On a recent Wednesday afternoon, Judi Townsend stands in the back room of a warehouse in Oakland, California, holding a decapitated mannequin head.
“These go for $10,” she says, tossing it into a bin of stylized plastic noggins and severed limbs. Behind her, a sea of 6’3” fiberglass models stand guard, toned and nude; if they’re lucky, they’ll avoid the bin of doom and find a new home with a local retailer.
This warehouse is the home of Mannequin Madness, a business that moves thousands of mannequins — both new and used — every month.
Over nearly 20 years, Townsend carved out a niche as the go-to source for department stores looking to get rid of old display models. In the process, she created an innovative model that turned what would otherwise be trash into a thriving, $1m-per-year business.
But the rise of e-commerce, and the slow decline of brick-and-mortar retail, has recently forced her to think outside the mannequin.
It began with a strange Craigslist ad
In November of 2000, Townsend was browsing Craigslist for Tina Turner concert tickets when something unusual caught her eye.
“There was this mannequin,” she says. “I thought, ‘Oh, that’s weird; I’ll use it for a mosaic project in my garden!’”
When she went to pick it up in San Francisco, she was greeted by a strange scene: A dingy, dark warehouse with dozens of fashion mannequins strewn about in various poses — some limbless and disassembled, others regal and pristine. “I was kind of horrified,” says Townsend. “I was like, ‘Where’d you get these and what do you do with them?’”
The seller, she learned, was a former window-dresser who’d started a mannequin rental business — and as it so happened, he was getting rid of his inventory and moving to Vermont.
“He casually said, ‘Too bad I’m leaving; I’m the only one doing this here,’” recalls Townsend. “And a lightbulb went off in my head.”
At the time, Townsend was in her mid-40s and working at a startup that was showing early signs of implosion. She’d always known that she wanted to try to start something of her own; now, she felt like she needed a “back-up plan.”
So, Townsend made an impulsive decision: She bought the man’s entire inventory — 50 mannequins — for $2,500. “I felt in my gut there was a need for a mannequin rental place,” she says. “I figured it would just be a side hustle.”
Townsend rented a truck and transported the mannequins to her living room in Oakland. Then, the doubts began to set in.
“I’d never even touched a mannequin; now I had 50 of them,” she says. “I remember freaking out: I had no client list, no experience, and I’d just missed the deadline to get into the Yellow Pages. I thought, ‘How the hell are people going to find me?’”
Getting the business off the ground
Though new to mannequins, Townsend was no stranger to the business world: After graduating from USC in 1978, she’d spent nearly two decades working in sales for Fortune 500 companies like Johnson & Johnson and United Airlines.
Townsend’s first plan of attack was to launch a website — a fairly rare move for a small business in the year 2000. Then, she cold-called every department store within a 50-mile radius.
During these conversations, she learned something interesting: Department stores were thrilled to find someone to take old mannequins off their hands.
Mannequins were typically purchased new from manufacturers in China and used in stores for around 5-7 years before getting replaced with new ones, at which point the store would pay $800+ in disposal fees to have them carted off to a landfill.
Townsend offered to pick up old mannequins for free (or, for higher-quality ones, pennies on the dollar) — and retailers jumped at the opportunity.
“They were getting a double benefit,” says Townsend: “They were saving on disposal, and they could say they were doing something good for the environment too.”
Six months into her business, she got a call from Sears. She rented a truck and drove all over Northern California picking up mannequins. Her inventory ballooned from 50 to 500 — and in short order, her house became a sanctuary for used mannequins of all variety.
“I didn’t realize they came in so many styles,” she says. “There were kid mannequins, adult mannequins, maternity, swimwear, lingerie, athletic… it was a baptism by fire — and that’s really when the mannequin madness began.”
Because Townsend got her mannequins for free, she could price them at steeply discounted rates. She posted pictures of her inventory online, and smaller, cost-conscious retailers all over the US and Canada began to buy them.
Then, she spotted an even greater opportunity.
The mannequin broker
Dozens of retailers — Nike, Kohl’s, Nordstrom, BeBe, Macy’s, Ralph Lauren, Gap — started contacting Townsend to offload old mannequins.
Townsend realized that instead of traveling to get the inventory and store it in her house, she could find used mannequin sellers in other states and set them up with big retailers’ free mannequin inventory. For her services, she charged a small per-mannequin finder’s fee.
