| 14 April 2020

The House Of Mannequins

Andrea Bonaveri talks to Caterina Lunghi about his early days working to grow the family business.

Renazzo di Cento. Bonaveri lies tucked in the heart of the Ferrara countryside.

From the office of Andrea Bonaveri, at the helm of the company with his brother Guido, second-generation of the family, floor-to-ceiling windows afford a scenic view of nature, with fields stretching in the distance as far as the eye can see.

A vast space, essential: a conference table, Andrea Bonaveri’s desk and a mood board on the wall behind it, overflowing with inspirational quotes and images, old photographs of his parents, Romano and Adele who founded the initial core of the company in 1950, as well as sketches, magazine covers, faces of models and mannequins, ideas for bodies and poses. The unmistakable Charles & Ray Eames chair, and silhouettes and sculptures of mannequins off to the side, complete the picture.

Bonaveri, Schläppi, Aloof, Sartorial and Tribe… are the names of some of the nearly 20 collections and ad hoc ideas are created for all needs and purposes in the 20,000 square meter factory which turns out 15,000 pieces a year between mannequins and bust forms starting from the preliminary clay fig-ures up to body scanning, from ancient craftsmanship to the latest technologies.

Aloof, we can say, is the mannequin most requested for display in the most famous and glamorous department store windows worldwide. However, all Bonaveri collections and proposals, from the bust forms to bespoke creations, find in the marketplace the occasion to dictate new aesthetics and styles.

I just feel it and I do it. I can’t define a vision or a default strategy

Andrea Bonaveri

In all honesty, when I’m asked how and why I don’t know. I just feel it and I do it. I can’t define a vision or a default strategy, I don’t know whether or not it’s because I see further into the future than others…. for this reason, my interviews might appear strange because I can’t define my methods…it’s more a question of instinct.

Up to now your intuition has never been wrong.

[He laughs]. The few things I’ve done in my life have turned out rather well. Now we’ll see what happens with the last one, the acquisition and relaunching of Rootstein. I firmly believe it’s a passion that has turned into a work opportunity and I feel I’m responsible for making it become a story of resurgence and an occasion to broaden the horizons of our work. I really like this mannequin, which is the polar opposite of our stylized ones. I like Rootstein and always have. I have always admired this company founded in the ‘50s in London by Adel Rootstein, and devoted to realistic mannequins. So we took this step.

Your role. You are divided between two worlds, the creative and managerial one, and your office reflects this.

Quite. It’s the right balance. I am not as creative as an artist but I don’t live just for numbers, to the contrary. Let’s start from the beginning if that’s ok.

Of course.

Basically I didn’t want to do anything at all [He laughs].

You wanted to live off your father’s company?

To tell the truth, there wasn’t much money. My father came from a situation in the ‘70s when the company was just a little set-up that handled orders utilising outside suppliers. It was really small.

But the beginning sounds like a story out of a novel.

Bear in mind that my father was a pioneer in the business in the ‘50s. He started off with a bag of gypsum, newsprint paper and a package of clay. With this, he sculpted the first mannequin, loaded it onto a bicycle-drawn cart and cycled around to try to sell it. It’s that part of post-war Italy that today we dream of. There were a lot of people like him then and they laid the foundations for many companies while building up the Italian economy. My dad was one of those people. From this rather poetic but laborious start full of hardships, we move on to the end of the ‘70s when I entered into the business end of the company.

Were you studying?

I was young…I had a lot of ideas floating around in my head, lots of distractions. You could say I was never a model student [He laughs]. The choice of my secondary school was by pure happenstance.

What kind of school was it?

It was a training institute for tour operators. I was really fascinated by trips that I had never taken and I still had no clear idea of what I wanted to do in the future nor a secret dream.

In the meantime did you do some travelling?

No, no trips. As I said before there was little money at home, so I started working half-heartedly in the factory, I would paint and pack the mannequins, I was doing a bit of this and a bit of that around Bonaveri. Let’s say that my main interested was focused on keeping late hours and partying with my friends. I was 20 years old in a small provincial town between land and sea.
At a certain point, I said to myself, “I can’t take much more of this. I’ll become a travelling salesman so I can wander around a bit and see the world. In hindsight that was my good fortune, a perfect choice.”

I hopped into my car, a Citroen 2 CV, grabbed the catalogues and started to call on store after store. What a big let-down! People weren’t interested in our mannequins and said, “Thank you, we’re all set.” And sometimes I saw my catalogues tossed in the trash bin when I passed by that way again. If I think about it now, I remember many embarrassing moments and some humiliating situations. But it was those doors slammed in my face that changed things and stimulated me like never before and led me to make choices that somehow brought me to where I am today. Look elsewhere, aim higher, get away from the local mentality.

But at the time who were your customers?

We made realistic mannequins and bust forms for window display, and in particular dress forms for dressmakers and stores that sold sewing machines. There were Necchi, Borletti, Pfaff, Singer to name just a few.

Getting back to your story.

