Monday, July 20, 1998

Modern Mannequin

Written for "The Unlikely Muse" Houston Sidewalk 1998

"Mostly what we're doing these days is cutting off a lot of heads," muses Timber Childress of Modern Mannequin, Houston's only authentic mannequin repair shop. "We also fix broken fingers and cut off the knees for tabletop displays." While Timber lends her expertise to this highly specialized and somewhat macabre sounding craft, her daughter Sherrie Childress Mendez continues the 52 year family tradition of restoring and modifying mannequins for fashion display. Behind the creaky screen door of this modest green bungalow lies an uncanny theater of fiberglass body parts.

Like an old world craftsman, Sherrie sits surrounded by the tools of her trade (airbrushes, sanders and drills) as she refinishes the surface of a headless mannequin. There's nothing high tech about this workshop with its drop ceilings and fluorescent lights; as Timber allows when her husband Tom purchased the repair shop in 1946 all he really got was "a spatula, a bucket of puddy and a shade tree." Philip Phang, a former cosmetologist with Dillard's and Saks 5th Avenue is the mannequin make-up man, adept at using oil-based paints to create pouting lips and piercing eyes. And Franklin West, a congenial handy man makes the daily rounds as well as the bases on which the mannequins stand.

As Modern Mannequin expanded over the years, so did the green bungalow with makeshift additions added for storage. Every turn of a corner reveals unclothed bodies with clear plastic bags over their heads (to protect their hair and make-up). Timber points out a mannequin that looks like Grace Jones, another that could be Suzanne Summers and another that unequivocally is Sher. Among the Greneker's, Hindsgaul's and Rootstein's (all mannequin manufacturers) are a few choice specimen's about which Timber simply says "Don't ask, their not for sale." A priceless fiberglass Louis the 14th and a 1920s flapper are among Modern Mannequin's prize possessions.

As headless and armless forms replace the expressive one-of-a-kind mannequins of yesteryear, Modern Mannequin does more and more amputations than high fashion makeovers. When I suggest that these anonymous forms might appeal to a wider audience, Timber informs me of a more likely explanation: mannequins are just expensive and hard to dress. - Andrea Grover

Editor's Note: Modern Mannequin's work can be seen at Foley's, Neiman Marcus and Saks 5th Avenue.

To get there: Take Highway 59 to Little York Rd exit. Head west on Little York for about 1-2 miles and Modern Mannequin will be on your right side at number 619.