Sunday, April 16, 2006

Making Great Money Reselling Old Mannequins

Judi Henderson-Townsend Story

Inside a dreary warehouse in an industrial section of San Francisco, the floor was littered with bodies. Some lay in piles while others had been dismembered, their legs, heads, and arms carelessly strewn about. Judi Henderson-Townsend had come to buy a mannequin to use as a backyard sculpture after seeing one advertised online. The seller, it turned out, was a former window designer who collected and rented old mannequins. He was moving East and closing up shop, so Henderson-Townsend impulsively bought all 50 mannequins for $2,500. She stood them in her basement, then named her new business Mannequin Madness. That was four years ago. Today her mannequin inventory fills a basement, a two-car garage, and a separate storage facility.

Henderson-Townsend, 47, builds her stock—generally department store mannequins made of fiberglass—by helping stores dispose of their unwanted models, which go in and out of fashion much like the clothes they showcase. (In the past year, for example, headless has been the rage.) She rents and sells them to a customer base that includes clothing stores, brides, eBay vendors, photographers, and theater groups. Men often want a female torso to pose on a bar or at a fraternity house (the Asian ones sell out first). Lawyers sometimes use mannequins in court in order to demonstrate gun or knife wounds. Artists use them for projects or for sketching. And once a warehouse owner who couldn't afford a breathing overnight security guard bought a mannequin, dressed it in a uniform, and posed it at a desk near a window.

In the past year Henderson-Townsend grossed $150,000, an increase from nearly $100,000 in 2003. At least 70% of her business derives from sales, and the rest from rentals. One-third of customers come via her website ( and another third from eBay, and the rest consist of those who shop by appointment at Henderson-Townsend's home, which is located in an upscale Oakland neighborhood. That is where Swati Kapoor, a clothing designer in Milpitas, Calif., bought her first mannequin. "Judi gave me a lot of information about how mannequins could help my business," says Kapoor, who owns nine.

What surprises Henderson-Townsend most is the high demand for body parts. Jewelry designers often want hands, and leg lamps are strangely popular. "I get an awful lot of people asking about them," says Henderson-Townsend. So many, in fact, that she offers assembly instructions on her website.