I left door-to-door sales and asked myself which one was the most important fashion company, and the answer then was Benetton. I phoned their headquarters in Ponzano near Treviso, sold them a convincing story and was told that the person in charge of their display windows was architect Tobia Scarpa. Benetton was really ahead of the times then. So I phoned the architect to set up a meeting and he invited me to come to see him in his studio. We talked about this and that and we connected – perhaps he liked my sincerity. Then he told me to meet up with him and Luciano Benetton in Ponzano the following week, and we did.

Benetton were your first big clients.

They had a new project called Benetton Uomo on the drawing board and it had to be an elegant man. Mr Benetton was extremely interested in this project and wanted to open several stores to test the market. He and I talked about it together and subsequently, I developed a mannequin for them: it was one of my first projects. I wanted to show him photos of the mannequin, so I phoned the company and was told Mr Benetton was in the United States in New York.

How did that turn out?

As luck would have it, it was precisely New York where I went on my first trip to the States in 1984 and New York became my training ground. In fact, my first trips were all to the United States. We were doing the Nadi (National Association of Display Industries, editor’s note) trade fair there with our American agent. Upon arriving in town, I decided to go to the headquarters of Benetton America: I went to an address in a Manhattan skyscraper, entered the huge foyer and asked for Mr Benetton. I was invited to wait while they told him someone had come to see him. Luciano Benetton in person popped out of a door, looked at me thunderstruck – I was there without an appointment – and said, “Hello, what are you doing here?” I answered I wanted to show him the photos of the new mannequin I had created for the new Benetton Uomo stores. He had me come into the meeting room with his team, and introduced me as one of the world’s best mannequin producers! So I showed him the photos.

That was a nice presentation on his part. Right away he placed his trust in you.

He introduced me as the mannequin phenomenon! I think he was just so shocked at the strange situation. After glimpsing the photos he said that they were great, make an agreement with Scarpa.

What a story, what a meeting.

If I think about it now, I still don’t believe it. But in life, nothing happens by chance and in the long-run, if you commit yourself, if you take your job seriously, you realise that what people may call luck is nothing other than the prize for your hard work and determination.

Surely you have more anecdotes about other well-known personalities who wrote the history of fashion.

Armani was very important for our growth. He opened his first stores with our products and he even went in person to arrange the window displays when his stores were inaugurated. Once when we were showing him a new mannequin for his boutiques, I remember that a special feeling developed between Armani and my father. When he found out that my father was a sculptor, he asked him if he could show him a piece of artwork he had recently purchased. He took us up to his top-floor apartment in a building on via Borgonuovo. The ambience was of essential beauty, minimalist with no ornaments. I remember how he really cared about showing us his marble statue from the Romanesque period, and how he spoke about it with my father who was also passionate about that type of art.

I also am thrilled to remember the meeting I had several years ago with Monsieur de Givenchy, another great name. We were in Switzerland at the inauguration of the Audrey Hepburn exhibition, (“Audrey Hepburn & Hubert de Givenchy” at the Expo Fondation Bolle in Morges in 2017, editor’s note). The actress’s family was present and Monsieur de Givenchy, who was 90 years old, came over to me to congratulate me. He said that our mannequins were the most beautiful of all and that only our Schläppi was able to enhance his creations. If I think about it, I get all choked up just saying this.

Other than Givenchy you were and are partners in the exhibitions of numerous other fashion houses of yesterday and today, I’m thinking of Pucci, Missoni, Gou Pei and the Lanvin show that just ended in Shanghai, as well as the New York fashion exhibitions par excellence like those organised at the Metropolitan of New York by Anna Wintour and curated by Andrew Bolton. In each of these you have ceased being just a supplier and have established partner-ships and collaborations with them, and a personal relationship based on mutual trust.

It is exactly this personal passion that has become a part of professional life. Even since I was young, I was fascinated by the exhibitions dedicated to telling about fashion, and I went to see them every time I could. It was a way to give a vaster context to our work and to find inspiration. My work is my life, naturally also my family, but outside my family, I have my work. Why? Because I don’t know what I would do otherwise. As time passes, I find it more interesting to look at things regarding my work in my free time: fashion, art, design, architecture. My relationship with museums condenses all my passions into one single gesture.

What still makes your eyes light up after all these years of work and so much experience un-der your belt?

My greatest joy is seeing my client satisfied at the end. It’s not about the supply or have I ever awakened in the morning thinking about money. What really motivates my search for absolute quality is my desire to not only keep the promises we make but also to try to surpass them so as to leave the client surprised and fully satisfied with what we made for him. This relationship is most evident in the case of personalised creations, where we have to be able to interpret the needs of a brand or the wishes of a fashion designer, often creating things never before seen or done. These challenges supply the emotional high that makes us grow and continuously puts us to the test.

Over many years we have been able to meet all the big names, from the fashion designers and latest brands to the design studios, famous architects who build the stores – another of my great passions – and institutions we collaborate with such as the Victoria & Albert Museum of London, the Metropolitan of New York or the MoMu of Antwerp.

But you also do it your own way. If a client had once asked you to make a realistic mannequin with makeup and wig, you wouldn’t have done it, would you?