Soon, she was running one of the biggest mannequin brokerage firms in the country from a basement in Oakland.
“One of the first big phone calls I got was from Prada, requesting these very expensive mannequins I’d gotten from Ralph Lauren,” she says. “I’m sitting in my pajamas at home, arranging this deal.”
These brokered deals also had another effect: They cut down on waste.
Mannequins, which weigh around 30 pounds on average, are typically made of fiberglass, plastics, and other non-biodegradable materials. By “recycling” old mannequins to other buyers, Townsend managed to save 100k pounds of mannequins from landfills every month — an accomplishment that earned her special recognition from the EPA.
By 2001, Townsend was moving enough mannequins to quit her tech job and move her operations to a local warehouse.
Who buys these things?
Nearly 20 years later, Townsend still operates a healthy business. She appears to be the only used mannequin outlet in the Bay Area, and one of only around 10 in the US. Though her business is primarily online, her warehouse is open to the public and courts a wide variety of customers.
Burning Man attendees come by to get mannequins for their school buses. Techies mount them on drones. Agalmatophiliacs buy them for companionship. Bondage enthusiasts use them to practice rope-tying techniques on.
One customer routinely comes by Townsend’s shop to buy mannequin hands, which she fashions into towel hangers and toilet paper holders for her home.
“I’ve really seen it all,” says Townsend. “Everybody comes through here: every age, every income group, every sexual orientation, every nationality — the poor fashion student to the luxury store owner.”
Mannequins have gone through many trends over the years. In the ‘80s, there was a push for more realistic mannequins, with painted faces, hair, and nipples; In the ‘90s, there was a push for plus-size mannequins and mannequins with different skin tones.
Today’s mannequins are “eggheaded and colorless” — partly because they’re cheaper to manufacture, and partly because they’re non-offensive.
“Any time I get a plus-size mannequin, I know I’m going to be stuck with her a little while because nobody wants them,” she says. By contrast, a shipment of “Asian female mannequins” sold like hotcakes to men with very specific fetishes.
Depending on quality, condition, and the level of craftsmanship, her mannequins run from $40 to $200+. Every year, she sells around 500k pounds — somewhere around $1m worth — of inventory.
But even a “low-tech” industry like Townsend’s has been impacted by sweeping technological shifts in retail.
A changing retail landscape
Though Townsend still sells between 600 and 1k mannequins every month, seismic shifts in retail have forced her to “switch up to survive.”
The same technology that enabled her to launch a website and expand her business 20 years ago has spawned a new generation of direct-to-consumer brands, straining traditional brick-and-mortar retailers and crimping the mannequin industry.
On one hand, brick-and-mortar bankruptcies present Townsend with an opportunity to expand her inventory. Forever 21, which filed for bankruptcy protection last month, plans to close roughly 180 US locations. “That’s a lot of mannequins,” she says.
But stores are also using fewer mannequins than they used to and hanging on to the ones they have for longer periods of time. Clients who once bought 5 mannequins now only buy one.
In recent years, she launched a dropshipping business, where she partners with suppliers to sell new mannequins through her website. She has also experimented with renting out her warehouse (and inventory) for photoshoots. (“Women like to come in and do nude photos among the mannequins,” she says.)
Though Townsend has leveraged tech to her benefit, she still fights to be seen as relevant in a landscape that often neglects small businesses.
“It’s a little tough being in the shadow of Silicon Valley, where everything considered sexy is tech-focused,” she says. “Small niche businesses like mine are not seen as exciting or sexy. Sometimes, I feel people don’t take me as a serious business.”
Still, she holds out that mannequins will always maintain a space in retail.
Though most e-commerce sites now use live models, Townsend feels bullish that brick-and-mortar stores will continue to invest in experience-driven window displays to distinguish themselves from online competitors.
In pink boots, turquoise earrings, and a tie-dye shirt, Townsend makes her way through the rows of colorless bodies that occupy her warehouse.
At the front door, she pauses to pat a life-like mannequin of Barack Obama on the back. “He’s one of the only mannequins we have with clothes on,” she chuckles. “For some reason, it just didn’t seem right to have Obama out here naked.”
She sighs, turns around, and surveys her unusual kingdom: Legions of eggshell-white faux-humans, shelves lined with wooden hands, boxes of heads and legs.
“Some people call me ‘the mannequin lady,’” she says. “But I prefer ‘the mannequin queen.’”