There is a shrine
in the entrance of Bob Mackie’s West Hollywood home where a cluster of dolls from around the world huddles. It is difficult to imagine how plain they must have looked when Mackie first discovered them: the one from a church altar now dons an earthy tribal headdress shaped like a Mohawk; a miniature wooden mannequin from the 1800s, with its layers of coral and turquoise, looks more like Shakti ready to walk through fire than a Little House On The Prairie character. “They are just tchotchke people,” Mackie shrugs. “Things I’ve had forever, things that are new.” But as one of the most influential designers of the 20th century, the man who has drenched chanteuses like Tina Turner and Cher in elaborately beaded costumes, it’s hard to not experience the display as a microcosmic metaphor. Transforming women into goddesses has become second nature for the designer.
At 77, Mackie is witty, fascinating, and humble all in nearly equal measure. If his own uniform -- a classic black sweater, oxford shirt, jeans -- and easy going demeanor seem at odds with the “Sequin Shiek” moniker bestowed upon him years ago, one need only look at the walls of his guest bathroom to be reminded of his influence. Autographed images from stars like Barbra Streisand and Carol Burnett, who thanked him for his “weekly miracles” on her variety show, hang side by side. His five decades of work with Cher, who will decamp to Las Vegas for her Classic Cher concert series wearing new Mackie looks in February, remains one of the longest-standing partnerships in the history of fashion and music. “Bob changed my entire life!” Cher tells Billboard. “Without Bob I would have been ... a peacock without feathers.” Of the hundreds of looks she has worn, she counts the Mohawk costume he created for the 1986 Academy Awards as her favorite: “It made me feel like a queen.”
Though millennials might not realize it, dozens of seminal 21st century fashion moments, from the trio of coordinated looks Destiny’s Child wore in the early 2000s to Kim Kardashian’s Riccardo Tisci-designed 2015 Met Gala Dress, would not have happened had Mackie not collaborated with Diana Ross or Cher in the 1970s. His osmosis onto current runways, fromhas been less overt. The burst of crystals accross dresses from Nicolas Ghesquiere’s Summer/Spring 2017 collection for Louis Vuitton, for example, might not have been direct descendants of one specific Mackie look but they certainly recalled him. “Designers are referencing him without even knowing it at this point,” explains Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising Museum curator Kevin Jones. “He has become that classic.”
Born in Monterey Park, California Mackie received a scholarship to the Choinard Art Institutute (the college that later became California Institute of the Arts), before being hand-plucked by legendary couturier Jean Louis to work as a sketch artist. “My first job in Hollywood was with Marilyn Monroe, the biggest movie star ever,” recalls Mackie, who drew the nude marquisette fabric gown drizzled in 2,500 rhinestones that the star would wear while singing “Happy Birthday” to John F. Kennedy at Madison Square Garden in 1962.
Though the early portion of his career coincided with the dissolution of motion picture contracts that once controlled every aspect of an actress’ image, old Hollywood glamour remained a major point of reference for Mackie as he segued into costume design for TV variety shows in the early ’70s. His mastery of proportion on The Carol Burnett Show, perhaps most famously visible in the upholstery fabric dress he stuck a curtain rod through, both shaped Burnett’s approach to the character and helped audiences instantly comprehend the scene. “Proportion, color, texture: Bob's work deserves to be studied in depth because it is completely relevant today,” adds Jones. “He really knows how to present women in front of the camera. A lot of old Hollywood technique that gave the illusion of perfection -- it’s becoming a lost art.”
While flipping through the latest issue of People in his kitchen, Mackie begins shaking his head at the incorrect proportions and “granny panties” a stylist has paired beneath a sheer lace Valentino gown. “They’ve made this young girl look like her torso is so short,” he explains with a tone more confused than patronizing. “There are tricks for that!"
What first sparked your interest in fashion?
When I was a little kid during the Great War, the only thing really to do was go to the movies. Movies became like my college. I lived in a neighborhood with no kids to speak of, so I would just go into my bedroom and start making my own stage sets and costumes. I used to buy these 45 records, put them on the record player, turn on my flashlight and produce these little versions. Until I got to high school, I’d learned so much just by watching really good movies.
Do you remember meeting Cher for the first time?
