Diversity in mannequin body size and gender can help shoppers see themselves reflected in a brand — and drive loyalty.

Mannequins are so ubiquitous it’s easy to downplay their visual impact. That is, until something changes.

Mannequins have historically gone through trend cycles, according to experts. But they are in the midst of a very important evolution.

For years, they were seen as simply a way to display fashion apparel at its best, or as part of a larger merchandising strategy. Yet, mannequins aren’t simply a method of placing clothing on display. Retailers are beginning to recognize that body forms can help customers see themselves reflected in their brand and drive deep loyalty. Mannequins, it seems, can be a way for a company to reiterate brand values.

“Mannequins are storytelling vehicles,” said Adam Moon, executive creative director of Fusion, a creative design studio and the world’s largest mannequin producer, according to the company. They have evolved over the years, he said, “from kind of sky high, modelesque to becoming more realistic and representative of the customers that are shopping in our stores.”

And that transformation makes mannequins more important now than ever before, because it can signal what is important to a retailer. They have the ability to spark personal recognition in a client base, and thus serve as a way for customers to see themselves reflected in the shopping experience. 

A new wave of forms

The history of mannequins is long, with one of the earliest discoveries found in King Tutankhamun’s tomb. The form was most likely used as a life-size model for royal dressmakers or to hold the King’s clothes and jewelry. In the 15th century milliners’ mannequins, which were a type of miniature fashion doll, would be sent to wealthy clients by dressmakers as a demonstration of the latest fashions. In 1835, an ironworker in France produced a wirework model, and by 1854 a tailor by the name of Alexis Lavigne filed the first patent for plaster molded mannequins. The form became prominent in Parisian department stores in the 1850s. The use of mannequins for merchandising in stores then spread to the U.S. and Britain.

By 2020, the global mannequin market size had grown to $1.2 billion and is expected to reach nearly $1.5 billion by the end of 2027, with a compound annual growth rate of 2.8%, according to a recent study. Male mannequins are the largest segment, with a share of about 30%.

Variations of the forms go in and out of style, with some decades offering realistic versions, while other trends lean on mannequins that are more abstract (who hasn’t walked by a store with headless mannequins in the window?). But, whatever is en vogue, mannequins have always been a display vehicle that helps boost sales. Experts interviewed said that the sell-through rate of apparel placed on mannequins is historically high.

That’s because mannequins attract attention. They give customers visual clues as to what is stylish, they quickly show how an outfit can be put together and, at times, help shoppers discern how apparel will fit without the need to go into a dressing room.

And deciding to not illustrate body diversity may ultimately cost retailers. Having a variety of mannequins is a way that companies can do in-person marketing to an audience that may be used to shopping online, according to Joan Braatz, a freelance executive merchandiser with assortment optimization and product development experience with retailers including J.C. Penney and Macy’s. Do some people stand in front of a store and say, “‘Well none of that stuff is going to fit me,’ and not walk in?” she asked, stating that retailers that show different types of bodies may win over shoppers and make them excited to go in stores.

That makes mannequins ultimately an important part of retail, according to Moon. “There’s no better and more effective way to show somebody outfitting or trends or the latest in fashion than it is through the vehicle of a mannequin.”

“There would be a tremendous amount of deliberation about what we put on the mannequins, because we knew it was the most powerful space in the store,” Braatz said. Working with mannequins, she said, “tells the story, it sets the tone — especially at the beginning of new seasons. That mannequin collateral is really valuable.”

It also means that retailers are making conscious decisions about what percent of their store square footage can be dedicated to the forms as a marketing vehicle. Braatz points to Target, which she said has made a concerted effort with store merchandising and redesign in the past few years. “When you think about Target, that sales per square foot has got to be huge. So for them to pull off a table to put a set of three mannequins in the middle of a floor — I think they really are making a commitment to step up their merchandising efforts.”

A promise made through visual merchandising

Retailers have recently been placing more emphasis on their diversity efforts when it comes to everything from how they hire and train staff, to reevaluating their product mix. Mannequins, though, are another way to push forward concepts of inclusion at a store level by signaling to customers that they are thinking about their shoppers.

