Realistic Mannequins for Fashion Photography

Poly Star Lady flexible foam mannequin from Poly Form

Photographing clothing is usually a fun job for entrepreneurs in the fashion industry. Visual merchandising brings together all of a designer's creativity into an aspirational image for the consumer, and the success of that presentation can add tremendously to clothing sales. Shown first are the Polyform manufacturer's photos of the Poly Star Lady flexible foam mannequin I selected, after research spanning more than a year, for use in photography for Fashion Belle sewing pattern designs. This mannequin is resilient to damage, unlike fragile fiberglass, and its flexibility allows for many combinations of poses and props.

After working with the Polyform mannequin, I feel that it would have been better to select a New John Nissen model, probably the Klio for an initial choice, because of the superior shape, painted facial features and skin tone yielding better photographs. The Polyform obtains a slight orange cast with exposure of the foam to air, and this is emphasized by color balances in an average point-and-shoot camera. The Polyform foam face is difficult to paint and resists attachment of eyelashes or other items to make it more realistic, and the body shape is not true to life. I am still excited about working with my Polyform for the first round of product photographs because of the durability and posing capabilities. As my business grows, I may switch to live models or a collection of New John Nissen mannequins in varieties of poses and ethnicities when I have photography studio space where a fiberglass mannequins would be more protected. In the beginning, I plan to do outdoor photography for easy backdrops, and the nearly constant wind where I live would easily tip over a fiberglass mannequin and break it. The Polyform foam mannequin would be undamaged were it to topple. Outlined in this article is the reasoning that led me to the Polyform and New John Nissen mannequin lines, including the pros and cons of alternatives.

Poly Star: Flexible Foam Mannequins

Fiberglass is the most common material for producing realistic mannequins, but it breaks easily. Some companies have gone to polyurethane resins to increase durability, but these mannequins are obviously plastic and not as realistic as fiberglass. Poly Form uses durable and flexible foam for its Poly Star Lady from Euro Display in Germany, sister company and sales outlet for the Poly Form manufacturer. The face and body shapes are not precisely realistic, but the mannequin can be posed in many ways and will not crack like fiberglass if the wind accidentally pushes it over at outdoor photography locations. I chose the flocked skin color with a realistic face and asked the factory to ship it with no face paint so that I could customize the eyes and makeup myself. The factory recommends using airbrush paint lightly applied so that it does not soak the foam, although I plan add most of the makeup in Photoshop to mesh with various outfits. Additional dealers are based in several European countries, but none are in the USA where I live, requiring extra work to send a foreign wire transfer and process customs costs. A German representative who speaks English handled my order entirely by email, and my shipment arrived in only four days. Read more about the import process at my article, International Import Basics for Small Fashion Businesses.

When to Choose Mannequins Over Live Models

Most fashion design houses contract live models for fashion photography. Naturally, this produces the most realistic effect and allows for an endless array of poses. Good models charge supremely for their services, however. Free or low-cost models may be found through online sources, but the quality of the modeling may be substandard compared to what is available through model booking agencies like the famous Ford Models. Over time, the cost of a live model may surpass that of a beautiful, realistic high-end mannequin, making a mannequin purchase something that small businesses with seasonally rotating styles should consider if cost savings are necessary. In U.S. dollars, an inexpensive mannequin may be purchased for around $100, while a high-end mannequin costs around $1,000. That is quite a gap, but the quality difference is evident in photos. If only one mannequin is required for photography, my advice is to invest in a high-end mannequin and budget $1,000 to $1,500 for it, including shipping.

As a privacy caution to home-based entrepreneurs, using yourself, family or friends as models is risking global misuse of images in ways that may never be fully erased. Especially for businesses that promote modest clothing, we are targets for people who oppose our standards. One of the family-owned modest swimwear companies featured in my reviews shared with me that after receiving national television publicity for their business concept, someone took the photos of family and friends modeling the swimwear online, altered the images in Photoshop and then posted them elsewhere as a purposeful insult. The grandmother who now runs the business told me that her action to prevent a repeat of this offense was to hire someone to add digital watermarks and make the images secure against downloading. In these days of simple screenshot technology, however, those cautions are insufficient. Any image online can be easily reproduced and altered. It is because of this family's story as well as the cost of hiring a professional model that I have chosen to use a mannequin for photography for Fashion Belle designs.

