03/20/2000 at 01:00 AM EST
Think playing with dolls is kid stuff? Ralph Pucci knows better. The head of the Manhattan design company Pucci International is "reinventing the mannequin world," as he puts it, hiring artists to dream up outré creatures such as Swirly, a lavender curltopped cyclops, for department stores worldwide. When window dressers at Saks Fifth Avenue or Neiman Marcus want to do more than send in the clones, they call Pucci, 45. His company—which charges a stiff $1,000 per mannequin and has expanded into furniture design—grosses an estimated $10 million a year. "Ralph took what can be a mundane business," says Barneys New York creative director Simon Doonan, "and gave it sizzle."
Which figures, since he was to the mannequins born. Growing up in New Rochelle, N.Y., Pucci (who is not related to designer Emilio Pucci) took little interest in his parents' mannequin repair company. But after graduating from Northeastern University in Boston, he joined the family business for its creative possibilities. He hired a sculptor to execute his ideas, and when his first concept—athletes in action—got snapped up by stores, he became bolder, ordering abstract figures in high-gloss hues. He began enlisting creators such as artists Kenny Scharf and Maira Kalman to come up with ideas for mannequins. Soon, says the mannequin-maker, it was "a 'wow' event" to attend his openings.
Pucci, who lives in Bedford, N.Y., with wife Ann O'Neill, 45, a homemaker, and their two children, next plans a posse of aristocrats à la Gwyneth Paltrow
or the late Carolyn Bessette Kennedy, whose photo graces his workshop wall. "Done by the wrong company, this could look stupid or cheap," he says. "Done by us, it will be dynamic."