Bob Mackie: An Original

The Steve Chase Humanitarian Award Recipient stands out like his fashions

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Form a picture of Cher in your mind.

Got it?

She’s wearing Bob Mackie, isn’t she?

It is nearly impossible to imagine Cher in anything but a Mackie creation. That’s how indelible a designer he is.

And it’s just as easy for you to — with your third eye — zip up Carol Burnett or feather up Diana Ross in a Mackie original.

Halston had Liza Minelli. Thierry Mugler had Grace Jones. Jean Paul Gaultier had Madonna. Each was a style muse of her time, gently nudging the zeitgeist by forcing our eyes to adjust — sometimes by sheer will.

But Bob Mackie, who will receive a Steve Chase Humanitarian Award during the Feb. 27 event benefiting Desert AIDS Project, has added sheen and shine to all the stars of every generation for the last five decades, crossing right into today’s downloadable divas.

Katy Perry wears it well, sashaying her new glam in Mackie glitz to great effect in her heavy-rotation music video “Waking Up in Vegas.”

Pink is a fan, wearing Mackie designs in her high-flying “Funhouse” concert tour.

“I love to dip into the new bunch,” Mackie says. “Of course [Pink’s] act has a lot of aerial work in it. And I mean she can really do it. She’s fearless up there. Of course today you have these amazing stretch fabrics that we didn’t have years ago. I’m thinking the whole time, ‘This is fun.’ It’s so different.”

He is pretty fearless too, pulling off his own high-wire balancing act for years. Mackie is one of the few designers to achieve success both in costuming and fashion design. But even though his over-the-top catwalk capers during New York’s Fashion Week were must-attends, he admits that fundamentally he is no Seventh Avenue powerhouse.

“In my heart of hearts, I’ll always be a costume designer,” says the 69-year-old. “I’m at my best as a costume designer. But I did it, and I did my best. I wouldn’t want to go back into that world for anything, especially these days. The stores? You can’t do business like that. And the shows? I look at the schedule for [New York] Fashion Week and I say, ‘Who are these people?’ It’s like Real Housewives of Atlanta having shows in Bryant Park.”

And with that the topic of the Bob Mackie Originals, launched in 1982 (and grinding to a halt in 1993), is tucked away, neatly and most politely. You don’t get to be called the “Sultan of Sequins” or the “Rajah of Rhinestones” without knowing a thing or two about deft deflection.

You can’t blame him for wanting to move on. It was a devas-tating year, 1993. The retail business had fallen off for Mackie’s ready-to-wear collection. His name — so unblemished after years as a Hollywood A-lister — was unfairly and inaccurately linked to the Gambino crime family by New York tabloids. In March of that year, his only son, Robin, died from HIV/AIDS at age 33.

Coming into his own during the flickering flames of Hollywood’s star system, Mackie holds his personal life close.

“I bow down to people who use their celebrity to help others,” says Jim Casey, co-chair of the Steve Chase Humanitarian Awards gala where Mackie will receive the Arts and Activism Award. “I know he’s a busy guy. These are tough economic times. We need that excessive glam. We all need that escapism.”

“It seems like in the early ’80s we were losing people right and left,” Mackie says. “And it hasn’t gotten a whole lot better if you look at the world. We can’t ignore it. And that’s what I like about Desert AIDS Project: They get the money to the people who really need it.”

In 2005, Mackie auctioned off a chunk of his personal archives of sketches, costumes, and couture through Christie’s, giving a portion of the proceeds to the Elton John AIDS Foundation.

“My archives just got so large. I’ll have another,” Mackie says. “Believe me, we’ve just made a dent.”

Mackie has been designing a world for himself since he was a young boy growing up in Southern California. His older stepsister took him to the movies with Betty Grable and Rita Hayworth. When he came home, he drew what he had seen.

“I was very happy to stay in my room and draw,” he says. “I would build little sets on top of my dresser and then use flashlights for lighting.”

There was a brief stint at Pasadena College and then a turn through the prestigious Chouinard Art Institute. He left without a degree, but with a wife, Marianne Wolford. By the time they divorced in 1963, he was working for famed costumer Edith Head at Paramount Studios.

“I worked as her sketch artist,” he says. “Then I got to work on the Judy Garland TV show. I met a million people.”

One of those people was Diahann Carroll, who will present Mackie with his award at the February gala.

“We were in New York,” she says, reminiscing back to 1963. “I think it was the filming of The Judy Garland Show. … It was very shortly thereafter that we worked together.

“Bob is a master of making a gown work onstage. A gown has to breathe with the body. The line of the gown has to be there all the time, no matter how you move. He doesn’t mind collaborating at all.”

Mackie’s career climbed as he worked with Mitzi Gaynor, Sonny & Cher, The Supremes, and Carol Burnett. He won nine Emmys.

In the ’90s Mackie took everything he had learned about licensing and launched a successful Wearable Art line on QVC. “If you like it, you like it. If you don’t, you don’t,” he says. “I’ve never been good at the hard sell.” And collectors drool over Bob Mackie Barbie Dolls.

“I didn’t like Barbie when she first came out. She was supposed to be a fashion doll. I was like, ‘What fashion?’ She looks like a hooker to me,” he says. But, like trends, Mackie turns. “I’m working on a fantasy showgirl Barbie next,” he says. “You know the curtain rod dress from ‘It Went With the Wind’ that Carol [Burnett] wore? Well, it’s in the Smithsonian now. I’m doing a Barbie of that too.”

Since 1998, Mackie also has designed a furniture line. “Every five years, I bring out a new group,” he says. “I’m working with people who have done this forever. I come up with an idea and I ask them and they say, ‘We’ve never done that.’ And I say, ‘Why not?’ And I think that’s why it looks a little different.”

In 2001, the Council of Fashion Designers of America honored Mackie for his “fashion exuberance.”

There was a 1999 retrospective at The Fashion Institute of Technology, his 2002 induction (the only one for a costume designer) into the Television Academy Hall of Fame, an honorary doctorate in 2005 from Otis College of Art & Design, and now the upcoming humanitarian award.

All that and the one dress that made it into the Smithsonian had a drapery tassel for a hat and a curtain rod for shoulder pads.

“Glamour and humor go hand in hand,” Mackie says. “Tasteful is boring. Diana Vreeland said that. She was right. She was always right.”

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