At 79, Legendary Designer Bob Mackie Gets His Time in the Spotlight

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If Hollywood is filled with stars, Bob Mackie drapes them in supernova shine. Nearing his 80th birthday, the prolific costumer is equal parts witty, charismatic, and humble—a contradiction of sorts to the “sultan of sequins” moniker he’s earned over the decades for his extravagant, rhinestone-encrusted garments. He’s dressed Elton John as Minnie Mouse, Carol Burnett as a curtain rod, and Cher as—well, pretty much everything. In fact, as the icon’s resident costume designer, he minted a look that was both mind-bogglingly excessive and barely there. Three Academy Award nominations and nine Emmys later (including the first in history for costume design), his résumé reads like a kitschy roster of Snatch Game: Bette Midler, Madonna, Diana Ross, Tina Turner, RuPaul, and beyond. Yet somehow, these stars only hem the skirt of a wildly decorated, over 50-year career—one that began with his hearty diet of 20th Century Fox musicals.

02 Dianaross Sketch

“When I was a kid, my favorite actresses were Carmen Miranda and Betty Grable,” Mackie says. “I never thought about anyone designing their costumes—I thought they came that way. It wasn’t until I saw An American in Paris that I thought, I could do that.” Luckily, it didn’t take long for him to learn: The Southern California native traces his design career back to the ’60s, when he, then in his early 20s, began as a sketch artist under the legendary costume designer Edith Head. His break came when American actress Mitzi Gaynor called on him to do her costumes for a Las Vegas revue. “I grew up watching [Mitzi] as a movie star in South Pacific,” he says. “So when I did her act, I really felt like I understood her and what she’d look good in. It was a huge chance for me, because Carol Burnett went to see it in Las Vegas and, next thing I knew, I was doing The Carol Burnett Show.”

Mackie went on to design costumes for the entire 11-year run of Burnett’s program, but it was on its first season that he met his most famous creative partner, the mononymous pop phoenix, Cher. “She liked what I was doing,” he says. “Before I knew it, I was designing things for her club acts, and then her television show with Sonny.”  When Mackie met Cher in 1967, she was just coming out of her bell-bottomed hippie era, and together they collaborated on her various visual incarnations across the decades—from her midriff-baring sets on The Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour, to her white-feathered 1975 Time cover, to her Darth Vader–meets–Big Bird 1986 Oscars look, to her cannon-straddling “If I Could Turn Back Time” music video. “She likes her rhinestones. She likes her glitter,” Mackie says, revealing that it was often Cher who pushed him to make the outfits more over-the-top. In their 52 years together, he admits that he has always wanted to dress her in a simple, red crepe gown. “A lot of people think I only do what I do for Cher—it’s like a character in a play. There is a style she has and a way she loves to look, and it’s never average. It’s always kind of iconic,
I suppose.”

01 Cher Turq Sketch

The December opening of The Cher Show on Broadway saw Mackie, its head costume designer, revisit many of the duo’s iconic moments. The show’s glory lies in the clothes—which, with the designer’s seasoned stitch, are instantly recognizable. There is also a Bob Mackie character, played by actor Michael Berresse, with his very own scene-stealing fashion show number. “He’s quite a bit grander than I am,” Mackie says, bashfully. “He usually swishes in like a big queen and tells everybody what to do and what not to do. Hopefully I’m not really like that, but there must be some truth to it.”

Without a mass-market brand name (his foray into commercial ready-to-wear didn’t extend far from a QVC line), Mackie’s influence might escape a younger audience. Yet countless pivotal 21st century fashion moments would not have occurred had Mackie not teamed up with Carol Burnett in the ’60s, Diana Ross and Elton John in the ’70s, or Cher in the ’80s. The Swarovski crystal-laden Adam Selman dress Rihanna wore to the 2014 CFDA Fashion Awards recalled the sheer 1988 Oscars number Cher donned to accept her Moonstruck Best Actress trophy. In 2015, Kim Kardashian West shouted to social media—and to Cher herself—that her Roberto Cavalli Met Gala gown was an homage to Mackie’s feather-hemmed “naked dress” originally designed for the same event in 1974. And for Gucci’s Spring 2018 collection, creative director Alessandro Michele gave a nod to Mackie’s custom creations for Elton John, including a recreation of a beaded jumpsuit embellished with beamed musical notes.

03 Eltonj Sketch

But what’s truly inspiring about Mackie is that he’s endured. When Seventh Avenue designers still looked to Parisian houses for inspiration, he proved Los Angeles had an iconography all its own. And now, when the red carpet has become a circus of who’s-wearing-who, we’re reminded that there’s nothing like a Mackie. For him, the magic has nothing to do with the modern-day celebrity machine. “Glamour has to do with the charisma of the person wearing the garment, how well they wear it, and how they hold themselves,” he says. “They’re being themselves, and I think that’s important.” 

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