Realistic vs. Abstract Mannequins

IDW gloss finish mannequin
This realistic mold with a gloss finish from IDW combines the worlds of realism and abstraction. A mannequin will rarely appear human in a photo, nor need we try present it as such. The customer can always use imagination to accommodate semi-realism. Even so, after days spent evaluating the range of options from abstract to realistic, I determined that the more realistic a mannequin looked, the better I liked it. Even fully realistic shapes painted non-skin tones did not appeal to me as much as true-to-skin tones, and the one exception was an occasionally glossy finish in a skin tone, as pictured above (RHO's Jodi is another example). Glossy finishes are more suited to retail store display than photography, since light reflections in photos may look strange.

Trends in mannequins have swung from realistic in the mid-1900s to abstract in the 1990s. Some of the focus on abstract mannequins relates to ease of maintenance in retail stores. Now in 2012 and beyond, realistic mannequins are enjoying a renaissance as retailers find that women more easily imagine themselves wearing an outfit when a realistic mannequin is modeling it. Abstract mannequins are also known as egghead, headless, stylized or articulated. Attractive abstracts are available, but compare them to more realistic models to see if you might not share my feeling that realistic shapes and colors offer a more believable canvas for clothing.

Another growing trend is the use of "invisible mannequins" that are cut away in areas to make clothes look like they are floating. The illusion of a ghost mannequin can be created with a standard dress form by layering parts of images together in Photoshop. My personal preference as a shopper is to see the sleeve and hem lengths of clothing relative to the body, which is difficult if no figure is underneath. This is especially important for sewing patterns, which is the Fashion Belle product, so ghost photography was not a good option for me. The digital manipulations required for ghost mannequin photography take time and do not always produce perfect images, and that is another reason why I selected a realistic mannequin.

New John Nissen: Ultra Realistic Mannequins

New John Nissen Klio, Kirby and Kim mannequins
Pictured are mannequins from the K Collection from Belgian manufacturer New John Nissen--so beautiful that these would have been my first choice had I not discovered the more durable and versatile Poly Star Lady. The Klio face at far right has the sweetest expression of any mannequin I have found from any manufacturer, and I have reviewed thousands of mannequins. The fact that Klio lacks a smile and yet ranks at the top of competition for pleasant expressions emphasizes the point that almost no manufacturer today makes a smiling mannequin. Those that do usually exaggerate the smile, pushing it into the realm of creepy rather than pleasant. Vintage Hindsgaul and Decter mannequins dating from the 1970s and earlier, rarely sold used through eBay and other classified sites, sometimes smile pleasantly. They are near extinction now due to disintegration of the fiberglass after decades. As an update to this article, around 2014, New John Nissen issued a new line of multi-ethnic models available in a wide range of skin tones which are the most realistic ethnic models available from any mannequin manufacturer.

I have seen only one New John Nissen mannequin in person, on display at a mall, and it showed slight marks on the paint and damage around a wrist with fiberglass chipping to reveal the metal connection plate underneath. While some manufacturers are moving to unbreakable polyurethane casting material to replace fiberglass, many of the realistic mannequin manufacturers have not made that move yet. The exceptional craftsmanship of New John Nissen designs does not exempt them from the same risk of breaking and surface scratching that is common among fiberglass mannequins. To obtain the best design work from New John Nissen, it is necessary to order a new mannequin. Older models that may be found on the used market do not reflect the same level of excellence that the most recent ones do, especially from the K Collection that New John Nissen calls its most realistic mannequin line ever.

Proportion London: 17-Plus Skin Tone Pallet Range

Proportion London Series mannequins
Proportion London's Series (pictured) and Fluid collections are semi-realistic fiberglass, almost like animated movie figures, offering playfully cute silhouettes. Arms are interchangeable with a few base bodies to offer multiple posing options without requiring the purchase of a complete mannequin for each pose. The poses are full of dynamic energy, an important consideration when trying to avoid the stiff look that a mannequin can so easily convey. Designer Tanya Reynolds has developed a full pallet of skin tone options to address the need for multi-ethnic marketing, something that few mannequin companies do well. The face from the Fluid collection has ethnic-neutral features and no eye socket, opening endless options for the ethnic and fantasy looks that can be created through different painted designs on the face.

