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Freshly painted mannequins hang to dry at Fusion Specialties on Dec. 11, 2019, in Lafayette. Fusion, the world's largest mannequin-maker, has been creating mannequins in special sizes to better reflect all body sizes and abilities. (Seth McConnell, Special to the Colorado Sun)

He rubbed his thumbs across the angel wings of her back, and made circles up the curves of her neck. Then he took a knife and started slicing off pieces of her shoulders. 

“People ask what you do, and where do you work,” says mannequin sculptor Gary Alsum. “And when I answer, they say, ‘You mean someone makes those?’ I say, ‘Somebody has to.’”

Alsum is one of three full-time sculptors employed by Lafayette-based Fusion Specialties, which says it’s the world’s largest mannequin brand (some might even say it’s head and shoulders above the competition).

On this day, Alsum’s agile fingers are shaping the scapula of a faceless size-12 female figure, dressed only in a pair of crisp, dark blue jeans with the tags on.  

In another life, he is a bronze sculptor, regularly commissioned for parks and memorials. But when the recession hit in 2008, few people were spending money on art, so he had to scramble for work. The full-time artist position at Fusion fell into his lap. 

“It was a godsend,” he says, making broad putty-knife strokes to a cheekbone.

“In a sense, this is fine art,” adds Michael VanBenschoten, whose male figure has the slightest bit of a gut. The latest trend in body-model is what they call “inclusive” forms — full-figured mannequins that look more like the nearly two-thirds of female shoppers.

VanBenschoten had different artist’s goals upon his recent graduation from The Art Institute of Colorado, but being a mannequin Michaelangelo pays the bills. 

“Never in a thousand years did I think I’d be working in a mannequin factory,” he says. 

Clay covered tools are scattered on the work bench of Michael VanBenschoten in the sculpting studio at Fusion Specialties on Dec. 11, 2019 in Lafayette. (Seth McConnell, Special to the Colorado Sun)

On one small desk sit three sci-fi looking human heads in taupe-colored clay, the creations of fellow sculptor David Richardson. He’s become a mannequin connoisseur checking out the competition.  

“We take it very seriously,” Richardson says. “I walk around the stores to see what they’ve got. Sometimes they’re just janky. Falling apart.” 

Above a tool box on Richardson’s work desk is an homage to the human form: photos of bodies posed with their arms circling their heads, some with backs arched. There’s an anatomical drawing of an extended muscular calf. He’s even crafted nude sculptures to scale, just a foot tall, the original creation for larger figures.  

Michael VanBenschoten works on sculpting a form in the sculpting studio at Fusion Specialties on Dec. 11, 2019, in Lafayette. (Seth McConnell, Special to the Colorado Sun)

The tour

A walk through the 55,000-square-foot mannequin lab reveals hundreds of plastic human models created to wear clothing from Abercrombie & Fitch, Athleta, Victoria’s Secret, Target, Kate Spade and Cabela’s. A handmade sign duct-taped to a stack of boxes labels, “Nike 3D printed hands.”

Short-necked athlete’s heads with straight noses proudly looking this way are stacked upon each other, shiny silver hands on hooks seem to wave as you pass by, their armless, sleek female forms across the aisle waiting to be attached. Legs of every size stick out from square cubbies. 

Suspicious-looking human-sized cardboard boxes are stacked for delivery in the center of the warehouse. “We call them coffins,” company president Rich Hansen says. 

“What’s in this small one?” he’s asked. 

“A head,” he says. 

The Fusion tour reveals a world of misfit sculptures: in the corner a tubby, golden gummy bear, created for a now-defunct candy company, sits ready for a hug. Discarded on its side as big as a sofa is a high heeled shoe once the fancy focal point to launch  Bloomingdales’ shoe department. A life-sized Michael Jordan, dust on his muscled shoulder, hangs on wires from the ceiling, legs spread in mid-dunk. This is exactly Jordan’s body in its prime, sculpted on a long-ago commission by a major running company. 

Fusion creates mannequins in two ways: by hand-sculpting and with a 3D printer, scanning actual people to lifelike perfection. Fusion’s 3D artists recently scanned 7’1” Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert, depicting him in mid-jump, a basketball balanced at the tip of his fingers.  

