A. Lester Gaba, American (1907 - 1987)

A. Lester Gaba

Lester Gaba (1907 – 12 August 1987) was an American sculptor, writer and retail display designer.

Born in Hannibal, Missouri. His parents owned a general store, but Gaba took no interest in the shop, spending most of the time on his own, drawing. At the age of 10, he participated at a soap sculpture contest organized by Procter & Gamble. Although he did not win it, participating changed his life. He decided he would become a proficient soap sculptor. He went to art school in Chicago, where he spent a lot of time in Lake View, where Chicago's homosexual population congregated.

He found his first job at Balaban & Katz theater corporation, where he made posters. Since the art director of the company was entranced by the soap figurines Gaba made, they were readily used for magazine covers and the like. Advertising agencies seized on the technique and soon Gaba's soap carvings were adorning magazine covers as well as being marketed as a children's soap.

By 1932 Gaba had moved to New York, where he designed a lifelike mannequin known as Cynthia that was created for Saks Fifth Avenue. Cynthia was a 100-pound model who had realistic imperfections like freckles, pigeon toes, and even different sized feet. Gaba posed with Cynthia around New York City for a Life Magazine shoot that humorously demonstrates how lifelike the mannequins had become. Cartier and Tiffany sent her jewelry, Lilly Daché designed hats for her, and couturiers sent her their latest fashions, furrieries sent minks. Soon a whole host of ‘Gaba Girls’ to followed.

The Gaba Girls were life-sized, carved-soap mannequins modeled after well-known New York debutantess for the windows of Best & Co. They reduced the weight of a New York store mannequin from 200 to around 30 pounds, and with the Gaba Girls and their realistic successors’ appeal, mannequins became a popular new tool for sellers to attract their clientele.

During his first years in New York, it is claimed but unverified that Gaba had a passionate relationship with Vincente Minnelli. When Minnelli left for Hollywood, Gaba seems to have remained aloof, and unencumbered for the remainder of his life.

In cooperation with the National Soap Sculpture Committee, he wrote a book on the technique of Soap Carving called Gaba, Lester (1940). Soap Carving, Cinderella of sculpture (Hardcover). The Studio Publications. p. 80. ISBN 0670655007. ISBN 978-0670655007.

Meanwhile, Cynthia's fame grew and grew. She was given a credit card from Saks Fifth Avenue, a box seat subscription to the Metropolitan Opera House and even made the cover of Life Magazine. Cynthia also had her own newspaper column, and a successful radio show. Cynthia went to Hollywood to appear in Artists and Models Abroad (1938) with Jack Benny. She received huge amounts of fan mail. Cynthia was photographed by Alfred Eisenstaedt. Cynthia went to the Broadhurst Theater in New York, to see the notorious play 'Madame Bovary', in 1939. Gaba insisted that Cynthia had laryngitis, to account for her lack of speech. Gaba, reminded pesky writers that Cynthia was a lady, and therefore a good listener. But the beautiful Cynthia met her demise when she slipped from a chair in a beauty salon, and shattered into a thousand pieces. The press reported her death, and Gaba appeared distraught, but since Cynthia’s mold was very much intact, she was to live again.

Gaba in addition to his soap sculptures and mannequin designs became an accomplished jeweler designer. His work for Coro Jewelry consisted of higher end costume and was very “Americana”.

From 1941 to 1967, Mr. Gaba contributed a weekly column to Women's Wear Daily titled "Lester Gaba Looks at Display" in which he gave his observations about the ever-changing window displays at stores in the city.

In December 1942, Gaba was inducted into the army. Cynthia retired, and it wasn't until 1953 that she came back to the public in a TV show. But the magic was over, and Cynthia was soon to be stored in a cupboard for good.

In the 40's and 50's, Gaba began staging fashion shows for the Coty Awards, the March of Dimes, and fashion trade groups. The stagings were elaborate and theatrical, often involving marionettes or props such as the Hope diamond and the Star of the East.

In retirement, Gaba was asked to teach at the Laboratory Institute of Merchandising, now LIM College. He became a noted academic on Visual Merchandising, and taught for several years.

Gaba wrote the seminal text "The Art Of Visual Display" in 1952, one of the first serious books on the topic in the marketplace.

He died of cancer of the colon at Beekman Downtown Hospital. He was 80 years old and lived in Manhattan.

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