Multi-Ethnic and Larger Sized Mannequins

Patina-V multi-ethnic and size 10 mannequins
Pictured from left to right are Patina-V (pronounced pa-TEE-na VEE) mannequins from Persona, The Look and Bellisima. The sad expressions are typical of not only Patina-V but also most other mannequin companies worldwide as a reflection of runway trends. The strength of Patina-V is a moderate selection of ethnicities and sizes. The Bellisima collection, with bust-waist-hip measurements in inches of 36-28-40, matches a USA size 10, and a size 20 mannequin is also available. Patina-V's USA-based competitors Greneker and Goldsmith offer a few size and ethnic options in realistic mannequin styles, though Patina-V seems to have a slight edge on natural poses. If you are interested in a full-figured African model, ask Greneker for the Kiah head on the Le Grande Dame body. Several other Greneker faces are available for the Le Grande Dame that comes in a size 10 and 14/16 (though by today's standards the forms really match a size 8 and 12). The companies mentioned above are dominant in the USA market. Other international manufacturers offer a small selection of similar ethnic and size options. The mannequin industry overall draws criticism for catering to a slender, Caucasian appearance which does not represent the majority of the consumer audience.

Mannequins can usually be padded to the measurements needed, and if this is true for your needs, then I recommend a placing pleasant facial expression as a priority over figure size, which points back to New John Nissen as a first choice. Several of the New John Nissen faces offer ethnic looks that could be emphasized depending upon the skin tone, eye color and wig chosen, and this is also true for mannequins from most major manufacturers. If a mannequin is meant for photography, test the skin tone color with your camera before ordering a paint selection of anything other than a light, neutral white. As nice as it would be to aim for a cross ethnic look in photography, darker skin tones can turn orange, purple or green with some cameras, requiring time-consuming Photoshop alterations, and a light neutral guarantees that fix will be unnecessary. Some of the best selection advice I read is that a mannequin should be chosen to make the clothes look good, not the other way around.

Other Leading Mannequin Manufacturers

Cheap mannequins, mostly from Asia, flood the market and may be purchased used for the best savings. Beautiful high-end mannequins are more difficult to find used, though if you keep in touch with companies that recycle mannequins from chain stores, like Mannequin Madness in California, USA, you may discover a treasure. If browsing through mannequin inventories that primarily show undressed figures, fake though they are, creates a moral issue for you, then it would be best to ask someone else for whom it does not create a problem do the shopping for you.

About 200 mannequin manufacturers exist worldwide, producing all levels of quality. If you find an acceptable mannequin from a manufacturer or dealer located in the country where you live, go with that choice, since handling an import yourself adds work and expense. In closing, here are several more of the leading mannequin manufacturers that were not mentioned earlier in this article.

  • Rootstein, based in Europe with a strong presence in the United States--ethnic mannequins exist, but no plus-size options are offered
  • Bonami, all abstract but exquisitely done
  • Ralph Pucci, eccentric art pieces
  • Atrezzo in Barcelona, with abstract and realistic models
  • Mondo, abstract and realistic with some cartoon-style options
  • Fusion Specialties in Colorado, USA, with a small catalog of ready-to-buy abstracts in durable polyurethane but most work done on a custom basis for large companies
  • CNL Mannequins in California, USA, offering abstract and realistic styles in fiberglass and durable polyurethane
  • MD Studio, all abstract but unique fabrications unlike any other manufacturer
  • Hans Boodt, abstract and well-done realistic
  • La Rosa, abstract and realistic
  • Silvestri in California, USA, abstract and realistic, including athletic poses
  • Lifestyle & Trimco in New York, USA, with a small catalog of ready-to-buy but most work done on a custom basis
  • Darrol, mostly abstract
  • Vision, realistic and abstract
  • Alternatives Plus Manufacturing in the USA, abstract and realistic in durable polyurethane
  • Almax in Italy, unique, fine art abstracts, pioneers of video cameras in the eyes of mannequins to gather data on shopper habits (see this ABC news article)
  • Bonaveri-Schlappi, all abstract with expensive materials like leather and wood
  • Euro Females from Allen Display, this is the retailer, not the manufacturer, but I am unable to find the original source for these fiberglass mannequins that fall between cheap and high-end in cost and quality
  • Vaudeville Mannequins (formerly known as Decter), abstract, realistic and plus size
  • Manex USA, abstract, realistic and flexible
  • Siegel & Stockman, abstract and realistic