Bob Mackie is live on QVC talking about the importance of comfort in today’s clothes, with a hint that he might not actually think that’s a good thing. Appearing via Skype from his living room in Palm Springs, the 81-year-old fashion icon exudes the same boyish good looks and charm as he did in 1988 when he designed Cher’s bejeweled nude gown for the Academy Awards.
“If anything’s going to show on your waist band, it’ll be the front,” he explains to the bubbly QVC host about his decision to make a pair of stretchy pants look, well, not stretchy. “And once you get that on, it all becomes very smooth and terrific. It doesn’t look like pajama pants.”
The word icon suffers mightily from overuse but fits Mackie as snugly as Cher’s dress did. His list of famous clients runs deep, ranging from Lucille Ball to Pink. For more than 60 years, he has steadily contributed, often with prolific output, to the costume and fashion worlds. If succeeding in both doesn’t seem a rare feat, try to name someone else who has.
“There’s just so much there,” says Matthew Miele, director of a documentary about Mackie that was slated for fall release until the pandemic struck. “I was amazed no one made one before.”
The limitations caused by the COVID-19 restrictions might be a little easier for Mackie than some others, given his booming 2019. The year started with the revival of costumes he created for Elton John in the 1970s for the biopic Rocketman and continued with Tony and Drama Desk awards for best costume design in a Broadway musical for The Cher Show, which told the singer-actress’ story in 35 songs “and enough Bob Mackie gowns to cause a sequins shortage in New York City,” according to show promotions. He also received the Geoffrey Beene Lifetime Achievement Award from the Council of Fashion Designers of America.
The latter award might have been the sweetest, given his complicated relationship with the CFDA, which Mackie says never quite knew what to do with him. (It gave him an award for his “fashion exuberance” in 2001.) The lifetime achievement award came as a surprise, but not the fact that young people had been paying attention all along. “The fashion people used to call me ‘Barnum Bob’ and ‘Mr. Show Business,’” Mackie says. “Lately, they complain nobody wears anything fun at the Academy Awards. We had a lot of fun.”
Diane Von Furstenburg, the council’s chairwoman, called to deliver the news, and Bernadette Peters, a client dating back to The Carol Burnett Show, presented him with the award at the Brooklyn Museum of Art.
“There could be 50 people on stage,” Mackie says of Cher, “and you only look at her.”
“He’s so, so creative,” says Peters, who wore a gown that Mackie designed for her. “I was so happy they asked me.” Mackie, wearing a suit designed for him by Tom Ford, gave an acceptance speech that lasted almost three minutes. When he received the Tony, he stayed on stage less than 14 seconds, quipping it was “very encouraging for an 80 year old.”
“Bob had great ideas and was flexible, and He could inspire [Edith Head] with his sketches.”
“His timing was right,” says Miele, who directed the documentary Scatter My Ashes at Bergdorf’s about famed luxury retailer Bergdorf Goodman. “He was at the beginning of when Hollywood started to recognize costume design as an art form. But when coincidence and luck become common? That’s when you start to think the guy is a true genius. I believe that — I believe he’s working on another level.”
MACKIE SEEMS COMFORTABLE on QVC, chatty but not too off the cuff. At one point, his penchant for candor led him to opine, live, on a political matter. That resulted in a day of phone calls, laughs Joe McFate, Mackie’s longtime director of design. It was a teachable moment.
Before COVID-19, Mackie and McFate frequently traveled east to broadcast from the shopping network’s $100 million soundstages in West Chester, Pennsylvania. Now, they broadcast with studio-quality equipment from Mackie’s living room. McFate handles behind-the-scenes tasks and also works on air, primarily during overnight shifts.
Mackie visited Palm Springs for decades to introduce his clothing lines and attend fundraisers. Desert AIDS Project honored him in 2010 at its Steve Chase Humanitarian Awards gala. He also came to relax, visiting McFate several times.
Then, he started looking at neighborhoods and houses where he might live. “I came to see the house here and loved it,” says Mackie, who moved to Palm Springs in December 2019. “On a really sunny day, it’s kind of magical, and the sky is so blue.”
“Everything with his name on it … Bob Mackie actually drew that!”
Bob Mackie’s sketches of celebrities wearing his creations are works of art unto themselves.
He frequented Sunnylands Center and Gardens in Rancho Mirage and became a regular at Johannes Restaurant and Le Vallauris before the pandemic. In recent months, he has spent more time in his gardens and with his neighbors, although he is venturing out more, including to the Certified Farmers’ Market in Palm Springs most Saturdays.
The earliest days of the crisis were bad for his business, says McFate, who has worked for Mackie for 20 years. But business rebounded within four weeks and remains as steady ever. These days, Mackie sells millions of dollars of goods a year on QVC, McFate says. His most popular item: an assortment of knit wide-leg pants in chic colors that have a “yoga element,” which have sold 500,000 pair over time. You can roll them up and store them in a purse, yet they look nice enough to wear out at night.
While QVC makes his artful and often sequin-striped clothes available to a worldwide audience, Mackie sell his artwork, fragrance, luggage, and Barbie collections from his website, bobmackie.com.
Mackie is also working with Frank Vlastnik and Laura Ross on The Art of Bob Mackie, a book scheduled for fall 2021 from Simon and Schuster that includes sketches and previously unpublished photos of his work. That Mackie is an artist, beyond his work as a designer, comes up regularly in conversation with former employees, other designers, and clients like Peters. She calls him “an extraordinarily talented person.”
To put a measuring tape around Mackie’s career requires going back to single-digit childhood, when his love of clothes began. Raised by grandparents, he looked forward to visits from his mother, who took him to the movies and on other adventures. Movies were his favorite. “She wasn’t a great mom, and I think she felt guilty,” he explains from the kitchen table of his colorful, art-filled Araby Commons home. The childhood adventures included trips to Palm Springs. Frankly, he didn’t like the desert back then.
