Bob Mackie | CNN Style


Cher, Tina Turner, Bette Midler, Judy Garland, Marlene Dietrich, Madonna, Whitney Houston, Dolly Parton, Liza Minnelli, Marlene Dietrich: All of these legendary stars has received the magic of Bob Mackie.  

Variously dubbed the Sultan of Sequins, the Rajah of Rhinestones and the Guru of Glitter, Mackie’s work for stage and screen has earned him myriad accolades, among them nine Emmys, three Academy Award nominations and an induction into The Television Academy Hall of Fame. He also forayed onto the New York catwalks in the 1980s and enjoyed a retrospective at the Museum at FIT in 1999, celebrating his talents for creating the most twinkly, feathery and often cheeky outfits imaginable. 

In 2019, this showman is in the limelight once again. Mackie has just won his first Tony Award for Best Costume Design in a Musical for his work on The Cher Show on Broadway. He has a look in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s exhibition “Camp: Notes on Fashion.” He’s seen his 1970s looks for Elton John reimagined for the biopic Rocketman (these same looks inspired a 2018 Gucci capsule collection). And to top it off, he has been honoured by the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA) or the second time with the Geoffrey Beene Lifetime Achievement Award. 

“When Diane von Furstenberg called me to tell me I’d be receiving this award, I thought, ‘Really?’ because in my mind’s eye I’m still 35. But then I realised I’d just turned 80, so I figure it’s okay,” Mackie said over the phone from his New York hotel. “It’s interesting. I’ve never been the darling of the fashion world. I’m a costume designer, that’s what I’ve spent my life doing. So the CFDA was a surprise. But you know, everybody likes to be loved.”

Mackie is loved more than most. Fern Mallis, former executive director of CFDA and founder of New York Fashion Week, remembers getting to know him in the early 1990s. “When he did fashion shows, they were so spectacular and theatrical,” she says. “He invented the naked dresses with the strategically placed beads. Now everyone who walks the red carpet, or designs for the red carpet, owes him a debt of gratitude, whether they know it or not. He’s a treasure; he’s one of a kind.” 

Mackie was born in Los Angeles County and spent his boyhood at the movies where he fell in love with the Technicolor glamour of Carmen Miranda, Gene Kelly and Betty Grable. “I decided when I was 10 years old that I wanted to be a costume designer,” he recalls. “After design school I thought about going to New York to get into theatre, but it was winter and I had no money to buy a coat, so I took my portfolio around the studios and wound up at Paramount.” 

He learned the ropes as a sketch artist for Paramount Studios costumier Edith Head and Jean Louis, for whom he drew the nude illusion dress Marilyn Monroe wore to sing “Happy Birthday, Mr President.” He also assisted designer Ray Aghayan, who later become his life partner. 

By the mid-1960s, Mackie was in demand for TV and made his mark on “The Carol Burnett Show,” where he spent 11 years indulging his love for comedic costume. It was on the show that he first encountered Cher in 1967. They have gone on to forge a life-long collaboration, from the singer’s Sonny & Cher years right through to her current tours. “She was 19 when we met, and she had the most beautiful little body. She loved to get dressed up and if she didn’t understand a look, I’d show her a history book: ‘Today we’re doing Samson and Delilah,’” Mackie says. “She became known for her clothes -- or her lack of clothes! And she’s still out there doing it at 73. It’s amazing.”

Mackie has had an equally long friendship with Diana Ross, who he initially dressed in 1969: “I certainly have a soft spot in my heart for that little girl from Detroit who could wear clothes like nobody else. She must have been a royal goddess in another life,” he says. 

Equally fabulous is his more recent work for RuPaul. “Have you ever heard of a drag queen that successful? He’s so smart. He knew everything I’d ever done and told me he wanted one like Tina, one like Diana and one like Barbie. So I did it.” 

As for Elton John, their imaginations resulted in the musician dressed on stage as everything from Minnie Mouse to Donald Duck. “He had a horrible time sitting at the piano with the Donald Duck backside sticking out, but he got a kick of it all.”

With the awards season over, Mackie is looking forward to checking out of New York and heading home to California. “I have no intention of retiring but a holiday would be good,” he quips. 

Next, he’s the subject of an upcoming Matthew Miele-directed documentary. Due for release in December 2020, the fully authorized film will examine his entire career, talk to his inner circle and reveal the handcraftsmanship that went into each piece. "Bob Mackie is an American original, and to be given a chance to showcase how he accomplished his life's work and made each design worthy of amplified spectacle is something that will leave audiences inspired,” Miele said in a statement to The Hollywood Reporter.

This latest tribute to Mackie’s longevity comes as no surprise to his dear friend, Texan model Jan Strimple, whose international career he helped to propel in the 1980s. “Bob is a prolific creator. His designs exude confidence, sensuality, unapologetic glamour and wit,” she says. “I think that in our angst filled world, we all want to lighten up. Bob has never left that mind-set. He gives us the same thing that early Hollywood gave him: reasons to laugh and moments of beauty that take our breath away.”

Publication: CNN Style

Helen Jennings