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Originally published Saturday, February 19, 2011 at 8:00 AM

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Mannequins make a fashion statement, with or without clothes

In the world of mannequin makers, Bonaveri is among a handful of companies whose brands are as recognizable as the fashion designers whose styles their models show off.

The New York Times

RENAZZO DI CENTO, Italy — To the untrained eye, the clusters of synthetic body parts scattered on the floor of a vast warehouse in Italy's heartland looked very much like clusters of synthetic body parts.

But to an expert like Andrea Bonaveri, whose family company has been making mannequins for 60 years, each slick torso, each sculpturesque limb, has its own story.

"These are waiting to be delivered to Burberry," he said, pointing to one bunch of white bodies. "Those legs are for Emilio Pucci. The somewhat prune-colored ones are for Louis Vuitton, and those gray ones are for Hugo Boss."

There were more: bronze bodies for Roberto Cavalli. Mannequins in transparent fiberglass for Giorgio Armani.

In the world of mannequin makers, Bonaveri is among a handful of companies whose brands are as recognizable as the fashion designers whose styles their models show off.

Bonaveri is "among the names that have their own value," said Luca Ceresa, owner of Il Centro Pier, a Milanese showroom that represents Adel Rootstein, another high-end mannequin maker. "To use a paragon that may be better understood, they are the Ferraris of the mannequin world."

Like Ferraris, Bonaveri mannequins are all about exclusivity and flash. They also have to communicate a subtle message that will lure customers into a shop.

The first objective of any shop-window display "is not to sell but to declare the identity and the essence of the store or brand in terms of its positioning on the market and what it has to offer. To say, 'Here I am,' " said Karin Zaghi, who teaches a course in visual merchandising and atmosphere at Bocconi University's school of management in Milan.

"If a mannequin merely shows off clothes, it is functional," Zaghi said. "If it attracts the attention of a passer-by, if it has the ability to communicate, then it is optimal."

And like Ferraris — built at a factory 30 miles away — Bonaveri mannequins do not come cheap. A complete Bonaveri mannequin costs 1,300 to 1,600 euros, or about $1,800 to $2,200, at retail, and can cost more. Chinese imports now emerging on the European market can sell for less than 100 euros, about $137. But Bonaveri has managed to find its market.

Although the company is privately held and does not release its financial results to the public, executives said growth had been solid. Last year, the company, which has 57 employees, had sales of 13 million euros, about $17.8 million compared with 9 million euros, or about $12.3 million, in 2005. Profit margins last year were 15 percent, Bonaveri said.

The mannequin industry is fragmented. Retailing associations do not keep track of statistics for mannequins sold each year; a news release issued by EuroShop, an industry trade show, estimated that in Germany alone, 50,000 mannequins were bought each year for overall sales of 20 million euros, or about $27.3 million. Italy has around a dozen manufacturers, most of them selling models for 600 euros to 800 euros, or about $821 to $1,000.

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What makes Bonaveri mannequins so costly is the degree of specialization. The company makes a gamut of models, using various materials, including polystyrene, leather and wood. The factory turns out 1,500 to 2,000 mannequins a month.

"We are constantly researching, even though the human figure is what it is," Bonaveri said, keeping an eye on fashion and design trends, architectural fads and store designs.

Recently, the company has returned to fabric-covered models, which are painstakingly hand-sewn and assembled outside Cento, Italy.

"Each model has a history, a concept, a way of interpreting the clothing it exhibits," Bonaveri said. "It seems easy, but it isn't."

Ten years ago, Bonaveri bought out another renowned mannequin maker, Schlappi, a Swiss company that produced more futuristic-looking mannequins. In recent years, Schlappi's glassy, featureless forms have become ubiquitous in shop windows, and those models — which come in a rainbow of colors — outsell Bonaveri's, but they are hardly in competition with each other, Bonaveri said.

"Schlappi models call out for attention," he said. "Bonaveri models whisper."

When Romano Bonaveri, Andrea's father, started the company 60 years ago in Cento, a town about 20 miles north of Bologna that is famous for its carnival, the Bonaveri brand was much more an artisanal affair. After honing his papier-mache skills by making floats for the carnival parade, the elder Bonaveri saw a future in crafting dressmakers' dummies, initially delivering his handmade wares to local stores using a bicycle-drawn cart.

The first machines came when he began to use plastic in the 1960s, and significant expansion went hand in hand with the boom in ready-to-wear fashion and the emergence on the high-end market of designers such as Giorgio Armani, Gianni Versace and Gianfranco Ferre.

Demand became such that the company could barely keep up with orders, said Andrea Bonaveri, who now runs the company with his brother Guido, who is responsible for designing new models using laser scanners to replicate human figures. The new technique is used alongside the more traditional sculpture approach.

"We wanted to keep fresh using various techniques," Guido Bonaveri said.

To increase production, the company built a larger factory five years ago outside Cento. Profit jumped 32 percent the first year it was operational.

The production line at the factory, in Renazzo di Cento, is vaguely disturbing, with a continuous flow of limbs floating through the air. In one corner is a sculptural archive of mannequins made for dozens of designers through the years.

Fashion houses are not the only clients. Department stores are big buyers — including Saks, Bloomingdales and Macy's, which is the biggest customer in the United States — as are museums, among them the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

Harold Koda, head of the museum's Costume Institute, said in an e-mail that the institute did not use one mannequin type or manufacturer exclusively. But Bonaveri mannequins have been used in several recent contemporary exhibitions at the museum because "they convey an image of a powerful female type," he said.

"In the case of the specific mannequin style selected by the curators from the Bonaveri catalog, it was felt that it was at once abstract enough to carry the imagery of a variety of signature designer styles, but specific enough to present a compelling physicality to the clothing," Koda said.

Expansion has not changed the essence of the company. It remains very much a family-run enterprise, with daily board meetings convened over breakfast at the Bonaveris' parents' apartment, which was built above the new factory. "That's when we thrash things out," Andrea Bonaveri said.

Bonaveri and other European manufacturers of mannequins have opened factories in China to make cheaper lines, and China-based manufacturers are also on the rise. About a quarter of the 44 mannequin manufacturers that will have stands at EuroShop 2011, the international trade show for the retail industry that will open in Duesseldorf, Germany, at the end of the month, are Chinese.

Bonaveri recently set up its Chinese manufacturing branch with a partner there, catering to Asian markets that cannot afford the products made in Italy. The idea, he said, was to develop a strong base in the Far East. "At least that's the plan," he said. Bonaveri's biggest markets are the United States, France and Germany, with Italy trailing.

Like anything that touches on the world of fashion, the shelf life of the mannequins varies. Most mannequins tend to remain in style five to 10 years. Ceresa, of Il Centro Pier, said that headless mannequins were becoming especially popular "because of their timelessness."

"They don't age, and they are ageless," he said. "You can dress them like a young girl or a more mature woman."

Marketing experts suggest that, as a sales aid, mannequins are unlikely to go out of style anytime soon.

"Brands may spend money on advertising and public relations, but sales points are becoming an increasingly important marketing tool," said Zaghi of Bocconi University. "That's where brands take on life, and the context where everything must communicate that brand. It is the place where the final decision, to purchase or not, is made."

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