Getting Real : Mannequins or humans? Adel Rootstein's beauties look so alive you'd swear they breathe.

LOS ANGELES TIMES

Have you ever bumped into someone while shopping, turned to make amends and realized you were speaking to a mannequin?

Chances are it was a "Rootstein"--a particular brand of fiberglass beauty crafted by the London-based Adel Rootstein Co.

For 30 years, Rootsteins--as they are known in the trade--have reigned as the supermodels of the mannequin business.

A retrospective tracing the evolution of this Cadillac of mannequins from Carnaby Street to the Rave era opened Wednesday at the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising (FIDM) in Downtown. "Mannequins--An Exhibition of the Work of Adel Rootstein" runs through Nov. 7.

Jeanne Orfinik, curator of the show, describes Adel Rootstein--who died two years ago--as "a visionary who realized mannequins could have personality, drama and character."

Neiman Marcus creative director Kenneth Downing notes: "Adel was the first person to make mannequins realistic. She took them from stagnant presentations and made them active."

"When we learned Adel had passed away," Orfinik says, "we thought a retrospective would be an incredible tribute to a great artist. There had never been a Rootstein exhibit before."

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In the early '60s, Adel Rootstein--a young display artist--arrived in London from her native South Africa. Carnaby Street designers Mary Quant, Ossie Clark and Zandra Rhodes were poised to unleash Day-Glo miniskirts, Op art blouses and huge plastic accessories.

But there was a tiny problem. The mannequins of the day didn't have the personalities to go with the mod clothes. With their haughty expressions and metal rods stuck up their backsides, the standard wax-headed, plaster-bodied mannequins looked more like socialite Babe Paley than London street kids.

Rootstein saw the designers' dilemma and recognized a business opportunity. She began making fiberglass mannequins modeled on young stars of the London club scene. More importantly, she cast them in exuberant poses--no polite back-arched, knees-together, one-foot-slightly-in-front-of-the-other stances for Adel. Her mannequins crouched, they leaped, they hung from ladders.

"Adel wanted the looks she saw on the street. What she saw was young, gawky, theatrical kids," says Michael Southgate, Rootstein creative director. "It was a time of an elegance revolt against Paris chic."

In 1966, she spotted the teen-aged Twiggy in a newspaper advertisement. Rootstein had the girl's 5-foot-4 likeness ready to sell to the stores at the same time Carnaby Street fashion went international. An army of Rootstein's spindly Twiggy mannequins usurped the aristocratic Babes, and Adel's girls took over the display windows.

Rootstein died in 1992, but her career-launching Twiggy mannequin is in attendance at the FIDM retrospective, as are Joan Collins, Joanna ("Absolutely Fabulous") Lumley, and models Pat Cleveland and Dianne de Witt. The beauties are even lovelier immortalized in fiberglass, with legs a little longer, chins a little firmer, eyes a bit larger and waistlines trimmer.

"We don't make life casts. The models are sculpted," points out Southgate, who accompanied the exhibit to Los Angeles with mannequin sculptor John Taylor and designer Kevin Arpino. "We're not selling real people."

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Like a fashion collection, a new group of Rootstein mannequins is unveiled twice each year. Each group has a name, and new models are showcased in an elaborate setting. Clothes are designed especially for the mannequins, and once the orders are taken about 20,000 are produced.

A mannequin can run $800 to $1,200, but it will last a lifetime. Still, as with a fashion collection, a mannequin can go out of style.

When the Twiggy mannequin was unveiled, for example, it was touted as lifelike. But contrasted with later Rootstein figures, the mannequin looks quite artificial: Its features are extreme and Twiggy's trademark eye makeup is ghoulishly overemphasized.

Despite the changes in the fashion of musculature and makeup, mannequins can be recycled. For example, some '70s models were unearthed recently from the storage closets at Neiman Marcus. They were all clenched fists, aggressive stances and strong faces.

"Their original makeup looks like that on Nadja Auermann on the cover of Harper's Bazaar," Downing says. Very in keeping with the current neo-'70s aesthetic.

"If you take care of them and keep the ones in storage covered, they last forever, but of course that's in a perfect world. I'd say Rootsteins last 20 to 25 years," says Michael Bewley, visual coordinator for Saks Fifth Avenue. Seventy percent of Saks' 150 mannequins at the Beverly Hills store are Rootsteins. The percentage goes up at I. Magnin. Diane Gatterdam, vice president of visual merchandising, estimates that 90% of her store's mannequins are Adel's girls. Neiman's Downing claims to be a 90% user as well. Nordstrom uses mannequins only in its display windows and prefers to use mannequins from Los Angeles-based Greneker.

Should a mannequin need a face lift, her head is simply sent back to the company for refinishing. A new Rootstein makeup job will run $40 to $55. When the needed repairs are more than skin-deep, the mannequin is sent back for body work. Cracks, chips and broken fingers can be fixed, and a new coat of skin color applied.

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There is a mannequin hierarchy, which, although very subtle, is played out at Neiman Marcus in Beverly Hills. The sportswear mannequins look a little younger and a bit rounder. The models in the Armani and Chanel areas are a head taller, slimmer and not quite so friendly looking.

"We have specific mannequins for specific areas. We choose them depending on lifestyle and the customer," Downing says.

"Heroines"--with their realistic bodies, stylized heads and hands, and makeup-less faces--reside in designer sportswear departments in all Neiman Marcus stores. The swanlike, taller and thinner "Calendar Girls" hang around Couture, of course. Those casual girls in the store's leisure sportswear department are from the "Snapshot" series.

"We are careful about who we are appealing to," Downing says. "It would be obvious if you put a flat-footed 'Snapshot' girl in with a 'Calendar.' "

But the real problem is getting clothes on any of their 34-24-35 bodies. It's like dressing a 35-pound infant, says Christy Whistler, a fashion coordinator for the store.

"We have to dress them in parts, taking off the arms and hands and sometimes removing the legs from the torso," she says.

And inevitably, no sooner is a mannequin dressed than a customer asks for the clothes.

"Our customers shop right off the mannequins, in the display windows and on the selling floor. But that's what mannequins are for," Downing says. "They are a selling tool."

FIDM's Orfinik prefers to think of them as works of art. "We look at mannequins all the time and don't realize what a detailed art form they are," she says.

Now they are getting their day in the gallery.

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