myself to the anthropomorphizing thing we’re doing here, so I ask Michael what he thinks about the tension in the group in front of us.

“Alex and Axelle? I think they’re just getting to know each other.”

“I think Alex looks a little upset though,” I attempt.

“He’s just a little pissed off about the way she’s been acting lately, and she over there,” he says, pointing at Junita, “She probably had an affair with him a number of years ago.”

Each Rootstein mannequin sells for about $1000 to boutiques and department stores, and apparently there’s quite a trade for them on the internet. Also, for $50,000-$100,000, anyone can have his or her likeness created by the Rootstein company.

“I had a guy call up one day who wanted one for his wife’s birthday. And we had to pack it and ship it to Florida,” Michael tells me.

I momentarily try to consider the nature of the marriage of that Florida couple, but luckily Michael offers me some more wine before I can finish the thought.

We sit down on a large banquette at the front of the room, silently staring out at the 45 figures in front of us. Reedy, vaguely Asian sounding music with wind chimes is playing in the distance, and the scene feels like some sort of sci-fi supermodel wax museum.

It’s as if we’re seeing beauty in stop-time, caught under a strobe light.

“I really don’t get the chance to sit here and look around like this too often,” Michael says. “Like most creative things, you tend to become inured to it, and then something will stop you and you’ll go, “Oh my God, this is the most fabulous, fabulous presentation.”

He pauses, “It’s like life really. Sometimes you walk down the street, you don’t look at things, and then, another day you go down the street and you go, “This is so incredible!”

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