San Diego Window shopping at Fashion Valley clothing stores is like window shopping at La Jolla art galleries. Commerce has been raised to high culture by an infusion of atmosphere, and shopping has become an event, an end in itself. Soft lighting, blond wood floors, pale walls, and mood-engineering displays all contribute to an atmosphere of reverence for beautiful stuff and its acquisition. And instead of frames, body forms -- faceless, headless, limbless -- serve to display the merchandise without interfering with it.
David Naranjo, visual director for Charlotte Russe, is not interested in the art gallery look. "We try to create a little bit of drama, a little bit of theater that is going to make people stop and go, 'Omigod, that's cool.' We tend to do things maybe a little bit over the top, not something that the everyday person would necessarily wear that way."
Theater requires actors, and Naranjo has his in the 16 realistic mannequins that adorn the Fashion Valley Charlotte Russe. Compared to the body forms, the mannequins burst forth from the window with their painted eyebrows, eye colors, eyeshadow, eyeliner, mascara, and lipstick. Though makeup is the same for all, facial structures and hairstyles are individual. Two mannequins are black, one is Asian, and skin tone varies among the whites.
The poses range from self-consciously elegant -- leaning back, arms spread out and resting against a rail, one leg placed just in front of the other -- to suggestive -- a "club girl" leaning forward with shoulders back and hands on hips, hips cocked to one side -- to kicky -- a beachgoer with one knee turned slightly in, leaning just a little to one side, twin blond braids falling down around her face.
Outside of the department stores, Charlotte Russe's windows are the only ones that feature this type of display. Why? Whence came this anonymous army of body forms? "Mannequins are so time-consuming," Naranjo explains. "You really need to have a stylist, someone with a basic internal whatever about color, design, balance, and a really good head for creativity." When Charlotte Russe opened in Arizona, they tried training managers to do displays, with disastrous results. "Scary outfitting -- they'd have denim and they'd put rhinestone jewelry on it or something. Scary hair -- a lot of hats, a lot of ponytails. Hairdos from the '80s: Suzanne Somers ponytails coming out of the sides of the head. Would you wear that to a club in the '90s? No, that doesn't work." They got a stylist.
Naranjo, who studied fashion design long before he started here, says that the industry isn't as male-dominated as it once was, but "honestly, I think that sometimes, it's easier for a male to do it than a female, because if you've got the fashion background and everything [as a male], you tend to create or display something more of a fantasy. Whereas with a woman who's doing it, she tends to think, 'Well, I wouldn't wear this.' It's kind of more personalized. And that's what I've found, too -- it's like, 'Well, no, take yourself out of the picture. It's not you that's wearing it.' "
Added on to the expense of stylists, mannequins can cost over $1000. Naranjo orders most of his from Patina V, an L.A.-based firm, for about $850 each. "I'll go through and I can select the poses. I can put this face on this body -- they sculpt the faces from a real person. I can pick skin tone, makeup, eye color, ethnic mix, the whole thing. I Xerox copies of the mannequins I like from the catalogs, cut them out, and just kind of play around with them until I come up with a combination I like."
The catalogs show the mannequins unclothed, and Naranjo distinguishes the good from the better. "This just looks more like a doll. There's not a lot of muscle tone there. With some of these girls, you can see a little more definition in the abdomen, legs, and calves. The details of the face -- the painting that they do is incredible." He calls them girls, and the black-and-white photos of the better mannequins could be just that.
I had presumed that without the particularity provided by a made-up face, styled hair, and a model physique (5´11´´, 34B-25-26, by Naranjo's estimate), the customer would find it easier to imagine herself in the featured outfit. The mannequins were headless so as not to compete with the customer's own head.