She and Sonny [Bono] had become famous as a novelty act — like a couple of cave people. In those days women had big beehives; no one had straight hair like hers. She looked different than everybody else ... fur vests and bell-bottoms, it was all new at the time. I’d seen photos and thought she was this big hulking girl. She and Sonny were booked on The Carol Burnett Show in 1967. She came in to see me and I went, “Oh, my God. This girl is so beautiful and little.” I mean, she was like Audrey Hepburn. She had good shoulders, a long neck, a long body and just photographed like a dream.
I dressed her up for the Showboat finale, and I remember I was sitting in the hallway trying to fix some thread that had come loose on a dress. She came over and said, “One day, when we can afford it, I’m going to have a beaded dress.” I told her, “I’m ready when you are!”
How has your creative process changed over the years?
Well, it takes more now than it used to because she has too many things to say about it. (Laughs.) In the old days I could put anything on her. She didn’t know about period clothes — she didn’t know about glamour, really. She could be anything. In those days, they didn’t feature Middle Eastern or Hispanic women, and she could be any ethnic persuasion because she was always tan. It was really fun. She was so busy working with her show back then, she never knew what I was going to put on her. Now she’s liable to wear anything. The clothing is also a little more constructed. She’s older now, still gorgeous, but she needs a little more protection.
Spanx didn’t exist when you started out. How did you get every person you dressed to look so flawless?
There was no stretchy fabrics either, except maybe wool jersey. Usually those girls had pretty good bodies, but sometimes women would gain 15 pounds and you'd have to start over. But I’ve got a million tricks for things like that. When dresses were sheer or nude,there were all of these movie tricks that we learned way back about shadowing seams so you don’t see them. And shadowing nipples on a see-through top, you’d do a a layer of nude and then a smaller one and a smaller one and a smaller one and it just kind of fades out.
You worked with many different body shapes, Mama Cass Elliot included.
That’s the way life is, that’s the way the world is. Cass was wearing the same kind of muumuu dress every time The Mamas & The Papas appeared on television. They were going to be on a [Richard] Rodgers and [Lorenz] Hart special, and she came in to see me and I said, “I’ll make you something.” Nobody ever wanted to make her anything, so she was all excited. I got to really like her because she was on The Carol Burnett Show a lot as a guest. My budget always got shot to hell because it could be the littlest nothing and it had to be made custom for her. I made a floaty chiffon look, and many years later saw it in a thrift store. I’m not sure if she was still around by that time. But I saw it hanging and thought, “God, there it is.”
How did the transition from The Supremes to Diana Ross’ solo career work?
They had worked with another designer and evidently he did something for somebody else that looked a lot like an outfit he’d done for Diana. You don’t fool with Diana. I came in and all of a sudden she got custody of me, and The Supremes were on their own. I always thought of them as sort of more fashiony than Cher was. Diana kept wanting to borrow Cher’s clothes all the time, though. She had such a beautiful figure.
Your styles were risqué -- Tina Turner’s slits were always up to her hips.
Tina didn’t have any money at the time; she’d buy these really cheap evening gowns in jersey [material] when she was in Europe and bring them in. I’d stand in front of the mirror with her and would just start cutting. She’d say “a little higher here,” and I’d cut and then we’d pull it open and tack it down.
Was there ever any pushback from television networks regarding what Cher had on?
They all made a big fuss about Cher showing too much. From head to toe she was perfect, so there was always a body part showing. And I remember having an argument with them because it was alright to see cleavage, but if you saw a little swelling underneath? You were going to turn to stone and go to hell immediately. So I told them, “If she were standing on her head, wouldn’t it be the same? The swelling would be on the bottom.” They didn’t like that.
Designers like Marc Jacobs grew up seeing your work. You influenced a new generation.
He used to work at Charivari in New York and I’d be walking up 57th Street and he’d scream “Bob Mackie!” from across the street. He was cute and certainly has done well for himself. But there was one designer, Alexander McQueen, who used to knock off stuff. I’d see looks and think, “That’s just too close.”
Did you see when Kim Kardashian went to the Met Gala in a look inspired by Cher’s 1974 dress?
She wanted to do a photo session with my pieces from the archives. Nothing would fit onto her in a million years. She looks good, but archival things are sample sizes. Maybe a cape — photograph her nude with a cape.
What was the response on the actual night she wore it for the first time?
It was a wild night. All of those divas at the time were dressed, but when Cher walked in? It took over the whole evening. Nothing compared. It was a dress we had done for a Richard Avedon story that was going to be for Vogue at the time. Cher had never worn it anywhere. Because it was kind of see-through, I said “Don’t you think it’s a little much?” But she wanted it. They’re still printing her in that dress.