Bringing Life to Fashion, One Mannequin at a Time

How a Colorado company keeps Vegas boutiques looking good

Consider this the next time you’re footing it through the Forum Shops or Fashion Show: You’re gallery hopping.

Beautiful people mingle amid varied objects, positioned at their best angle and in the most flattering light. Viewers take them in, admiring color, texture, shape and space. Some objects are encased in glass vitrines—look, but don’t touch! Tags and wall text enlighten, informing us of provenance, scale and price. And all around, sculpture abounds.

Ileana Barbu is one of those sculptors, and if you’ve toured Las Vegas clothing galleries such as Old Navy, Armani Exchange, Gap, Nike Town, Oakley, Columbia Sportswear or American Eagle Outfitters, you’ve seen her art.

Barbu works for Fusion Specialties in Broomfield, Colo., a mannequin-making outfit that boasts dozens of high-profile clients. But these are no run-of-the-mill mannequins, the sort you might find in mid-’80s teen flicks or certain Seinfeld episodes (remember the Elaine mannequin?). Although housed in a low-slung building in a nondescript business park on Industrial Lane just off the Boulder-Denver Turnpike, Fusion Specialties occupies a distinct place in fashion merchandising. Its models are crafted with each store’s brand and demographic top of mind. You won’t find any cardboard-colored, freakishly thin figures with gazelle necks and creepy elongated fingers here; at Fusion Specialties, one size does not fit all.

“If you’re selling clothing to an older audience you don’t want these kind of skinny-mini teenybopper-looking high-fashion models in your window, because the woman you’re selling to can’t relate, so she keeps walking by,” says Stacie White, Fusion’s creative director. “There’s got to be some sort of very quick, split-second emotional connection that says either, ‘I look like that’ or ‘I could look like that!”

What is the ideal body type for a given retailer, and how does that body shape appeal to the desired shopper? How does the display complement the brand? And how does that finished model inspire its targeted audience? Those are questions Barbu—who holds an MFA from the Grigorescu Art Institute of Bucharest, Romania—asks herself. It’s a rigorous planning process, and the result is a personification (well, almost) of the brand: A Casual Male XL client is not a Guess customer—and it shows in the finished product. Sleek athletic profiles help Nike Town best present its product—the Nike models are actually a bit larger than human scale. Meanwhile, a “comfortable in her own skin” approach was used when Fusion crafted models for Talbots plus-size clothing.

One recent success for Fusion’s customized approach was its contribution to Disney Stores. The entertainment and merchandising kingpin, in effect, held tryouts for those wanting to land the in-store mannequin displays. So Fusion brought in children and turned them loose with toys, crayons and the like and watched the action unfold. The crew observed and photographed the kids’ unscripted movements, then transformed those “moments” into sculptures. The free-flowing, free-spirited approach landed the company the Disney contract.

“A lot of people, when they think of mannequins, think of poses and you ask anybody to pose and it’s going to look like a pose,” says Peter Huston, Fusion’s brand president. “The success for us is capturing a moment in time, which is very different than a pose.”

The result? A little girl’s whimsical curtsy, a boy’s leap caught in midair and another form floating aloft tethered to balloons—26 different mannequins in all, finished with a woodgrain look.

Finish, in fact, is often a sticky point for retailers during the creative process. Do they want to depict an ethnicity or accentuate a color? But such considerations pale in comparison to the dreaded head question.

“It’s a complicated issue,” Huston says. Generally, 80 percent of clients come in with the idea that they want a mannequin with a head, but once conversation ensues, that number drops to about 20 percent. “No one can decide what the face should look like,” he says. “You also run into ethnicity issues—political correctness and such.”

So Barbu’s bodies often carry the weight of facelessly expressing the brand. She works with photographs—Fusion will shoot some 600 model “moments” to find a few that will work. Meanwhile, clients give input, fit after fit—sometimes a garment will be put on and taken off the sculpture 150 times to fine-tune the shape and persona. Fusion mannequins don’t use pins and tucks in clothing displays; they are a perfectly tailored fit.

The creative sorts around Fusion compare the process to giving birth (and, yes, they often name the mannequins).

“There’s a lot of time and energy spent—and a lot of thought goes into it,” Huston says. “So once it’s finally complete and it’s in the store, shoppers feel a connection with that process—and it keeps them coming back.”

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