By Michelle Trauring on Oct 18, 2023
At The Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Schläppi mannequin has anchored Costume Institute exhibitions for over 50 years, thanks to her timelessness and flexibility.
Those attributes ring true at her newest home, too, almost 100 miles east.
Over the summer, The Met donated 10 mannequins — custom-made in Italy for a retrospective on fashion icon Karl Lagerfeld — to The Retreat Boutique in Bridgehampton, where the thrift shop is not only breathing new life into upcycled clothing, but also these repurposed inanimate models.
“I hope we’ll have them for a long time,” said store manager Gitana Albinson. “It’s just a very, very nice addition. It helps sales, that’s the main important thing, and it helps to have that elegant boutique look.”
The story of their arrival technically begins at the exhibition “Karl Lagerfeld: A Line of Beauty,” which featured approximately 150 pieces from the designer, accompanied by Lagerfeld’s sketches and ran from May 5 to July 16 at the New York museum. But for Ani Antreasyan, it starts much earlier — “with six or seven months of grief,” she recalled with a laugh.
The Brown Harris Stevens real estate agent had just signed on as a volunteer with The Retreat Boutique, eager to help style and dress their mannequins, but she quickly realized this was no easy task. They were old, heavy and difficult to maneuver, she said.
“They were hurting my back,” she said. “Every time I pulled them apart, it was really tough to put them back together.”
When Antreasyan, who worked at The Met for 12 years in various capacities, including assistant to the head designer, visited the recent exhibition, she was impressed less by the clothing — among them designs for Balmain, Patou, Chloé, Fendi, Chanel and Lagerfeld’s eponymous label — and more by the installation itself.
“I was looking at his clothes and I’m like, ‘Well, this is not that great, but it looks so good on this mannequin,’” she said. “And then it was like mannequin after mannequin after mannequin, and I thought, ‘I have to have some of these for The Retreat.’”
And so, Antreasyan asked and the boutique received. Once the donation was approved, The Retreat staff member Santiago Abondos drove into Manhattan to retrieve the mannequins.
“You can’t get any better than these,” Antreasyan said. “They’re handmade in Italy, bespoke for the show. You just can’t get any better anywhere in the world.”
In order to best display Lagerfeld’s designs, the museum selected mannequins — currently manufactured by Bonaveri in Italy — with the Schläppi body in knee-bend and straight-leg poses. But as for the head, that was custom, according to Joyce Fung, senior research associate at The Met.
Curator Andrew Bolton wanted to reflect Lagerfeld’s taste and aesthetic as an art enthusiast, she explained in an essay, and turned toward the designer’s collection — specifically the porcelain figurines of German sculptor Gerhard Schliepstein, who worked during the Art Deco period.
“With attention to detail and scale appropriate for a fashion mannequin, Bonaveri sculpted four heads that seamlessly transitioned into the existing Schläppi body,” Fung wrote, “drawing on works like ‘Diana and Deer’ (1924) and ‘Woman with Two Candlesticks’ (1925).”
To match the stylized faces, Bonaveri also created new Art Deco-inspired hands with elongated fingers, and the mannequins were produced with a white glossy finish that resembles porcelain.
“They looked like I had never seen something like this before — and they were gorgeous in the way that they were holding the dresses,” Antreasyan said. “They were not dead looking. They were very expressive, with their hands held out, and the head perched up and it just looked like a glamorous, I mean, you can’t call a mannequin glamorous, but this one was.”
The mannequins arrived at the boutique in pieces, she recalled, and assembling them proved to be tricky. They were all numbered, but the system was confusing, she said — and because they were custom, the correct torso needed to match the right arms and legs.
“But once that was done, now it’s a piece of cake,” she said. “They’re fun to work with and everything looks good on them.”
Today, a handful of the mannequins grace the large storefront windows and, Albinson reported, and by the end of the first evening that they were installed, a woman came into the boutique and bought all of the pieces off one of them — and even a pair of shoes in the store.
“She had the whole look and she left so happy,” she said. “I realized how it’s important really to have mannequins and to dress them because people are noticing and people are wanting those exact looks. In one day or two, it will be already sold.”
All proceeds benefit The Retreat’s free services for domestic violence and sexual assault survivors, which include counseling, prevention education, legal advocacy, a 24-hour multi-lingual hotline, and an emergency shelter. Every dollar, and donation, counts.
“This helps The Retreat have a fashion sense. It also helps the donors to see that we’re actually taking care of our donations and turning them around,” Antreasyan said. “They’re not in baskets, they’re on these beautiful mannequins. And also, we’re recycling. They didn’t go through a dump yard. It’s a good thing.”
Together with Laurie Sykes — another East End resident who volunteers at the boutique as a display stylist — Antreasyan visits a few times a month to dress the mannequins. Now, it’s no longer a chore, she said.
“It was really cool to have something world class like this be donated to us,” she said. “I’m very grateful. My back is so grateful.”