In Adel Rootstein's factory, the world's most sought-after mannequins take shape. Lesley Gillilan reports
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The Independent Culture
"THIS IS Man," said the factory guide. "He's one of our most popular models. Very sexy. Nice arse." He also has sculptured hair and masculine bulges in all the right places and, according to the sales literature, looks great in casual clothes or athletic fitness wear. And he's just right for "today's streamlined retail environment".

The same can be said of the crowd of glass-fibre Yasmins and Helgas, Lisa Anns and Ninas that also inhabit Adel Rootstein's west London mannequin factory. Destined for the world's most prestigious shop windows, they will end up in Knightsbridge or Fifth Avenue, seducing the shoppers in glamorous clothes and lacquered wigs, lips painted, eyelids tinted, fine- boned hands extended in come-hither poses. But in the low-tech workshop environment of the factory, these naked, posturing figures look like the subjects of a prosthetic experiment.

Masked men in white coats shunt trolleys loaded with bodies, limbs and torsos down harshly-lit corridors. In one workshop, globs of sticky, fibrous mush are scooped into body-shaped moulds. In another, workers run electric sanders over the red, green and brown surfaces of laminated breasts and buttocks. Next door, in the paint shop, shapely pieces of anatomy are sprayed with flesh-coloured paint. Bare heads poke out from sheaths of plastic wrapping; legs and arms protrude from cardboard boxes; shelves are stacked with loose ears and hands. Over in the hire department, a community of naked men, women and children stare at one another on the shelves. "This place is pretty creepy at night," said one of the staff.

Creepy or not, Adel Rootstein's factory is supernaturally successful. In the fashion industry, it is universally revered; no other producer of mannequins approaches it for prestige. With an annual turnover of pounds 8m, the company is an extraordinary success story, with 80 per cent of its products being exported to retailers in 25 countries.

Heightened reality is Rootstein's hallmark, and every pounds 600-plus display dummy is the hand-sculpted reproduction of a flesh-and-blood model. Over the years, the factory has churned out stylised clones of Joanna Lumley, Marie Helvin, Jeremy Brett, Patrick Lichfield, Lisa Butcher and Yasmin Le Bon, as well as many unknown beauties. But it owes its success to the late Adel Rootstein's acute sensitivity to changing body shapes and emerging moods in fashion.

Rootstein was born in South Africa in 1930 to Russian parents. She came to Britain in the Fifties and, after working as a window-dresser for Aquascutum in Oxford Street, set up her own company making display props for London's smaller fashion stores. At the time, most shop window dummies were lifeless plaster or papier mache figures, dimly resembling film stars or society ladies; many were imported from America. But when London became the international centre of a youthful fashion explosion in the mid-Sixties, Adel identified a niche.

"Kaftans and mini-skirts looked ridiculous on tall, elegant, aristocratic figures," says Rootstein's creative director, Richard Southgate. "So Adel hit on the idea of modelling mannequins on the kind of people who were wearing the clothes." Among the first of her progeny were Jenny Hocking, Jill Kennington, Twiggy and Sandie Shaw. In the Seventies, pre-Dynasty, her Body Gossip collection featured Joan Collins; the Eighties saw Shape Up Work Out girls, Teen Tens and Fifties-inspired Calendar Girls. The Shaping The Nineties collection, which predicted a return of the hourglass figure, included a Dianne Brill look-alike, while Ute Lemper is said to have "freaked" when she saw her moulded self modelling undies in a German store.

Adel died in 1992. That year, Rootstein was taken over by the Japanese Yoshichu Mannequin Company, but the factory remains unchanged, and still dedicated to a state-of-the-art, hand-made product that continually breaks new ground - a fresh set of models takes its bow twice a year.

Its dernier cri will be seen next week at the display industry's equivalent of the Paris collections - the huge EuroShop trade exhibition in Dusseldorf. Among the hundreds of mannequins shown, Rootstein's are the grandes dames. There are two new collections: Seduction, "a sexy, supermodel kind of girl", including Dutch cover girl Karen Mulder; and Boy-Girl, which catches a note of androgyny in emerging street fashion. "Some of the models are a bit camp, some are rather thin and wimpy, some are short, some are tall and there are hunky men and butch girls," says Richard Southgate. "They all mix and match and intertwine, which is how society is today. The collection reflects an anything-goes attitude to current fashion."

One of the role models is "well-known New York party person" Zaldy - the exotic transvestite in the recent Levi's commercial. Hundreds of Zaldys will soon be partying in chic shop fronts. Now, though, he and his fellow super models languish unfinished in Adel Rootstein's factory, all undressed with nowhere to go. ! .Waiting to be sprayed: each mannequin receives two coats of 'foundation' paint, and a final flesh-tone as specified by the... Fully painted child mannequins (an increasingly... Waiting to be sprayed: each mannequin receives two coats of 'foundation' paint, and a final flesh-tone as specified by the customer Fully painted child mannequins (an increasingly popular line) waiting for their make-up and wigs Mannequins in various stages of completion: customers' remaining requirements are shown on the neck tags . Drying out: each coat of paint takes around 24 hours to dry on the newly-sprayed mannequins .'Finished' mannequins, already sprayed with a foundation layer, awaiting their final coat of flesh colour A bare leg hangs ready for painting. The paint-sprayers wear masks to protect them against the thick cellulose paint 'Yasmin', one of Adel Rootstein's most popular mannequins, is modelled on Yasmin Le Bon Finished mannequins waiting to be dispatched to the world's most fashionable shop windows