For a designer who gives the outfits he creates names like Queen of the Strip, Beyond Belief and Fluff le Coque, Bob Mackie projects himself as an unlikely showman. Fawn is a colour that could have been mixed especially for him, dressed as he is in a blur of anonymity, and you wonder how the taste for feathers, fringing and wall-to-wall sequins which has made him New York’s favourite glamour merchant hasn’t somehow coloured his own style of dress. But then part of his regular-guy persona means that he also has a face that instils unconditional trust in the kind of clients he attracts; shelling out $16,000 for something slinky, sparkling and well-equipped to flatter must be so much easier when it feels like you’re entrusting your body and cash to someone who looks as approachable as a chat show host.
Mackie’s customers are, at one end of the scale, actresses and rock stars (Cher, Tina Turner, Diana Ross and Elton John) and at the other, women of a certain age who require a little help: “By the time they get their money, they’re out of shape.” Some are beyond redemption and simply like his frocks. “I had one old lady who celebrated her hundredth birthday in a red beaded dress of mine. She said, ‘If I don’t make it, I want to be buried in it.’ I thought that was sweet.”
Mackie operates from an unassuming block on Seventh Avenue that also acts as the headquarters for designers Donna Karan, Ralph Lauren and Oscar de la Renta. A kind of polite neighbourliness prevails. Given the height of the building, it’s a situation that could make for some pretty awkward scenes in the lift: “Sometimes the elevator man’s very good and gives you one all to yourself so you don’t have to stand there for forty-odd floors smiling awkwardly.”
Bob Mackie is the last bastion of high glamour in an industry almost entirely devoted to producing unchallenging, stolidly commercial clothes for a modern, working woman who wears running shoes to work and no-nonsense knickers up to her armpits. He makes clothes for gliding from stretch limo to hotel carpet; clothes for a terminal night-time where the sequins will always be shown off to best effect. While his contemporaries eschewed high glamour long ago, in favour of sportswear, that bedrock (some would say scourge) of American fashion, Mackie puts a feather boa with everything and to hell with flat shoes and power breakfasts.
The finale of his spring/summer collection, shown in New York recently, featured, as the last word in Las Vegas theatricality, a wearable roulette dial festooned with feathers and a thousand lights. The audience went wild. Here was true Hollywood-style showmanship (“I wish I’d had a revolving stage”). This was Mackie the entertainer who could make a front row crammed with millionaires’ wives laugh with such abandon that they almost forgot the ghoulish photo-opportunities such off-guardedness would present. Never mind inadvertent strain on the chin-tuck stitching. They were determined to enjoy the show - here was light relief after the serious frock buying of the previous few days. “I’ve been put into this strange category, I’m a freak act,” he says, sounding not in the least bit fazed by the reputation.
Mackie studied at the Chouinard Art Institute in Los Angeles and began his design career as a sketch artist for Jean Louis. He also worked for a while with Edith Head at Paramount. While continuing his work in films, he gained further design experience by creating costumes for television shows hosted by Judy Garland and Carol Burnett. Designing for TV, films, the stage and Las Vegas shows has instilled in him a taste for big-entrance clothes (“I was always a technicolour boy”) and, more recently, his work with rock stars and actresses has highlighted an aptitude for high-impact stage costume with an erotic line in black stretch net and strategic sequins.
But it is for the costumes created for Cher that Mackie has received most attention from the media. The infamous ‘nude’ outfit – a sheer creation made from nylon chiffon and bugle beads – that she wore to the Oscar ceremony in 1986 provoked a mixture of outrage and admiration, and the outfit she wears in her latest video is even more revealing. “Don’t blame that last one on me, OK?” says Mackie. “I made it, but to her instructions. I said, ‘I don’t want credit for this. I think we’ve gone too far.’” The outfit leaves little to the imagination. “It wasn’t so bad with the jacket off – you could see how it fitted together and where all the seams were going, but with the jacket on it was just the most vulgar thing I’ve ever seen. Like walking around without your drawers. I thought: ‘What’s left? Where do we go now?’”
While Mackie’s clothes hold endless appeal for the great number of American women who still like their frocks to be sparing in subtlety and high on dramatic impact (they will tolerate any discomfort incurred), export him to this country and he might find his most appreciative audience in drag artists and transsexuals. Dressing up as women has become a type of new-moralistic recreational activity for a large number of gay men in this country. Mackie will not be drawn when questioned on the appeal of his stereotypically glamorous clothes for men, but they undoubtedly represent the kind of undiluted, stereotypical femaleness that transsexuals strive to emulate. Men who dress up as women invariably adopt the most extreme badges of femaleness with which to parade their fantasies. For every club-going young gay man who camps it up in deliberately extreme blonde wig, fishnets and heels at Kinky Gerlinky, Madame Jojo’s and the Vauxhall Tavern in London, there is another equally conspicuous suburban transsexual who longs for anonymity when travelling on the train in his woman’s garb, but who sticks out a mile not because of hairy hands and a prominent Adam’s apple, but for his narrow, old-fashioned view of what it is to be female. The only appreciative men Bob Mackie claims to know about are those that accompany their wives when being fitted for dresses. “If the husbands are really in a good mood it’s great and they end up buying a lot.” The grin drains away at the thought of two women shopping together, however. “They end up not buying anything. The friend always makes some kind of remark: ‘Oh no, I don’t think so, darling’ or something like that. Then the disparaging friend comes in alone the next day and buys the dress for herself.” But Mackie revels in what he sees as typically female idiosyncrasies. The more old-fashioned the better. He works that smile and they melt accordingly.