Portrait by Harry Langdon
In the pantheon of American fashion designers, Bob Mackie stands alone with his singular focus on sequined, bejeweled, and hyperbolic custom-made outfits for the world’s most ostentatious personalities. And even if you’re unfamiliar with his name (which wouldn’t be surprising, considering Bob’s never had a mass-marketed brand of his own), if you’ve ever looked at a photo of a famous person, chances are you’re familiar with his work. Over the course of his 50-year career, Bob has made clothes for the likes of Cher, Liza, Barbra, Britney, Michael, Madonna, Oprah, Dolly, Whitney, Tina, and just about everyone else who has reached first-name-only status.
Bob, 72, started his career in Hollywood in the early 60s, working in various wardrobe departments. As a costume designer, he pioneered the over-the-top look that has dominated the flashier corners of American fashion for most of the past half century, earning him nicknames like the Raja of Rhinestones and the Sultan of Sequins.
Along the way, Bob designed fancy costumes for Barbie dolls, won nine Emmys, was nominated for three Oscars, started a furniture line, dressed the Mob, designed fragrances, developed a couture line, and accomplished a million other spectacular things. Currently much of Bob’s energy is focused on his QVC line of “wearable art,” which is much more in line with comfortable, consumer-facing fashion than its name and Bob’s previous work would suggest.
VICE: What are you doing right now?
Bob Mackie: I am just outside of Philadelphia. I’m doing a televised-shopping thing.
For QVC, right? Is that what you’re mainly working on these days?
It does take up a lot of time, but I’m also always working on other projects.
Well, there’s a cosmetics line I’m working on, and also a furniture line. Which is good because during the recession, I wasn’t making a new line of furniture because people weren’t buying it. You know, if you’re losing your home, why would you buy furniture? But now it’s all changing.
Obviously, you’re a pretty busy guy, but are you so busy that you can’t even keep track of what you make? Do you have any idea how many different looks you’ve designed over the years?
[laughs] No! I’ve been in the business over 50 years, and I haven’t kept count.
Do you ever see a piece that you designed without any recollection of doing so?
Sometimes I see old tapes of television shows that I did a long time ago, and I see something and know that I did it because I designed the show, but I have completely forgotten it. It’s always a strange feeling. But it’s very hard to remember because I used to do two to three hours of television shows a week, and I just worked 24 hours a day. Once it was over, we’d just move straight on to the next one.
Bob and Carol Burnett in her home, 1967
The television shows you designed wardrobe for back then were classic big productions like The Carol Burnett Show. It all seemed so cohesive. Were you responsible for designing every costume and look?
Well, not everything was designed. I would rent a lot of stuff like uniforms and period pieces, but we were doing 50 to 70 costumes per episode, and we had a show every week.
I watched an interview with you during which you said that to get inspiration for sketch-comedy wardrobes, you’d walk around the mall and people-watch. You also said that you couldn’t believe what people thought they looked good in. Is strolling around malls or other public places something you still do?
I don’t do sketch comedy anymore, but I definitely still walk around malls and airports—especially airports—and I think, Oh my God, look at her, or, Look at those ugly shoes! Today, a lot of women are wearing very unflattering clothes.
Yes, I think the worst-dressed people can be found at the airport because somewhere along the line everyone decided that unabashed comfort trumps any sort of decorum whatsoever. It’s crazy. You have people going on two-hour flights in pajamas with neck pillows and their bare feet stinking up the cabin.
I know! But the thing is, you can be comfortable without looking like a pig. When I fly, I sit there and I watch people board the plane and I think, Where are they going when they arrive? Where can you go when you look that ridiculous?
Are there any specific current trends that you just can’t stand?
Leggings worn on their own. It stops me cold some days; I just can’t believe my eyes! Just because it’s stretchy, it doesn’t mean it fits or looks good.
And what about from the past?
Well, sometimes, when they’re happening you think, Oh my God, what’s going on here? And then after a while you start liking it. Like when minidresses came in, they were just above the knee and everyone was so shocked. Then all of a sudden they were barely covering the crotch. And now everybody’s got it all hanging out and we’re used to it.
Does that happen with things you’ve designed in the past? Do you ever look back and go, “What was I thinking?”
Well, I look back and I say to myself, “That was 30 or 40 years ago and that was the trend at the time.”
