London-born, Kevin Arpino is a milestone – and also a maverick – in the display and mannequins industry and art, having worked for 31 years at Rootstein, next to the founder Adel Rootstein, the pioneer of realistic mannequins who broke into the world and market in the ‘60s with her eponymous company based in the UK.
Dubbed the “Mercedes Benz of mannequins”, Arpino was the creative director at Rootstein Display Mannequins in London curating the design of mannequins and also the image of the brand, conceiving some of its most successful and ground-breaking collections, faces and bodies.
We spoke with Kevin over the phone, catching him between a London – California flight, where he was heading to work as a creative director and dealer for a London Art Gallery. At present, with all his experience between fashion and visual arts, he oversees art fairs like Art Basel in Miami and Untitled Art Fair in San Francisco.
Let’s start from the beginning: London, Rootstein and you.
I started in the 80s, but the history of the company dates back to the 50s. Adel Rootsein established the company in the late 50s making wigs and props in a small apartment in Earl’s Court. At that time she came to a realization that all the mannequins in the stores looked the same. So, she began creating hand-made mannequins that looked younger and more glamorous and stylish – not shapeless husks that look like someone’s mother! She started her own collections – some were very good, some not so good – with a sculptor called John Taylor who said he wanted to work with some models – so he could model the mannequins after the glamorous models of the day. Taylor would go on to work at Rootstein for 28 years. Adel booked some models and Taylor reproduced them in clay.
The collections grew. And then the big break came when they did Twiggy… Adel was quite clever proposing her, as Twiggy became the face of the 60s; nobody else had done anything like this before. It was sensational! Twiggy is Twiggy, you know? And after that, she did other mannequins based on other models or actresses. People – the big brands – wanted their clothes in mannequins that resembled the models and actresses of the day. That’s how it all started.
She began creating hand-made mannequins that looked younger and more glamorous and stylish – not shapeless husks that look like someone’s mother!Kevin Arpino
How did you get involved with Adel and her mannequin world?
Originally, I was a client of Rootstein’s. I was working with other people at the time – doing visual merchandising, some teaching, but I have always had an eye for these things and I guess you could say that Adel headhunted me. Of course, we didn’t use that word back then, but she thought I had a certain panache, and I did! I mean, I still do, because I have a particular eye, and they wanted to bring some fresh blood into the company to shake things up. She was a visionary, you know. So I joined the company in 1983, I think, I can’t remember, I was 29. It was a fabulous gig for me back then. I started out as Adel’s assistant and then eventually she approached me to do my own collections, and she teamed me up with another sculptor, and quite soon I was doing male collections and she was doing the female ones. At one point she wanted to go back to school, so she went to art school to do a degree in Fine Arts – always on the move, Adel was. So I took over the whole style of the design, working closely with sculptors doing two collections a year, and continuing with new models. Some of them were already very famous, some became famous. Of course, I became familiar with all of them.
For example which names ?
Yasmin Le Bon, who was married to Simon Le Bon. We did Dianne Brill in 1989, she was a big club woman, we did a small waist for her, with an hourglass figure, pert breasts, platinum blonde hair swept up and the most stunning expression. It was sensational; it really is an art to achieve this stylised beauty that resembled real people. We did models such as Erin O’Connor, Agyness Deyn, Coco Rocha. If they could sell fashion in a magazine, we thought they could sell fashion in a store. To name A few more: Johanna Lumley, Karen Mulder, Ute Lemper, Saffron Burrows, Jodie Kidd. I did my friend Pat Cleveland who was the supermodel before we even know what that word was. I also did her daughter, my god-daughter Anna Cleveland who really is quite the rage and was the face of the Met Gala a few years back.
And how about the male collections? “The Great Gadsby” and “The Young and Restless” ones raised a lot of buzz, your super thin mannequins got some criticism.
We did a male collection that was muscle boys because at that time designers like Versace started to be successful and the look that was prevailing at the moment was – you know, sculpted muscles, and swarthy looking. Swedish supermodel Marcus Schenkenberg was all the rage. We didn’t get Marcus in the end, but we used a guy called Chad White. Our mannequins tended to reflect what was going on in the fashion world. I think Rootstein was more a fashion company than a display company – you know, they actually had some influence on the fashion world. We did Naomi when she was only 15 and never used it; she looks better now to be honest. Then we did the very skinny boys because that was what it was going on in the fashion shows, like Gucci or Prada, they were all using very very slim boys. And we did the mannequins like that but we got criticized heavily for propagating a negative body issue, but really we were just emulating what the fashion world wanted from us.
So you were definitely catching what was going in the society.
Yes, we were tapping into the fashion zeitgeist. We did many celebrities; Joan Collins was a very big name at the time, she came in a few times throughout the years. As a result, I became linked to all these very influential figures, and we used to do all the most glamorous clubs and restaurants. Even studio 54, I was there. We tried to reflect what was going on, not just in England but also the American market, which was very big for us too. Also, we were selling our mannequins to Ralph Lauren and to the new big stores like Zara, H&M and all the big department stores as well: Neiman Marcus and Bloomingdales. We were mostly known for our realistic mannequins, but toward the 2000s there began a trend to not use makeup and hair – which started to feel ‘out of fashion’ – in their place were these glossy, stylized and simplified mannequins. Zara was big on heralding this change – it felt youthful and emerging – easily maintainable, just like the stores themselves. We also did some custom work, for example, we often did special mannequins for Ralph Lauren. It depended on the situation and brand, really, but we always kept up with the trends… just as the fashions changed, we changed, too.
London was your headquarters and playground.
My office was in Chelsea. Then we moved to a massive premise in West Kensington – with offices, design labs, and showrooms, even fully functional sewing rooms where we would make outfits that followed the trends of the day. The mannequins could not be shown naked – they had decorum, decency, you know we really imbued them with a liveliness. But also I must not fail to mention the sculpting studios, the foundries where we would cast and mass-produce the mannequins. What many people don’t realize is that it all happened on-site. But we didn’t have just one big space, but many around the world. We used to have an office in New York, in Chelsea, with a massive showroom and we would stage the most elaborate ‘fashion shows’; once we created a Brazilian themed show with a pool, and filled the showrooms with an actual pool. We did a harlequin theme once: all black and white, with carnival acts and trapeze style mannequins. You know it could be a real palaver!
In the ‘80s and ‘90s the music and club scenes in London were at its peak, from Punk to New Romantics. Were they influencing your work?
Very much so: art, movies, fashion, music, really they are so interlinked. Models marrying actors and famous singers marrying models and so on. We had to have our fingers on the pulse, and music is always at the forefront of these things. Even today you have Bieber for Calvin Klein or One Direction boys Harry Styles for Gucci and so on. Today you have influencers and bloggers from the Internet, who are even more important than fashion editors, becoming celebrities themselves. It’s very McLuhanite: “the medium is the message’”. I think today it’s more about curating a lifestyle situation: store sales are down at alarming rates around the world, but in those days, at that time, the models were dating the musicians and it was all so linked together. Yasmin and Simon; Bon Jovi and Madonna were modelling for Versace. Elton and Princess Diana were best friends! So fashion really has always been so omnipresent, and it was quite glamorous to be “in the know” even with some of these dodgy musicians like how Kate was with Pete Doherty.
You have lived and worked in audacious times, meeting rocking people!
It was a fun company! And we did fantastic, honest hard work. It wasn’t all champagne and glitz and glamour, we pulled long hours. People came in to experience our showroom launches in London or New York and it was all very exciting. We had a strong product and we had a lot of fun. You should have seen them!