Target began adding size-inclusive mannequins to stores years ago, and notably has forms in sizes four, 10 and 16 donning its All in Motion activewear brand. That private label, which touts values of inclusivity and sustainability, generated $1 billion in sales in its first year.

At the start of the year, Athleta announced that it was extending its sizing across its collection, with over 500 styles available in sizes XXS to 3X or 00 to 26. The brand’s team collaborated with women of all body types to test each piece, “ensuring that the same design intent and fit holds across all sizes,” according to a company statement at the time.

But, Athleta went further to demonstrate that commitment, first by training all of its store associates in inclusive sizing, and then by adding size-inclusive mannequins to its stores. Those forms also showcase different hair styles, facial features and are a gray hue “to represent all skin tones,” according to the company. The mannequins were created to showcase a mix of active and static poses, including running, stretching, meditating and handstands.

Sister company Old Navy soon followed. This summer, the apparel brand revealed its Bodequality venture, which offers all women’s apparel in sizes 0 to 30 and XS to 4X, with all sizes priced equally. Mannequins were introduced in sizes four, 12 and 18, and all products are now merchandised together.

Fusion partnered with The Phluid Project to create a gender non-conforming collection of mannequins.Fusion, The Phluid Project 

“One of the key points of feedback we heard from customers is that they want to be able to shop with their friends, regardless of size, and don’t want to be relegated to a separate section,” a Gap. Inc spokesperson said to Retail Dive via email. “Shopping should be a joyous experience that you enjoy with others, where everyone feels they belong.”

And the decision to spotlight size-inclusive forms is making an impact. “There’s a bit of change coming, and I really think retailers like Athleta and Old Navy are embracing that and setting a new tone for the industry,” said Braatz of the mannequins. “I do think there is merit — that a customer will gravitate to where she sees herself. And I think that Old Navy and Athleta are doing that.”

There are many other retailers that are thinking about how to incorporate mannequins that resonate with audiences, and Fusion has been a part of leading changes for this segment of the industry. The company, which was founded in 1986, believes that people should see themselves represented in stores. It offers mannequins in sizes from 00 to 32, and “hundreds” of hues are available to reflect a large variety of skin tones. 

The company recently decided to create a gender non-conforming range of mannequin products. To do this, Fusion partnered with The Phluid Project — a retailer launched in 2018 that makes gender-free apparel and accessories. With the input from The Phluid Project, Fusion developed a mannequin collection, dubbed Prism, to represent the gender non-conforming community. The new collection features gender free, transmasculine, transfeminine and size-inclusive forms.

“We needed some guidance as an organization to get that right,” Moon said regarding Fusion’s partnership with The Phluid Project. Fusion worked with “Phambassadors,” who back The Phluid Project brand and act as subject matter experts. Phambassadors shared their stories and thoughts and answered questions like, “What do you want to see in a mannequin body?” and “What does that body look like?”

“They bared their souls to us,” Moon said. “In what their bodies look like and what they want the mannequins to look like, how best to represent their bodies, and ensuring that we were doing it in a way that felt inclusive, even in the gender nonconforming community.”

The input ultimately informed and shaped the collection to “represent and celebrate the non-binary mindset.” 

Visually demonstrating inclusivity may ultimately work to forge a deeper relationship with shoppers. “I think it resonates more loyalty than an email or a mailer or a coupon or anything,” Moon said. Other experts agree, especially when it comes to younger generations, who tend to have values-driven purchasing behaviors. 

“Brands that signal inclusivity in their communications are not only embracing size inclusivity trends, but also skin tone, height and ability representation,” said Quynh Mai, founder and CEO of Moving Image and Content. “For Gen Z customers especially, this inclusion signals a brand that understands their philosophy of acceptance.”

Mannequins are a vehicle to literally display core beliefs. They also can act as ways to engage shoppers and challenge consumers to think more inclusively about who should wear a brand’s apparel.

“It seems like something that in the future there may not be a need for specifically gendered mannequins. That they are just beautiful human forms,” Moon said. “And that could very well be the future and how department stores or brands evolve and break down the gender barriers within their own departments.”



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