“We have a handheld scanner that is a big brick with a camera that flashes,” says Haley Stump, whose desk is decorated with two legless, chalk-white feet. 

“The model stands there and we try to get the image as fast as possible,” Stump explains. “It can be done pretty darn quickly. Scanning a model in one pose takes about five minutes.” 

Says Hansen: “Other companies create their own point of view and shop from a catalogue, but we go a step further. We meet with our retailers and ask what they want.” 

Hansen says big-wigs often visit the warehouse to see their custom designs. If they don’t like them, the sculptors get back to work. 

“If the butt’s not big enough,” artist David Richardson says, “we just put a little more clay on.”

A true-to-life mannequin of Michael Jordan soars over the production floor at Fusion Specialties on Dec. 11, 2019, in Lafayette. (Seth McConnell, Special to the Colorado Sun)

From mannequin-sander to CEO 

Fusion is the brainchild of mannequin entrepreneur and former Fusion CEO, Jim Talaric, who describes himself as a “dumbshit who got lucky.”  

But Talaric is no dummy.

At age 14 he balanced junior high school and work, sanding mannequins for a dollar an hour at a place called Sylvestri Studios in San Fernando Valley outside of Los Angeles. After a stint in the Army, he returned to the business as a salesman for small, independent stores. Before long, he got the Victoria’s Secret account. 

Then Talaric started a mannequin revolution. He figured out a way to make them cheaper, faster and better by replacing the old models, which were made with fragile fiberglass, with a stronger plastic material called urethane elastomer, a polymer that could be injected into a mold in seconds and spun by a giant machine at room temperature. The old fiberglass method required hand-application and had to be heated and chilled throughout the process. 

A specialty mannequin in the lobby at Fusion Specialties on Dec. 11, 2019 in Lafayette. (Seth McConnell, Special to the Colorado Sun)

The rotational method made with polymer gets spun without changing temperature. It was a game-changer. 

“We made them eight times faster than anybody, almost unbreakable at almost half the price,” Talaric says. “Now the whole world copies us.”

“I want to give him credit for being a trendsetter in manufacturing and durability,” says Judi Townsend, who owns Mannequin Madness, which claims to be America’s largest mannequin recycler. “But you can’t ignore the contribution of Adel Rootstein.”

Rootstein did most of her cutting edge human form design out of London. Her 1992 obituary claims she “… could identify a trend up to 18 months before it hit the streets.” A vintage Rootstein with eyelashes and names like “Sacsha H-9” sells for hundreds of dollars. A Rootstein “Cher” with swinging earrings and glass eyes goes for thousands.

“If Talaric is the Henry Ford, Rootstein is the Rolls Royce,” Townsend says. “Her older mannequins are collector’s items … she’s the one who started designing mannequins after celebrity models. Like Joan Collins, Cher and Twiggy.”  

Still, it is Fusion, which patented yet another trailblazing feature: the magnetic arm. Townsend’s customers covet Fusion’s plastic appendage more than any other. 

“It makes mannequins much easier to dress than the alternative, which uses a keyhole or an attachment,” Townsend says. “I’m always the most excited when I get a Fusion mannequin for resale.” 

Once, she received a motherlode of Fusion brand mannequins from an entire Bebe store remodel.  She says people are using them in art projects for everything from Burning Man-nequins to yuling them into dress form Christmas trees

Gary Alsum sculpts a mannequin out of clay in the sculpting studio at Fusion Specialties on Dec. 11, 2019, in Lafayette. (Seth McConnell, Special to the Colorado Sun)

Mannequin dressers: Out

There is an entire career field that blames Talaric’s vision for its demise:   the department store mannequin dresser. In the 1950s and ‘60s, this was a specialty job that required maintaining and outfitting the mannequins with the latest fashions, including wigs and make-up.

“Back then, stores would have to train people to dress the mannequins. And the clothes never fit, so they had to pin the clothes on to make them tight. That took 30 minutes a mannequin,” explains Talaric. “And I thought this was backwards.” 

He knew that specific designers’ sizes were never the same. So instead of making clothes fit a uniform-sized mannequin, why not custom fit the mannequin to match each specific designer’s clothes?

Talaric figured out the time it took for mannequin maintenance and pitched his cost-saving idea to the mega-department stores.

