It’s 8 a.m. in Beverly Hills. The movie people are still asleep. The music people are just crawling into bed. The money people are juggling their coffee and their calls to New York.
Bob Mackie is at work. He’s already designed three cheeky costumes for Bernadette Peters and drawn a road map for the beads on a Juliet Prowse leotard—and there’s still an hour to go before his fabulous fashion fantasy factory opens for business.
This is the raja of rhinestones, the man who played peek-a-boo with Cher’s navel, turned Elton John into a sequined Statue of Liberty, transformed Second-Hand Rose Streisand into Beautiful Barbra. Now he will do the same for you, if you have $350 to $6,000 to spare for a ready-to-wear Bob Mackie Original. They’re tamer togs than the ones on TV, lighter on the glitz, heavier on the ritz. Some are so sedate that Nancy Reagan could wear them. But others have that special, silver-screen sparkle.
The new line has more than 100 pieces—from coy little cotton and organza dresses to ruffled taffeta coats. “I never had a collection to bounce off of before,” explains Mackie. “The only mental image people had was theatrical, and this really is a collection of everything, not just glitzy dresses.” As Ellin Saltzman, the fashion director at Saks Fifth Avenue, says: “It’s ‘Showbiz meets Seventh Avenue.’ ”
Today Mackie will commute between the two worlds. Boxes on his shelves read like the Celebrity Register, boldly marked: “Raquel,” “Burnett,” “Mitzi.” The blackboard lists other customers waiting for clothes: Angie Dickinson, Lynda Carter, Linda Gray, Diana Ross. Over here are small skyscrapers of boxes of “super pink roses,” “lace,” “boobs.” Mackie orders bust pads by the gross. Does Raquel wear them? “I’ll never tell,” he winks. Ann-Margret? “Never!” Mitzi Gaynor? “Trade secret.” Finally, here are the factory elves at work: Josephine the bead queen reigns over hundreds of glass jars, each bursting with baubles; Tommie the hat lady is sewing a lace wedding veil for Lee Remick to wear on a cable TV show.
And who should be in the fitting room but Cher. She, Mackie sighs, “has the kind of figure that looks best with less on it.” Mackie started dressing—or is it undressing?—Cher in 1971, when he rescued her from bell-bottoms. Since then her personal mannequin has been padded for pregnancies and draped with the famed “nude feather dress” with rhinestones placed, like dense-pack MX missiles, in strategic clusters. “Not too many people,” Mackie understates, “can wear what Cher wears.”
Bob himself is a Mackie original. “Isn’t Bobby good with crayons,” his banker father and his mother used to coo. (They separated when he was 2 and he shuttled between them.) After high school near L.A., “a beatnik stage where I dyed my varsity sweater black,” and a couple of years at L.A.’s Chouinard Art Institute, Mackie began his career. In 1961, to support his wife of two years, Marianne, and son Robin (now 23 and a makeup artist who lives behind Dad’s Beverly Hills home), Mackie took a $125-a-week job with Paramount designer Frank Thompson. “I knew I was good,” says Mackie, “but I couldn’t get arrested.” A year later, though, he was drawing for two of the top movie costume designers in town, Edith Head and Jean Louis.
In 1963, by then divorced, Mackie landed on TV’s Judy Garland Show as the assistant to Ray Aghayan. They soon became partners (and still are today, sharing their studio and home, plus a condo in Marina del Rey). They did Danny Thomas specials together and then Bob got his own showcase, The King Family Show. “It was a comedown,” he concedes, “but it was my own.” By now he was a hit, thanks to the mid-’60s “youthquake—if you were under 25, you were considered brilliant and got hired a lot. I even lied about my age.” Mackie was 25 for quite a while. Now he admits to 43.
In 1967 Carol Burnett hired Bob. Her studio closet is crammed with 1,500 Mackie originals—and today she’s back in his fitting room getting another: bright orange, completely beaded (it weighs 25 pounds), with a San Andreas slit up the side. That worries Carol, because of her underwear. “What do you want to wear panties for?” teases Mackie. He tells all his stars to go “starkers,” as he euphemizes it, because panty lines are ugly. Burnett turns to the reporter. “I always wear underwear,” she says. “Write that down.”
It’s 3 p.m., and Mackie is in his beige Mercedes. He talks about the bodies he beautifies. Burnett has the best back in the biz; ditto Cher’s tummy, navel and armpits and Streisand’s shoulders and chest. He can find something wonderful on anyone—that’s his secret. “My job,” he says, “is to make the client look good, no matter what she’s wearing.”
He arrives at Helen Marler the beader’s to supervise the spangling of a peach chiffon gown for Melissa Manchester. It will take 80 hours to bead. “That’s what makes a dress so expensive,” he says, “the labor.” Mackie tools over to International Silk and fingers some fluorescent green fabric for Juliet Prowse. “Do you think that’s tacky enough?” he asks. His companion turns the color of the fabric. “Wait till you see it all together,” Mackie bubbles; “It will work!”
Six p.m., and he’s back at the studio, still working. “We make all kinds of wonderful things here,” he sighs. Mackie has no hobbies, just his work. He’s always looking for new things. He designed gowns for the Cher doll; he wrote a 1979 book, Dressing for Glamour; he had a swimwear line for Cole of California. Now he has a Broadway revue, Movie Star, set to open this month. “Doing something that audiences like is the dream,” he says.
Mackie doesn’t act like a New York designer. He wears jeans to work and lacks the air of a haute artiste; never does he snap his fingers and demand, “Pins, pleeeeze!” Neither is he seen as someone who will set trends in the industry. But at his new line’s debut last November in New York, his series of white linen gowns with brocade cutouts got a standing ovation. Mackie—who gets almost as many fan letters as the stars he dresses (and answers every one of them)—soaked up the applause. The crowd roared at a drop-dead finale that would make Cher weep. As she herself says about Mackie’s art: “What you see is a lot more than what you get.”
Finally, 11 p.m. Mackie is at home, in bed, leaving one dreamworld and entering another.