Bob Mackie’s client list reads like a who’s-who of 20th-century legends. Cher, Tina Turner, Bette Midler, Judy Garland, Madonna, Whitney Houston, Dolly Parton, Liza Minnelli, Marlene Dietrich… No one could pass up a bit of his magic.
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.
The year, the 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.” And to top it off, he has been honored by the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA) with the Geoffrey Beene Lifetime Achievement Award.
“When (former CFDA chairman) 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 realized 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.”
And Mackie is indeed beloved. 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 said in a phone interview. “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. He 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 recalled. “After design school I thought about going to New York to get into theater, 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 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 became his life partner.
By the mid-1960s, Mackie was one of TV’s most in-demand designers. While working on the “The Carol Burnett Show” in 1967, he had his first encounter with Cher in 1967, sparking a lifelong collaboration that would last from the singer’s Sonny & Cher years right through to her current tours.
“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.
As for Elton John, their combined imaginations resulted in the musician dressed on stage as everyone 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 film will examine Mackie’s entire career, reveal the craftsmanship that went into his most famous piece, and feature interviews with his inner circle.
“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 ongoing fascination with Mackie’s work comes as no surprise to his close friend Jan Strimple, the show producer and former model who 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 wrote in an email.
“I think that in our angst filled world, we all want to lighten up. Bob has never left that mindset. He gives us the same thing that early Hollywood gave him: reasons to laugh and moments of beauty that take our breath away.”
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