The Man Behind Cher and Diana Ross’ Most Iconic Looks Is Receiving the CFDA’s Highest Honor
Find out how he's handling the glare of the spotlight.
There’s no doubt that Bob Mackie is having another really big moment. He’s had many of them during a career that has spanned more than six decades, from his early days in the studio shops of Hollywood’s leading costume designers to his groundbreaking comedy work for Carol Burnett to his phenomenally image-making collaborations with Cher.
But even Mackie, who’s 80, is a little taken back by all the attention that has come in the last couple of years, ever since Gucci’s Alessandro Michele created a spring 2018 collection that paid homage to his signature looks (introduced via the tour costumes Mackie created for Michele’s pal Elton John) and also since his work for Cher has been so dynamically highlighted in the Broadway musical The Cher Show, for which Mackie is a favorite for the Tony Award for costume design.
But first, he’ll be honored with the Geoffrey Beene Lifetime Achievement award at the CFDA Fashion Awards on Monday night. As he was working on a gown for Bernadette Peters, who will present the award, I caught up with Mackie to get a sense of how he’s handling the glare of the spotlight, once again.
InStyle: Congratulations on another award! What do you think is behind this Bob Mackie moment that seems to be going on everywhere this year?
Bob Mackie: It was really weird the other night at that Met Gala where all of those couture designers from Paris, Galliano and the Italian guy from Gucci, they were going crazy. And then I realized they were all kids when I was doing all this stuff in Hollywood, so I had no idea they knew who I was. To these guys, I became somebody they always looked at, but I had no idea.
IS: Of course they did. Alessandro Michele even paid tribute to you at Gucci.
BM: It’s funny, and kind of weird too, at this point in my life. Even a T-shirt that said Bob Mackie for $800 or some ridiculous thing, and I’m going, really? I just turned 80 this year. Ok, I’ll take it. I didn’t ask for any of this, but there’s also all the publicity from The Cher Show, but most of the producers didn’t even know I was alive, or still around, when they started working on it.
IS: Yet here you are receiving the [Geoffrey Beene] Lifetime Achievement award from the CFDA. The last time they honored you, nearly 20 years ago, it was for something called “fashion exuberance.” In retrospect, doesn’t it seem a little tame compared to fashion today?
BM: I don’t think they knew what to call me. I was never the darling of the fashion world.
IS: But now you are!
BM: Isn’t that weird to think so. I just think it’s strange.
IS: You’ve had so many amazing moments over the years, from designing those crazy costumes for Carol Burnett to the red carpet dresses for Cher – did you ask yourself at any point, is this really happening to me?
BM: Why, does it seem like I’m telling the same stories over and over? [Laughing] No, I’m a lucky person who’s still doing something that l love doing, something that I was intended to do. And how often does that happen? It doesn’t even occur to me to retire, really. I didn’t want a giant workroom with 50 or 60 people working for me anymore, but it’s funny. When you work hard and you think you’re doing good work, and all of a sudden people like it, you just say, great it worked. It’s not like it’s a big surprise. There are other times when you think you’re doing good work and then nobody pays any attention. I liked it anyway. That’s the way life is.
IS: You’ll be sharing a stage at the CFDA at some point with Barbie, who you dressed for many years and who is receiving an award for being a fashion icon. Is she deserving?
BM: Yeah, I know. I did a lot of funny collector Barbies. It was fun to do, maybe one or two a year at the most. I never made any money from it. They were very expensive because of the way I made them, and the last time they said, Oh, we can’t spend that much money, blah, blah, blah. I was so unhappy with the way it looked, I said we don’t need to do this anymore. But in a way I guess she is an icon. When she started, Ruth Handler, the lady that invented her, found this sort of little porn doll in Germany that looked kind of like Brigitte Bardot, kind of big boobies and hair, and she was patterned right after that, and then called her a fashion doll. I was still in school and remember thinking, that doesn’t look like a fashion doll. Anyway, I just did crazy, silly things, like a Countess Dracula Barbie and put her in a fancy casket. Whatever, there are people out there who loved them and collected them, and have whole houses full of them.
IS: After all your years in Hollywood, are you pleased that Los Angeles is having a moment in fashion again, now that Tom Ford is taking over the CFDA?
BM: He’s one of those people who was really sweet to me. I had said I didn’t have a tux anymore and that every time I see anybody in a tux and think they look nice, they’re wearing Tom Ford. So I asked where can I get one wholesale? Janelle, my PR girl, said she knew somebody and would call to see what they could do, and he gave me the whole works — the shoes, the tux, the tie. He was so sweet and so lovely. And then I saw him at the Met ball and he was just lovely, and really nice.
IS: I think people are becoming more considerate about giving credit where it’s due. Who inspired you?
BM: I remember when I was a kid, and I was 10 or 11, and Marlene Dietrich did her first show in Vegas with her see-through dress, and I thought, I might do one of those one day. Then I worked for Jean Louis, and he’s the ones who did all of the original ones for her, and in our shop we ended up making the last ones for her before she hurt herself and never really worked again. It’s funny I ended up doing that — and you do do that as a designer. You think of something you always liked and say, Well that would be kind of fun to do. Again, it’s just really lovely that all of these people now keep saying that I inspired them.