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At The Mannequin Factory

August 25, 2014
by the gentle author

In the Museum Department

You are never alone at the mannequin factory. Wherever you turn at Proportion>London’s manufacturing operation in Walthamstow, there is always someone else in the room with you – and, even if these naked figures are inanimate, you cannot ignore their presence.

Eighty people work in the factory yet they are outnumbered by mannequins and, when Contributing Photographer Patricia Niven & I walked into the building, the first thing we saw were hordes of them lined up as far as the eye could see.

It might easily turn ugly if the mannequins decided to rebel but – fortunately – they are placid, waiting patiently for their time to go out into the world. Perhaps their good nature is explained by the love and care lavished upon them by their creators, producing well-balanced shop dummies with perfect bodies. Those created in this particular Eden are shameless in their nudity, even if their destiny lies in clothing. These are pedigree mannequins manufactured by Britain’s leading supplier for many of the most famous High St brands and fashion houses. More than eighty per cent migrate, constituting a global retail display diaspora originating from Walthamstow.

Built in 1911 for manufacturing buses to transport recruits to the First World War, the handsome factory in Blackhorse Lane has seen many incarnations – used for manufacturing chocolates and then footwear before it became the birthplace for a new race of mannequins in 2000. “Thirteen years ago, I was in shoe manufacturing,” explained Peter Ferstendik, the owner, “but the industry was destroyed by the Far East and we had no option but to cease production, so then I decided to buy this company and improve it.”

Seigel & Stockman was founded in Paris in 1867 and began trading in London in the nineteen-twenties, manufacturing paper maché dummies for couture houses and dressmakers’ showrooms, and benefitting from the rise of department stores. When Peter acquired the company, it was independent of the parent and operating with fifteen employees from a factory Old St, still making mannequins in the traditional manner as it had done for one hundred and thirty years.

Today, with five times the staff, Proportion>London produces fibreglass models alongside the original paper maché and has diversified into a wide range of display mannequins for retail and museum use that are continually redesigned and updated. “Our competitors copy our mannequins,” admitted Peter, with more than a hint of swagger,“but we are always a year ahead. The only time we should worry is if they stop copying us!”

Peter Ferstendik, Chairman of the company  – “We live and breathe retail display”

Leon Silva, Supervisor for Paper Maché – “I am the only original employee from Old St – when I started here in 1993, we just had paper maché but now fibreglass is the thing.”

Mayur Bhadalia, Mould Maker – “Since 1987, I worked in this factory as a shoemaker, but in 2000 I became a mould maker.”

Mark Deans, Mould Maker – “I’ve always made models, since I was a boy”

Arjan Shbani & Basil Simoni, Laminators

Des Riviere & Dilhan Mustafa, wood finishers. Des – “When I started I did whole figures but now I just do arms.”

Ghazala Asghar, Anna Ostrowko & Amina Burosee

Andrew Thomas, Cleaner & Odd Jobs Man – “I used to pack chocolates here twenty years ago.”

Old museum dummies

George Bush & The Queen

Photographs copyright © Patricia Niven

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11 Responses leave one →
  1. August 25, 2014

    The photos are just amazing!

  2. August 25, 2014

    What an interesting place, looks rather surreal with all those bodies and body-parts around. Valerie

  3. Roger Tiller permalink
    August 25, 2014

    I remember a workshop like this in Surbiton Surrey it was down Berrylands road, and I bought one of the manakins and I came back on the bus with it and everyone was laughing at me I felt aright full
    Roger Tiller

  4. August 25, 2014

    They obviously didn’t use real models /mannequinns for their models these are more lifelike with a bit of meat on them, than those poor emaciated creatures one sees upon the catwalks.

  5. August 25, 2014

    Lots of quite surreal images here, which makes it a pleasure when real people appear and I can’t help feeling this would be an odd environment by night. There’s certainly a contrast between the once-chocolate factory and the now of the skinny mannequins but I’m glad the Blackhorse factory is still there as a working business for people.

    I must look up papier-mache. That material must be a lot stronger than the “school classroom” version if it is still used for these figures.

  6. M West permalink
    August 25, 2014

    The mannequin in the polythene bag is a very good photo….