Amethyst Aura Barbie, 1997
What decade do you think had the most style crimes?
The 80s. Everyone was rebelling against the 70s and got so overdressed and so garish with all that big, funny hair and those huge shoulder pads. It just didn’t look good. And it’s been long enough ago that, if it had looked good, we would know it did by now. But today, nobody is doing anything interesting or new.
What do you mean?
I look around, and it’s all just the same old stuff regurgitated and brought back. You see a trend come and go, and then it comes back and goes again, and now it’s coming back for a third time! It’s getting kind of crazy. The fabrics are interesting now, though. There are lots of things you can do with them that we couldn’t do in the past.
Is there anything that you’ve tried to make that was just too ambitious? Something you had to give up on?
Not that I remember. I’ve always had a very practical side that would stop me from doing that. A lot of the time I would only have four or five days to get something together, and if you get to the day of the shoot and it doesn’t work or it’s not ready, you’re in deep shit. But then there are times when I’ve had six months or a year to get ready for something, and I’d do research and make all of these huge things with headpieces and back pieces and feathers—these are looks that have to be built. And they have to be lightweight and not break, and they have to move as though they’re made out of butterfly wings. And it’s very exciting to do, but it’s not something I would try when I only had a couple of days.
Is that one of the things that drew you to working with Barbie dolls? Some of the outfits you’ve done for them would be impossible to put on a person.
Actually, there’s a whole bunch of drag queens around who will copy a Barbie that I’ve done, and I’ll look at it and say, “Wow, that’s pretty good!” But then other times they’ll try and do it, but they don’t know how to build it; they wear it, and then all of a sudden it collapses.
I’d imagine drag queens must re-create your designs a lot.
My entire career, people would say to me, “You have to go see this drag show.” And they wouldn’t tell me why, and I’d walk in and every performer would be wearing a copy of what I’ve done. Especially the things I’ve done for Cher.
Cher in what Bob calls "one of her outfits," a costume from a 1975 television special. Photo by Harry Langdon
Are you still working with Cher?
I haven’t worked with her in several years because she hasn’t done anything. She just went to Russia to do one of those one-nighters where they make a million-zillion dollars, and she pulled out a lot of my old stuff and used it. But I don’t know if we’ll do anything together ever again; it’s a lot of work going out on the road and getting all dressed up like that.
I wanted to ask you about the infamous dress you made for her to wear to the 1986 Academy Awards, the one where she looked like a midriff-baring witch-queen with a spiky Afro. Is it true that it was her idea to do that and you tried to talk her out of it?
Well, she was giving an award to Don Ameche. And he was a man in his 70s who was receiving this wonderful award, so I said, “Do you really think you should dress up like that? Don’t you think you’re going to pull focus from what it’s really about?” And she said, “Oh, he won’t mind.” And of course the next day she was on the cover of every newspaper. And they still print those pictures.
Over the years, has there ever been someone who you wished you could’ve dressed but it never happened for whatever reason?
Not really. I like it if someone comes in and they’re 20 pounds overweight. If I can make them walk onstage and look like their old selves and look really good, that’s always fun for me. I suppose I would’ve loved to have dressed Audrey Hepburn. She just looked fantastic in everything; she was like a model. Real people didn’t and don’t look like her at all; she was breathtaking. She didn’t look like a man’s wet dream, she wasn’t terribly sexy, but at the same time she really looked amazing. In my teenage years, my two favorites were Audrey and Marilyn Monroe, who were the exact opposites of each other.
Did you get to work with Marilyn?
My first job in the movies was to sketch all the dresses she was going to wear in Something’s Got to Give. It was on that job that she died—she never finished the movie. It was very strange. I was 22 and so excited, and then Marilyn, my very favorite, was gone. I still can’t watch the movies about her, I don’t even want to look at them—I don’t want to see an actress play her because nobody can do what she did on-screen. She was so magical. Adorable and common and so sexy and so appealing. A very interesting creature, she was.
Goddess of Africa Barbie, 1999
What I like about your designs is that while they’re always pretty, many of them are also funny and shocking. Do you ever set about designing a costume with the goal of getting extreme reactions out of people?