Mackie announced to his family at age 10 he would be a costume designer. That led him to Pasadena City College, followed by Chouinard Art Institute in Los Angeles. By 20, before he could earn a degree, Mackie had begun working as a sketch artist at Paramount Studios. “I had been hanging around Western Costumes doing some freelance things, trying to get noticed,” he recalls, “and I gave my portfolio to someone there.”
The costume house, which remains in business, was the perfect place for him. “Within the week, I got a call to be the sketch artist for Jean Louis,” who was doing the new Marilyn Monroe movie. “Can you imagine? Your first job!” In the time before production started, Mackie took a job on a film starring Hope Lang. But that’s how it came to be that Monroe wore a dress Mackie drew for her famous, breathy rendition of “Happy Birthday to You” to President John F. Kennedy at Madison Square Garden.
Mackie worked for Edith Head in his early years at the studio. “She was always interested in new talent,” explains Jay Jorgenson, author of Edith Head: The Fifty-Year Career of Hollywood’s Greatest Costume Designer. “She was so busy, she liked people who could come up with ideas on the fly. She would say, ‘Show me five different style of collars, I’ll use one.’ Bob had great ideas and was flexible, and could inspire her with sketches.” Those experiences provided his educational foundation in the industry, even while he was moving fast.
Mackie landed a job with Ray Aghayan, the costume designer on The Judy Garland Show in 1963-1964. The variety show lasted only a season, but Mackie and Aghayan were renewed. They were life and business partners for 49 years until Aghayan died in 2011.
Mackie was hired as costume designer for the inaugural season of The Carol Burnett Show in 1967, and stayed until its conclusion in 1978. That might be a full-time job for some designers, but Mackie also worked on The Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour, Donnie & Marie, and numerous television specials, including two with Mitzi Gaynor and one with Goldie Hawn. Mackie and Aghayan teamed up on the movies Lady Sings the Blues (1971), starring Diana Ross, and Funny Lady (1975), with Barbra Streisand. They received Academy Award nominations for both. Mackie also created costumes for Pennies From Heaven (1981), earning a third Oscar nomination.
DAY-TO-DAY MANAGEMENT took a costume village, which also provides an excellent vantage for considering Mackie’s career. In the mid-1960s, Elizabeth Courtney was the go-to dressmaker for Hollywood’s most glamorous stars. It was normal to run into luminaries such as Marlene Dietrich, Marilyn Monroe, and Elizabeth Taylor at the shop.
Mackie and Aghayan were impressed with Courtney’s ability to make their most complicated designs with ease. The three of them teamed up to create a custom, made-to-order couture house in 1968. Elizabeth Courtney Costumes made all of the star costumes they designed, as well as Mackie’s line, until around 2012.
They realized early on that those rapidly accumulating costumes could have a second life. That idea spawned a costume rental business, EC2. “Bob had to create 60 costumes every week for The Carol Burnett Show, not just for the cast, but all those dancers and singers and guest stars,” says Worthie Paul Meacham, who managed EC2 for 20 years. “It took three or four manufacturers” to make it all. EC2 was eventually closed in 2015, although by then it had been renamed Ret Turner Rentals after its longtime manager.
Mackie was awe-inspiring, says Meacham, who is better known as a drag artist. “Bob would work in his office at least eight hours a day. Everything with his name on it — every gown with sequins — Bob Mackie actually drew that!” That’s unusual, he continues. “A lot of [costume designers] point and say, ‘I like this, I like that.’ Bob Mackie had assistants to copy and organize stuff, and get things done, but none of them designed.” Meacham calls Mackie “the real thing.”
Bernadette Peters met Mackie for the first time at Elizabeth Courtney. “I was up there to get my costume for a number with Carol Burnett,” she says. The actress remembers bringing Rocko, her little beige poodle, to the fitting. The shop was still small at that point, perhaps “two or three rooms,” she says, but it was busy.
She came to understand the artistry he brought to costume design during the production of Pennies From Heaven, which takes place during the Great Depression. “If anyone went back to watch that movie, and really look at his work, it was brilliant,” says Peters, who earned a Golden Globe for the role. “He had antique shoes from the period, bags from the period, little hats — they were so authentic-looking.”
Bob Mackie designed this unforgettable costume for Carol Burnett when she appeared in a sketch as Scarlett O’Hara with Harvey Korman as Rhett Butler.
Daniel Orlandi’s first job in the industry was on Pennies From Heaven, and he continued to work for Mackie for the next eight years. “He hired me with very little experience to be his assistant,” he says. “He and Ray [Aghayan] got me in the union and taught me so much.”
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Orlandi, a sought-after costume designer in his own right who has worked on Jurassic World and Ford v Ferrari, remembers watching Mackie sketch. “His drawings are beautiful, and he’s so quick and facile. Remarkable, really.”
Peters says she hires Mackie whenever she has a show, saying he not only makes beautiful dresses, but also has a gift for the comedic. She recalls him coming to rehearsal and watching her practice “D-I-V-O-R-C-E,” the Tammy Wynette song. “He created a two-dimensional wig on a plywood cutout.” It was a hit with the audience.
“I want to go back to work, so he can make me another dress,” says Peters, who has scheduled a concert for fall 2021. Mackie looks forward to that, too. But whatever he makes for her will not be stretchy pajama pants. While Mackie aims for comfort in his QVC fashion line, he’s first and foremost a costume designer. And when it comes to costumes, comfort isn’t always a good thing.
Roll the Credits
Here are some of the stars Bob Mackie has dressed:
Bob Mackie had to create 60 costumes a week for The Carol Burnett Show.