  7. August 25, 2014

    A LOVELY post, and atmospheric photos; so envious of your visit. Kokoschka (possibly!) had the right idea, with his live-in mannequin. We, too, have mannequin parts around the house… sitting on furniture – even, has been known, on the loo – wearing flouncy hats, Big Issue Vendor badges, decorative spectacles – and my out-grown clothes. Arms and remarkable legs decorate the garden in summer, all possessing a fascination I couldn’t live without.
    How these things tap into the psyche is a mystery to me. (A torso on the stairway has to be removed now prior to each visit from a young grandchild, for its benign gaze really disturbs him…)

  8. Jane B permalink
    August 25, 2014

    Suggesting a moment in time exquisitely captured, each wonderfully composed, a dedicated hand reaching out. Moulds broken, others reset. All the carefully fashioned parts, articulated only to the extent and in the manner required by the pattern now long established, brought together to make up a whole with just the right sense of its own beauty, on which much will hang, down through time, as each is sent out across the world to serve an eager public who want to look through a window and see themselves a little less bare, a little less ordinary, a life dressed up in intricately woven and printed material tailored to fit, flatter and re-fashion by one who knows.

    Mannequin as analogy, and as a thank-you, on the 364th day of the 5th year 🙂

    GA, another Eden ‘entered into’, this your birthday Eve 🙂

    And yes, trust ‘our man’ to find the most interesting, individual and intelligent-looking “dummies”!

    He has learnt, so he tells us, to “trust in the knowledge that, although I rarely have any stories planned beyond a few days ahead, material will always appear” (Because with pen as wand you make it so – it really doesn’t just happen, upon a page, and us then happen upon it!) In our 100,000’s we know too to trust that knowledge and trust this man, with 5 minutes of our day, every day, often more than, and more often 🙂

    GA, thank you – with 5 candles on, and much ‘icing on the cake’ which each year is bigger, richer, more filled with nuttiness and cream …thankfully, with so many more people now bought to the table 🙂 Although there’s also that wonderful feeling, that the stirring of words and kneading of thoughts would be no different, made to be no less delicious, even if there was only one.

    With such skill, commitment and generosity, you bring all you meet in interview to life (even the stubbornly inanimate, not least due to every fibre of their body being glass and plasticised!) All this in order to bring Life to all of us 🙂

    Back in London E17 – where William Morris once was and stole a march – 100 years on, the ‘bodies on parade’ are no longer hitting the high ground of the battlefields but the battle-ground of the high street, the business of the day that was once the shipping out infantry-men now shipping the stilled bodies of global retail – ensuring that this GA tale of 25 August 2014, of a place and its people [as always 🙂 ] is for me, the best kind of homage to the broken bodies of the First World War. Keep Carnate and Carry On …or for those more local, Keep Calm and Cash-and-Carry On – but most importantly, keep crafting, keep creating… from ‘boots on the ground’ to shoes for sale, fitted-out feet to fibre-glass flesh.

    And so Happy re-Birthday GA, for when you and all of us wake up with tomorrow’s slice of Life. From Nicholas Hawksmoor to Nicholls and Clarke Hardware, you’ve dressed what were at best mere mannequins in our minds or indeed empty shop windows waiting for the business within to be taken over!

    Today’s photo’s from Patricia N honouring an author – as much as his subject – who has ‘more bodies on the ground’ than ever 🙂 An amazing achievement, from one London E1 desk, but in fact from One with such style, literary and visual.

    Enough – you have writing to do! Another 8,174 days and stories. Aren’t we lucky 🙂

  9. Jane B permalink
    August 25, 2014

    Moyra, absolutely, and thank you not least for name and reminder!…”Kokoschka (possibly!) had the right idea, with his live-in mannequin …How these things tap into the psyche is a mystery to me. (A torso on the stairway has to be removed now prior to each visit from a young grandchild, for its benign gaze really disturbs him…)”

    — brilliant, and so right 🙂


  10. August 27, 2014

    Good grief Jane B what a superb piece of writing you have done! The mannequins make me think of The Midwich Cuckoos! Very creepy!

  11. August 28, 2014

    we love our mannequins – not spooky at all even after dark!
    we have been making mannequins for many years and it was a pleasure to have the gentle author capture us on camera. He made a superb job

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