September 18, 1989 12:00 PM

The illusion is eerily perfect. Stylishly dressed women are standing motionless, hands caught in mid-gesture, as if they were attending a soiree when time stopped. Gradually the realization comes that these figures never were the life and soul of the party. They are Rootsteins, amazingly lifelike mannequins created in this London designer’s studio and awaiting shipment to some of the world’s most fashionable department stores.

A Rootstein is to the high-stakes world of fashion merchandising what a Rolls-Royce is to motoring, and over the past 25 years they’ve conquered retail windows from Texas to Tokyo. “Whether I’m visiting Neiman-Marcus or Marshall Field’s,” says avant-garde British dress designer Zandra Rhodes, “they always say, ‘Let us show you our Rootsteins.’ ”

The new age models take their name from Adel Rootstein, 59, who will make 20,000 of them this year in her spacious workshop in London’s Chelsea section. At an average price of $850 each, the Rootstein figures are a $20 million-a-year business, and clearly the buyers feel they’re getting their money’s worth. “A little metal column with clothes on it has no sex appeal,” says the original Rootstein. “But my mannequins sell clothes in a limited space in an incredibly stylish way.”

Unlike generic, machine-made window dummies, Rootstein’s handcrafted mannequins are modeled on real people. Company talent scouts cruise the streets of London and New York looking for new faces and bodies to replicate in fiberglass. Often the folks they discover are unknowns, but sometimes Adel casts a media-hot personality to head up new collections that, as in fashion houses, appear semiannually.

One of her first discoveries was a 90-lb. model named Twiggy; Rootstein spotted her in 1966, before she became a fashion icon. Joan Collins was a Rootstein star in her pre-Dynasty days. “We chose her for her beauty and because she wasn’t a youngster,” Adel says. Others who have entered the Rootstein Hall of Fame include Susan (Upstairs Downstairs) Hampshire, Joanna (The New Avengers) Lumley and Elaine (Evita) Paige.

The next Rootstein star promises to be voluptuous New York designer and girl-about-town Dianne Brill (about whom Andy Warhol once said, “I just want to stick a pin in her and watch her deflate”). Rootstein believes Brill, whom she calls Miss Brilliant, will epitomize the look and aura of the 1990s. “She has an endearing vulnerability touched with humor and sexuality,” Adel says. Brill flew to London in March to model for her doppelganger, which will debut in store windows this Christmas. Wearing her platinum hair upswept and tottering on four-inch spikes, Brill’s form and face have been immortalized in three poses.

There are some instantly recognized fashion leaders who will never be Rootsteins, and the Princess of Wales is one. “It wouldn’t be seemly to pursue a thing like that,” Adel says decorously. “Diana is the future Queen of England and should remain a mystery.”

Visual art has intrigued Rootstein since her childhood in Warmbaths, South Africa, where her parents operated a small country hotel. Adel left school at 14 to go to work for a major department store in Johannesburg. Next she painted stage sets for a choreographer. In 1952, eager to see a wider world, she moved to London and eventually took a job as a junior window dresser at Aquascutum. The head of design there was Canadian-born Rick Hopkins. They married in 1953.

“The ’60s fashion revolution really pushed the lot of us into doing things,” she remembers. What she began to do was make her signature mannequins. “There were no mannequins in the windows that bore any relationship to what was happening in fashion photography and journalism,” says Rootstein. “It just seemed to come together, using people off the street.”

Typically, the initial sculpting by an artist takes four weeks, with the model posing two hours at a time, four days a week. The work begins in clay, then progresses from a plaster mold to fiberglass. Final resin casts are sprayed, an orange-peel texture applied and then oil painted and topped with a wig. Each mannequin is anatomically correct right down to nipples. From start to finish, with Adel and Rick supervising every step, the development of a Rootstein can take up to 18 months. To date there are 250 different Rootstein models.

Little wonder, then, that Adel takes umbrage at people who refer to her mannequins as dummies. About the only thing that makes her angrier is to hear someone compare her mannequins with Madame Tussaud’s wax figures. “We’re diametrically opposite,” she says. “Tussaud’s often works from photographs, and her waxworks don’t look alive. Mine do.”

Rootsteins are certainly better traveled; used, hand-me-down models have been sighted in such unlikely countries as Peru and Pakistan. “God knows how they got there,” says Adel. “I have this vision of them going on journeys through the world.” Sometimes she all but thinks of her wandering Rootsteins as offspring. “I never had any real children,” she says, “but I have hundreds of fiberglass ones.”

—Harriet Shapiro, Laura Sanderson Healy in London

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