By  on December 19, 2008

Makers of mannequins, forms, fixtures, lighting and decorative displays — an unsung, shrinking group that helps present merchandise and set an image — seem vulnerable as the retailers they supply slash costs from inventories to renovations and window dressings.

But the sector got a lift at the market organized by the National Association of Display Industries Dec. 10 to 12, when the 25 or so showrooms in Manhattan welcomed retailers who viewed the latest in-store design and visual display creations.

“We saw a lot of international retailers that reminded me of the old NADI shows held at the piers,” said Nancy Jackson, president and founder of Architectural Systems, a distributor of architectural and sustainable materials including flooring, wood panels, decorative surfaces and mannequin platforms. “There was a guy from Dubai who said he had 300 lingerie shops. Marks & Spencer hadn’t been here in years, but they were in the showrooms.”

In the Nineties, there were twice as many companies in the sector operating showrooms, many of which were forced to close because of retail consolidation. The sector remains concentrated in the Chelsea section of Manhattan. When business was more robust, the markets would extend to venues beyond the neighborhood, such as the piers on the West Side, or the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center, and could occur twice a year.

Still, the suppliers were impressed that retailers last week seemed receptive to new ideas that could invigorate their store environments.

“They understand they have to move forward,” said Ralph Pucci of Ralph Pucci International, a showroom for mannequins, home furnishings and photography and art located at 44 West 18th Street. “But these are financially tough times. They have to be very careful. They are open and looking and just need to see the first positive sign in the economy. Hopefully by late spring, we should be rolling again. I may be optimistic, but you have to be in tough times.

“You’ve got to raise the bar,” Pucci said. “I think our new mannequin collection — it’s called Girl — hit a nerve.”

In the Pucci space, the mannequins were integrated into performances by the Buglisi Dance Theatre. Contemporary fashion by Frank Tell and big, round plaster sculptures by Michael Evert Sculpture were part of the tableau.

“We had a nice turnout of quality customers — it was not quantity,” said Sal Lenzo, vice president of creative marketing and sales at Lifestyle, a maker of mannequins and decorative displays, at 151 West 25th Street. “No one really buys, but the retailers take a look at what is available.”

As Lenzo sees the situation, it’s not just the economy hurting business. There’s been a dearth of fresh ideas permeating retailing and the supply side.

“In my opinion, we’ve been in a little bit of a lull,” he said. “I think everyone got a little comfortable. Maybe this economy will shake everyone up to think harder.”

Lifestyle offered a new line of mannequins for junior departments called Skye, made from recyclable plastic, a cube system for display made out of Plyboo and papier–mâché forms, he said.

The market started off strong with the Dec. 10 gala for the Planning and Visual Education Partnership, known as PAVE. Architectural Systems’ Jackson, who chaired the event at Gotham Hall, said a crowd of 500 attended the event, which is geared to nurture talent. And 12 students, recognized as winners of a design contest sponsored by Macy’s, received a total of $16,000 in award money.

The Fashion Institute of Technology’s Visual Presentation and Interior Design departments each got $3,000 for having students place in the top three of the competition. PAVE also awarded $12,500 to The Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising in Los Angeles for studio technology being developed for students, and another $12,500 to O’More College of Design in Franklin, Tenn., to help students reinvent a town square.

Awards for New York City’s best windows were presented to Bergdorf Goodman, Macy’s and Sony Style by Display & Design Ideas magazine. Louis Vuitton and Polo Ralph Lauren received awards for excellence in visual merchandising and design that were presented by Visual Merchandising and Store Design magazine.

The “rising star” award went to Rachel Zsembery, an associate at Bergmeyer and Associates Inc. who runs store design programs for specialty clients such as L.L. Bean and Talbots and designed Bean’s outdoor lifestyle store program to meet Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design standards.

“People came to the PAVE event trying to forget [the economy] and to enjoy themselves and connect with people,” said Christine Nakaoka, principal at Nakaoka/Roberts, an interior design and retail imaging firm. “So many lost their jobs and are looking to connect. There’s nervousness, and at the same time a great sense of ‘Let’s do things better. Let’s help each other’ — a kind of camaraderie. I found it uplifting. There is some interesting work being done. These are times when creative and innovative people will rise to the top.”

For the market, Nakaoka’s firm designed a “crescendo” chandelier for a soft lighting ambience, a shelving system for handbags, shoes and folded goods called Wall Scape, where no tools are needed to rearrange shelves, and a “Magna Carta” wall of magnets that holds display components for fashion and beauty merchandise. Seven Continents, a Toronto-based display company, manufactured the products.

“Retailers want things that can move around easily to re-create spaces for different installations and shop-in-shops,” Nakaoka said. “They want flexibility. They want something that can be built quickly, something that has the ability to change and something that is not so costly.”

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