Naranjo doesn't grant the advantage, because he thinks clothes shopping is often imitative. This explains his store's devotion to manufactured women. "I think with the realistic mannequins, people tend to identify with it a little bit more than with a body form. They kind of transpose and put themselves in that place. It's like looking at a magazine and people wanting to look like Linda Evangelista or Naomi Campbell. They can look at a mannequin, and they're like, 'Oh, my God, I want that outfit because she looks so good. If I wear it, I'll look that good, too.' I think that's why... models get the incredible salaries that they do; people are identifying with them. 'I want to look like her.'
"With the realistic mannequin, they can see the whole effect, what she's going to look like with shoes, and, 'Oh man, I like her hair. I'm going to do my hair like that.' They tend to buy what they see. A lot of times, the customer that comes in is not a real fashion-forward customer. They'll come in and ask, 'What kind of shoes do you suggest I wear with this?' [Here], they can already see it in the window.
"We talked about maybe doing something surrealistic, with no heads or something like that, and we decided that it's not really our customer. It's a little too sophisticated. I think people would rather go by and see the realism, the hair, the outfits, the whole thing." The "whole thing" involves shoes, earrings, necklaces, watches, hair accessories, and sometimes, homemade nose and belly rings.
Naranjo continues. "Saks or I. Magnin or Neiman's, even though some of them have mannequins inside, they can get away with doing a headless mannequin because they're displaying a $1500 or $1200 outfit, and they don't want to take away. Our price points are, like, $29.99, and we've got to really add on to it, really get the hair and the accessories and build up to maybe a $70 retail in the window."
Though they may not need the realistic mannequins to sell an outfit, places like Saks Fifth Avenue still use them to create an effect. For their Valentine's Day display, Saks at Fashion Valley featured two mannequins in black satin blindfolds. One wore a little black dress, the other, a business jacket and skirt. The latter had nothing on beneath the jacket, and one naked, molded breast was almost fully exposed.
More unsettling, though, was the fact that these were mannequins. Their solid tangibility lent them a greater air of reality than, say, a blown-up photo of Stephanie Seymour in the window of Victoria's Secret. But while photos are a certain sort of abstraction, at least the photo is of a real person. The exposed flesh in the picture is in fact flesh. A mannequin, though three-dimensional, is more abstract, a more perfect objectification. The feminine appearance is separated from everything else about the female. Making that object erotic can inspire a queasy feeling of misplaced sexuality, even in a culture that encourages recreational lust. This may or may not have been the window-dresser's intention; Saks did not return phone calls.
Naranjo says Charlotte Russe "wouldn't go that far, because we wouldn't want to offend anybody. Maybe someone like Saks can get away with that." He likens the stores to "a European magazine as opposed to an American magazine. They can do a lot more over there as far as nudity." To illustrate his point, Naranjo mentions that he now orders his mannequins without nipples because shoppers complained that they were "distasteful." What may shock the average mallwalker apparently doesn't shock the Saks shopper. But, he adds, "Sexy is definitely something that sells, even for mannequins. [People] may not wear it, and they may wear it, but it definitely attracts your attention.
"People have commented, 'Oh, your mannequins look like prostitutes,' and stuff like that, and that's probably as far as we would take it. Not that we're trying to make them look like prostitutes, but they're usually the club girls. They're wearing fishnets, they're wearing really short skirts, or wearing bodysuits. We've got things pulled off the shoulders, and we've got big hair, and they just look very sexy."
Among the other stores that use realistic mannequins, Naranjo admires Nordstrom's perhaps most of all. He likes their propping and the fact that their displays are enclosed, which makes for better lighting and atmosphere. The closest he comes to such a display is the set of four mannequins just inside the store. "These girls were bought not to wear regular clothes, because the positions are so wild. We wanted a center showpiece for this store, so we do them in costumes that coordinate. I'll usually end up making the costumes or just getting them all together.
"We do them seasonal. Valentine's Day, we did red. We put red floodlights in there, we wrapped the poles in roses and stuck rose potpourri in there. Everything was red, even their hair and their fishnets. Our spring theme was flowers and butterflies, and they ended up looking like little fairy-type things."