Oh, no! I wouldn’t have![Laughing]. That wasn’t my kind of product. We have always been distinguished for our stylised and minimalist forms, which at times became almost abstract in their simplicity and iconicity. As far as for realistic mannequins, there was Rootstein that has made them into a true art form! We wouldn’t have been able to compete with them.

Was this reason you acquired the Swiss brand, Schläppi?

The Bonaveri and Schläppi families have known one another for ages and we mutually respect each other in the name of very fair competition. I remember that one summer at the end of the ‘90s, Schläppi travelled to Italy on vacation with his wife, and so we got together. He was tired of working and he felt that he had really given his best over the years. It was one of those moments that following your instinct, you throw yourself into something you really hadn’t planned for. And then there is always an irrational and sentimental component in important choices. We started seriously to discuss this and several months later, we bought the company. I remember it wasn’t an easy choice and it was also risky, but you know, if you don’t take risks you don’t get the satisfaction. I remember heated discussions with my brother Guido and my mother and father, but in the end, we were serene in making this choice.

How did the market react to these radically different mannequins?

We showed these mannequins to some visual merchandisers who said, “It’s old stuff, who would buy it?”

At that time what really sold well?

The Rootstein realistic mannequins and the headless bust forms. After meeting with Jil Sander in 1993, we were the first ones to introduce the first headless mannequin, inspired by the body of Linda Evangelista [see to Jil Sander interview]. That type of product still sold well.

I remember that once the visual merchandiser of an important fashion brand, after having seen the new Schläppi catalogues, said to me, “Andrea, who are you going to sell the mannequins to?” Instead, magically, those forms were exactly what were missing, and their presence created a new way of giving value to a garment and interpreting a store window. It was a total success, and to keep up with it, we had this new factory built in 2006.

I had always defined Schläppi as a sleeping brand. It was sleeping and it just needed awakening. In the space of two or three years, it has become a big success and undoubtedly enabled us to make a qualitative leap that was fundamental in making us the company we are today.

Maybe in the meantime fashion wanted new and fresh looking store windows.

Probably, but I didn’t know that. You can better understand our history through hindsight. Today we know that in the first decade of 2000, it was no longer the United States but rather Italy that deter-mined the innovations in stores and windows.

You said you went to New York in the ‘80s for inspiration and some fresh air. Is there any new city or country today your industry should keep its eyes on?

For the last 20 years, it has been Italy; there’s no longer that difference between Italy, London or the United States as there was in the ‘80s and ‘90s. Certainly, when I travel to London I always find incredible energy there and I return home full of enthusiasm and motivation. I confess it is a great source of pride for me to walk along the fashion streets and see our products in the windows.

Fashion, by definition temporary and with a fast turn-over, on the one hand, and mannequins, which have to last more than one season, on the other. What role does a mannequin play in a store window and with the garment?

There are no rules. All fashion designers want their garments to be displayed in the best possible way and each designer has exigencies. Sarah Burton of Alexander McQueen, for example, wants the mannequin to wear the garment so the way it falls from the shoulder, bust, waist and hips is impeccable. Other clients may be less interested in how the garment fits and more in the woman’s more provocative and sensual shape. All fashion designers have requirements. So what can I say? Should the mannequin fade into the background or stand out? It depends on how artistic directors want to see their garment displayed in the store window. It’s very very subjective.

On the other hand, there is your willingness and ability to study and create together the mannequin your client wants.

Every request stimulates us to evolve from what apparently is an always equal relationship. Instead, a mannequin is still an object full of opportunity to be explored.

Let’s finish with the beginning. In 2019 Bonaveri acquired the British brand, Rootstein, and you are giving it a new life. What can we expect from this?

Do you remember that book by Renzo Rossi, “Be Stupid”? [He laughs]. Sometimes you have to be a bit reckless. Rootstein is to the realistic mannequin as Schläppi is to the stylised one. In a certain sense, it completed the range, even if it’s a radical change of scene and quite complex from an artistic viewpoint. Right now we are working to complete the first archival collection that we are launching at the EuroShop in Düsseldorf. We chose to lead with an absolute icon, Twiggy. And this is not a commercial choice but a message of style, the exploration of new aesthetics. We took over their archives with about one hundred collections, one more beautiful than the next; we only had to update them. Twiggy serves to remind me who Rootstein is, and to make the brand known to young designers and visual merchandisers.

Twiggy in 2020?

It is a mannequin from the ‘60s but her proportions have been altered a bit. She was 1.60m tall and we made her 1.80m tall because otherwise today she would be a petite size. Here a bit of strategy came into play, to have visual merchandisers remember and discover this brand that has given so much and can still give so much in the future because while it is true that we all look at the future, the really interesting things are in the past, aren’t they?

Certainly, it is also the course and recurrence of fashion.

Yes, and even the great fashion designers are often inspired by old things and ideas from the past, from the ‘20s, ‘40s, ‘50s, ‘60s…. At the end of the day, we all are searching the past for the roots of our tomorrow.

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