I want to surprise them. Especially when I’m dressing performers. You want the audience to be surprised when they walk out. You want them to swoon or ooh or ahh or clap—all of that’s important, it’s part of the business of show business. It’s exciting. If a woman is going to do an hour and a half onstage, and she’s just in a little black dress, she’d better be Judy Garland. You’re there to see her, you’re not just listening. So there needs to be something visual. At the same time, if you don’t make them look good, you’ve defeated the purpose of putting something on them. It’s all about making them look thinner and taller and fabulous.
Does the fashion world take you seriously?
The fashion world never really accepted me. I was always a costume designer, not a fashion designer. But because of the women I dressed, I was kind of dragged into the fashion world, which was fine, but the fashion press never really liked me.
What do you think about the fashion industry right now?
I don’t think anything of it. It’s a terrible business to be in. People are going in and out of business constantly—it’s really rough. And with the way the stores are reacting and the way they’re treating the designers, it’s very hard. It’s hard to make a good living there. I see young designers going into fashion and I say, “Please go work with somebody you really admire; don’t try and go into business right now.” Many of them think they can just go into business and start a workroom and be an overnight sensation, and it never works.
Are there any young designers you like at the moment?
I have to admit, I haven’t really paid that much attention. I work with fashion students in Los Angeles, and I think some of those kids are amazing. It can be so frustrating because they’re so talented, but I never hear of them again. I find it terribly sad.
Are there any designers whose work you’ve admired over the years?
I love James Galanos. He’s been retired for a while, but I used to think he made the most beautiful clothes. Oscar de la Renta is still plugging away. He really dresses women to look like women, and I like that very much. A lot of people, they keep going, but it seems like they’re squeezing out another collection just because they have to.
Two models show off Bob's Fall 1988 collection. Photo by Gideon Lewin
You did a couture collection once, right?
I’ve done several collections. It wasn’t like the price of European couture, but it was still expensive. I think it was very wearable, though. I never did anything I didn’t think people could wear. The sad part is, you can’t control who buys it. Sometimes I just think, Oh, if I could tell that woman which one to buy!, because they’ll invariably pick the wrong thing. I’ll have all of these beautiful samples in, and then Aretha Franklin will come in and order, and it’s like, “Well, it doesn’t look quite the same now, does it?” [laughs] I’m going to get in trouble for that one.
Who have been some of your favorite people to dress?
Well, it depended on what I was doing. When I was working with Carol Burnett, I could do all this funny stuff, as well as beautiful production numbers. She could look so many different ways. And I loved doing comedy; I loved making an audience laugh. A lot of fashion designers are like, “Why would you want to do that?” They don’t get it. Fashion people don’t have very much humor in them.
No, they definitely don’t.
Fashion is like a religion to them, but fashion has to have a little humor. I think some of the funniest things I’ve ever seen are showgirls, like in Vegas. They always make me laugh. Sometimes they’re beautiful, but they’re also so outrageous they make you laugh. And fashion can always be that way.
I’d imagine you’ve had a pretty big influence on the look of Vegas, right?
I think I’ve had a huge influence on a lot of things, entertainment-wise. I watch Dancing with the Stars and I think, I did that outfit 40 years ago, and I did it better.
You’ve been massively influential. There was a joke about you on The Simpsons once.
At one point I was so notorious. I was being mentioned in books and on quiz shows and The Simpsons. It’s fun, I get a kick out of it. I went to see Best in Show with a friend, and there’s a part where Jane Lynch says, “Bob Mackie, where are you when we need you?”—and I had no idea it was in the film. It’s funny, I love it when that happens.
What’s your house like?
You know, because of all the glamorous and over-the-top stuff I do, most people expect me to live in some kind of marble nightclub with lights and silver palm trees. But I don’t, and I don’t want to. My house is a ranch house in LA, and there’s a pool and some cacti and some things I’ve collected from around the world. It makes me happy, to be there among my things.
Do you find yourself slowing down at all?
Not particularly. But there’s some things I used to do that, physically, I can’t do now. I could never do what I did in the 70s. Well, nobody could do it at that time! How I did it, I don’t know. Nobody worked as much as me. But I just loved it. And I thought at the time, Enjoy it while you can, because you’re not ever going to be doing this much at one time again. And I haven’t.
Archival images taken from the book Unmistakably Mackie: The Fashion and Fantasy of Bob Mackie.
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