Ralph Pucci’s Handcrafted Mannequins Push the Envelope at the Museum of Arts and Design

These mannequins are better off without clothes.

Installation view. Photo: Cait Munro

Over the past 40 years New York-based designer Ralph Pucci has collaborated with major forces in fashion, art, design, and culture to create stylized, handcrafted mannequins worthy of a museum show. And now they have one. “Ralph Pucci: The Art of the Mannequin opened yesterday at the Museum of Arts and Design.

The show, which is the world’s first exhibition of mannequins, boasts over 30 of Pucci’s strange, sinewy creations, as well as a replica of the studio of Pucci sculptor Michael Evert, who will be molding mannequins before visitors eyes once a week until August.

Installation view. Photo: Cait Munro

Installation view.
Photo: Cait Munro

The figures stand in a frieze-like lineup against a blaring red wall. Outlining their unique collaborative origins are lengthy labels that read like a who’s who of fashion, design, and culture over the past three decades—a mannequin created for the 40th anniversary of Diane von Furstenburg’s famed wrap dress is a strong, feminine figure in glistening gold; Kenny Scharf’s is purple with a droplet-shaped head, a fantastically painted face and a single eye, a la Futurama‘s Leela; and the figure created for Anna Sui’s boutiques sports an eye patch, a flapperesque bob haircut, and a tiny star penciled below her thin, dark lips.

Pucci’s biggest collaborator throughout the years has been artist and fashion illustrator Ruben Toledo, who is responsible for more of the forms than any other name on the roster and who, alongside his partner Isabel Toledo, curated the third section of the exhibition.

Housed in the Tiffany & Co Foundation jewelry gallery, this section features several of Pucci and Toledo’s surrealist busts draped with edgy pieces from the museum’s permanent jewelry collection. Look out for two exquisite feather collars and a delicate necklace that is apparently made out of pig intestines.

Ralph Pucci studio, installation view.  Photo: Cait Munro

Ralph Pucci studio, installation view.
Photo: Cait Munro

But it’s those elegant, celebrity-designed mannequins that are the star of the show—with their shiny, slender bodies and bubbling personalities, they’re almost as fun to look at as live models—in fact, one even depicts supermodel Christy Turlington in a yoga pose.

There are also “action mannequins,” which are perpetually frozen in mid-handstand or crouch, and were once used to sell athletic wear. “They’re sort of like design, sort of like fashion, sort of like sculpture,” said museum director Glenn Adamson. “In a way, they’re better for being all three.”

“They were looking to push the envelope and get that Olympian Goddess [mannequin] that had never been done before,” said product designer Andree Putman about the figures she created with Pucci for the infamous mid-80s opening party for Barney’s New York’s 17th Street outpost. “At the opening, [it was] Andy Warhol, Keith Haring, these downtown people met with the uptown people, and my eyes were opened to what we had really been developing.”

“At that point in time, it was about freedom to explore,” Pucci continued. “Life is different now, people are more vanilla. Back then it was encouraged to really step out and be different.”

Photo: Courtesy the Museum of Arts and Design.

Photo: Courtesy the Museum of Arts and Design.

It’s certainly a moment of exploration for the museum. After acquiring a new location in 2008 and a new director in 2013, the MAD is attempting to carve out its niche within the competitive landscape of New York museums. It’s not quite a fine art museum, but it is perhaps capable of putting on exhibitions that compete with them (see The Museum of Arts and Design Hopes a Biennial Will Help Brighten Things Up). Like the mannequins, the museum is a wild mix of fashion, design, and fine art that truly benefits from the influence of all three.

Ralph Pucci: The Art of the Mannequin” is on display at the Museum of Arts and Design from March 31—August 30, 2015. 

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