“I told them, you have 20 mannequins in a specialty fashion store changing them once a week, times five days a week, times, four weeks a month, times 12 months, times 800 stores. … You’re spending millions a year. … I’ll make a mannequin that fits into your clothes.” 

Before long, the mannequin dresser went the way of the pay phone.

Talaric started Fusion Specialties and concentrated on relocating from  Huntington Beach. Colorado was high on his list.  

“We met with the economic development department, stayed at the Brown Palace, spent an hour with Mayor Peña, toured the state in a helicopter and then had dinner with Governor Romer,” he says. “Hell, we were just a tiny company!” 

At that time, Colorado was begging for companies to relocate. Says Talaric, “They would have taken a hamburger stand.” 

In 1991, Fusion moved 35 employees, and all of its equipment in a caravan of 20 semis, across the country to Broomfield.

It has since moved to Lafayette and built a plant in Juarez, Mexico, where hundreds of employees still mold and sand the mannequins by hand.

In 2007, after nearly two decades building his once-tiny company, Talaric sold Fusion Specialties to Blue Sage Capital in Austin, Texas, for millions of dollars. 

Today Fusion Specialties is owned by Noa Brands Global, a holding company headquartered in Barcelona, Spain. The company manufactures in China and Mexico, in addition to Lafayette, but brands marketing director Jessica Nolan says it will not disclose its worth.

Fusion’s actual value might be a secret, and the mannequins aren’t talking.

A mannequin mold is spun on a machine on the production floor at Fusion Specialties on Dec. 11, 2019, in Lafayette. (Seth McConnell, Special to the Colorado Sun)

Inclusive is the word

Female mannequins have changed with the times. During the 1950s they were hour-glass-shaped. The swinging ‘60s brought Rootstein’s Twiggy-like figure, and then for a while, mannequins resembled aliens. 

They next sprouted muscles; and the absolute latest trend is referred to in the retail business as “inclusive.” The Fusion brand now spans women’s sizes from 2-22. 

“There used to be a code word for ‘plus sizes’ and that was ‘Lane Bryant,’” Art Director Julia Renz says until recently, the cutest and sexiest styles were reserved for petite women. “When you see size 2 clothes on tiny-figured mannequins, it’s not realistic.” 

The latest figures from Plunkett research show that 68% of American women wear a size 14 or above, and they are pulling out their wallets. Today, inclusive sizes are the largest growing retail apparel in the U.S. market, with $20.4 billion spent in 2016, up $3 billion from three years before, according to research by Statista. 

“We feel those consumers have been left in the dark in the past. They’ve been criticized for promoting an unhealthful lifestyle. But you can be a big person and still be healthy,” says Rich Hansen, who addresses a curvy mannequin as if it’s a real person. “She’s a size 16. She’s a beautiful aspirational female form.”  

Bottom line philosophy, if a customer walks into a store and can see herself wearing the clothes on a mannequin, she’s more likely to buy something.

Hansen doesn’t see the trend toward what he calls “relatable” mannequins going away, with NPD reporting that the percentage of teenagers purchasing plus-size clothing has almost doubled – 34% in 2016 compared to 19% in 2012. 

Sculpted clay heads sit on a bench in the sculpting studio at Fusion Specialties on December 11, 2019 in Lafayette. (Seth McConnell, Special to the Colorado Sun)

“We’re evolving into authentic realism. We want to see ourselves,” adds Creative Director Adam Moon, who got into fashion because, as a kid, his mom dragged him along with her to shop at the boutiques. “Mannequins are commerce-driving vehicles at the end of the day.”  

Men are shopping more than ever, so Fusion will be cranking out more male figures. The next visual craze will be non-binary mannequins that don’t identify with either gender. Hansen puts his hand on the shoulder of a child-sized mannequin with buds of a figure in all the right places … but wait, what? 

“The idea is to have subtle definition of features which leaves you questioning,” he says.

In Fusion’s lobby there are no questions left. One of three shining metallic hands as big as a SmartCar gives the thumb’s up, and a headless male in a yoga warrior pose points the way to the exit. 

Jan. 8, 2020: This story was updated to correct the spelling of Haley Stump.

Special to The Colorado Sun Twitter: @CarolAMcKinley