The rambling factory of Adel Rootstein surely contains the country's most surreal production line. In a labyrinth of workshops in Earls Court, London, heavy with the odour of cellulose paint and solvent, the 100-strong workforce of the world's best-known maker of mannequins is hard at work.
Up in a first-floor room, white- coated 'laminators' are turning out, from the in-house sculptor's master- casts, glass-fibre replicas of the models in Rootstein's spring catalogue. 'Negatives' of Lilia and Taxi, two new models from Russia, are strewn on the benches as the collection's star turn, the British semi-supermodel Susie Bick, awaits liberation from a sinister black mould.
Downstairs, a pneumatic posse of Dianne Brills catches the eye. Ms Brill, a New York society hostess and model, vital statistics 40-24-39, who was sculpted and launched by the firm four years ago as 'the new feminine form for the Nineties', continues to be a
big seller with lingerie departments keen to promote the virtues of the Wonderbra.
In the finishing department, she and a clutch of doppelgangers await the attentions of the painters who will transform the Martian-green skin tones that emerged from the mould into lifelike, Caucasian white.
Beyond the racks where disembodied lines of perfect hands, torsos and leg sections hang drying, a group of newly reassembled, but still bald and naked, Yasmin Le Bons queue patiently for Rootstein's small army of painters and wig makers to apply the final touches - eyes, make-up and hair coiffed to customer specifications - before dispatch to shops all over Britain and Europe.
The pottery-like production system has changed little since the company started in a shed in Fulham in the early Sixties. The founder, the eponymous Adel, was a display artist - and a friend of fashion designers such as Mary Quant, Zandra Rhodes and Ossie Clark, whose 'groovy', youth-focused clothes were challenging the stuffy fashion establishment in Sixties London.
Ms Rootstein quickly realised that the tailors' dummies of the time - lumpen, plastic dolls - might be all right for the latest twinset and pearls, but were far too square for mini-skirts and kaftans. She paid a classically trained freelance sculptor, John Taylor, to produce accurate versions of models from life and began selling the dummies to fashion shops from a showroom in the basement of a greengrocer's in Earls Court.
It proved to be a winning formula. Adel Rootstein was a dab hand at choosing models - such as the waif-
like Twiggy and the 'dolly bird' wife of George Harrison, Patti Boyd - whose skinny figures complemented the twice- yearly output of the Carnaby Street set. And she turned out to be a more enduring fixture on the British fashion scene than most of her contemporaries. While swinging London was fading into fashion history, Miss Rootstein was building up an international business that, by the time of her death last year, was selling 20,000 mannequins annually at pounds 500 each.
According to the company's creative director, Michael Southgate, growth was founded less on painstaking market research of trends in clothing and body shape than on good old-fashioned feminine intuition. Like fashion prediction, choosing mannequins is less science than art, and Ms Rootstein had the successful couturier's instinct for the unexpected. Her choice of Dianne Brill, considered misguided in 1989, for example, turned out to be inspired. 'She knew when to go with the trend and when to buck it, and she seemed to know when someone's time had come,' says Mr Southgate.
The mannequins that clutter the factory's corridors and storerooms provide physical evidence to support his claim. Tucked away in corners sit back-numbers whose faces, figures and images epitomise the look to which women of the time aspired: the slimline, streetwise independence of the Sixties singer Sandie Shaw; the svelte Seventies elegance of the actress Joanna Lumley; and the Eighties power-dressing of Joan Collins.
He is quick to point out, however, that good choice and timing are not guarantees of good sales. To succeed on the high street, he says, a mannequin must be 'slightly more perfect' than its subject, which is the principle that Rootstein's chief sculptor, Mr Taylor, continues to apply 30 years after he first met the firm's founder. Apart from their dead eyes (glass ones are considered too spooky), Taylor mannequins are far more real-looking than a Tussaud waxwork, although blemishes, wrinkles and cellulite have been erased as if by plastic surgery. 'No woman is ever quite as beautiful as John's impression of her,' Mr Southgate says, 'because people need idealised images of themselves that are pimple-free and perfect.'
More than ever in the mannequin world, it seems, idealisation is the name of the game. A few years ago, Rootstein produced fatter mannequins and 'petite' lines - statures closer to the height of the average British woman - but the growing dominance of body-beautiful imagery in fashion advertising has rendered them almost extinct.
The same fate has befallen the 'mature' mannequin. Today, Mr Southgate says, it would be hard to find a place for Joan Collins amid a Rootstein caste that grows younger year by year. 'People don't want to see themselves as old any more,' he says.
The place of such models in the production line has been filled by a species once almost unknown: the man. Until the Seventies, inhibitions confined male mannequins to the upper floors of department stores, and then often as only stiff and headless torsos. 'Men were very hung up about them,' Mr Southgate recalls. 'We were always getting calls complaining that they looked like gays.' In the Eighties, though, the emergence of male narcissism rendered them respectable, as long as they conformed to the perfectly muscled macho stereotype, and now production has soared to almost 20 per cent of Rootstein's output.
Sadly, the same spirit of liberation does not apply to the question of race. Even in the United States - and, bizarrely, the Far East - Caucasian mannequins dominate and 'ethnics' remain poor sellers. 'In America, they roll in the black mannequins only after the riots when bricks have gone through the windows,' Mr Southgate says. 'But they soon disappear again.' Rootstein's attempt to change attitudes in the Seventies by modelling the black American Laugh-In character Chelsea Brown ended embarrassingly when the actress found her alter ego resprayed as a white woman with a blonde ponytail in the window of Miss Selfridge.
Ms Brown can perhaps count herself fortunate. The thriving market in 'renos' (restored mannequins) means that, as it ages, every figure can expect to have less and less respectable homes, descending slowly from Harrods to the charity shop. In a Gloucestershire field, Mr Taylor found an old friend put out to pasture as a scarecrow. And Mr Southgate recalls coming across the spitting image of 'Henry van der Zee, the London correspondent of a Dutch newspaper, strapped up in a harness in the window of a Greenwich Village heavy leather shop. I'm sure that's not the fate he anticipated when he agreed to model for us'.
The writer is managing editor of 'Blueprint'. The Twiggy and Sandie Shaw models are on display at the Biba Exhibition, Laing Gallery, Newcastle upon Tyne, until 6 June.
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