Bob Mackie Has Dressed Almost Everyone
Bob and Carol Burnett in her home, 1967)
In the pantheon of American fashion designers, Bob Mackie stands alone with his singular focus on sequined, bejeweled, and hyperbolic custom-made outfits for the world’s most ostentatious personalities. And even if you’re unfamiliar with his name (which wouldn’t be surprising, considering Bob’s never had a mass-marketed brand of his own), if you’ve ever looked at a photo of a famous person, chances are you’re familiar with his work. Over the course of his 50-year career, Bob has made clothes for the likes of Cher, Liza, Barbra, Britney, Michael, Madonna, Oprah, Dolly, Whitney, Tina, and just about everyone else who has reached first-name-only status.
Bob, 72, started his career in Hollywood in the early 60s, working in various wardrobe departments. As a costume designer, he pioneered the over-the-top look that has dominated the flashier corners of American fashion for most of the past half century, earning him nicknames like the Raja of Rhinestones and the Sultan of Sequins.
Along the way, Bob designed fancy costumes for Barbie dolls, won nine Emmys, was nominated for three Oscars, started a furniture line, dressed the Mob, designed fragrances, developed a couture line, and accomplished a million other spectacular things. Currently much of Bob’s energy is focused on his QVC line of “wearable art,” which is much more in line with comfortable, consumer-facing fashion than its name and Bob’s previous work would suggest.
VICE: What are you doing right now?
Bob Mackie: I am just outside of Philadelphia. I’m doing a televised-shopping thing.
For QVC, right? Is that what you’re mainly working on these days?
It does take up a lot of time, but I’m also always working on other projects.
Well, there’s a cosmetics line I’m working on, and also a furniture line. Which is good, because during the recession, I wasn’t making a new line of furniture because people weren’t buying it. You know, if you’re losing your home, why would you buy furniture? But now it’s all changing.
Obviously, you’re a pretty busy guy, but are you so busy that you can’t even keep track of what you make? Do you have any idea how many different looks you’ve designed over the years?
[laughs] No! I’ve been in the business over 50 years, and I haven’t kept count.
Do you ever see a piece that you designed without any recollection of doing so?
Sometimes I see old tapes of television shows that I did a long time ago, and I see something and know that I did it because I designed the show, but I have completely forgotten it. It’s always a strange feeling. But it’s very hard to remember because I used to do two to three hours of television shows a week, and I just worked 24 hours a day. Once it was over, we’d just move straight on to the next one.
The television shows you designed wardrobe for back then were classic big productions like The Carol Burnett Show. It all seemed so cohesive. Were you responsible for designing every costume and look?
Well, not everything was designed. I would rent a lot of stuff like uniforms and period pieces, but we were doing 50 to 70 costumes per episode, and we had a show every week.
I watched an interview with you during which you said that to get inspiration for sketch-comedy wardrobes, you’d walk around the mall and people-watch. You also said that you couldn’t believe what people thought they looked good in. Is strolling around malls or other public places something you still do?
I don’t do sketch comedy anymore, but I definitely still walk around malls and airports—especially airports—and I think, Oh my God, look at her, or, Look at those ugly shoes! Today, a lot of women are wearing very unflattering clothes.
Yes, I think the worst-dressed people can be found at the airport because somewhere along the line everyone decided that unabashed comfort trumps any sort of decorum whatsoever. It’s crazy. You have people going on two-hour flights in pajamas with neck pillows and their bare feet stinking up the cabin.
I know! But the thing is, you can be comfortable without looking like a pig. When I fly, I sit there and I watch people board the plane and I think, Where are they going when they arrive? Where can you go when you look that ridiculous?