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Designer Dishes on Fashionable Life in New Doc

Designer Dishes on Fashionable Life in New Doc

For more than 60 years, Bob Mackie has reigned as the over-the-top couturier for Hollywood’s elite. After gaining attention as the costumer for The Carol Burnett Show, The Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour and Cher’s solo variety show, the designer became the go-to choice for divas like Judy Garland, Diana Ross, Barbra Streisand, Madonna and Elton John, and created clothes for 60 Barbies. In the process he won an impressive nine Emmys, a Tony and a CFDA lifetime achievement award, plus three Oscar nominations.

Now with a long-awaited documentary devoted to his life in showbiz, Bob Mackie: Naked Illusion, arriving this summer (a distribution deal has not yet been finalized), the so-called Sultan of Sequins, Rajah of Rhinestones and Guru of Glitter seems to be having yet another major moment, with his archival pieces worn today by the likes of Anya Taylor-Joy and Zendaya.

“It’s kind of weird,” the 85-year-old designer tells THR. “Miley Cyrus borrowed one of my costumes for this year’s Grammys. Next day, the phone never stopped. It was wild. I don’t know what people will think of the film; it’s about the 1970s, 1980s — I’m an old guy now. I’m just amused people are amused by me.”

Miley Cyrus performed in a 2002 piece by the designer at the 2024 Grammys.

John Shearer/Getty Images

Naked Illusion ­— by documentarian Matthew Miele (Scatter My Ashes at Bergdorf’s) — is so jam-packed with plaudits from the likes of Cher, Carol Burnett, Cyrus, Mitzi Gaynor, Pink, RuPaul, Tom Ford, Law Roach and Zac Posen, it’s a wonder a Mackie doc wasn’t made years ago.

“But nobody asked me!” the octogenarian says with a chuckle. “They never did. Matthew pursued me, he funded the whole film himself.”

Why that title? “Oh, I don’t know!” he scoffs. “You see a lot of naked dresses in it. I didn’t realize I’d done so many.” Cher’s famous naked dress that she wore to the 1974 Met Gala and later on the cover of Time is just one of the standouts. “But I didn’t invent that. Marlene Dietrich started doing that in Vegas in the 1950’s. Seeing her movies at age eight, I thought, ‘She doesn’t even have, as they called them in those days, a brassiere on. Everybody was shocked — but it was Dietrich. She wasn’t really human anyway.”

But when Cher slithered across TV sets in the ’70s in her (to say the least) sheer Bob Mackie gowns, CBS censors blushed. “The censor came by and snapped, ‘I could see her underboob!’ It wasn’t even a word then. I said, ‘Why don’t you just have her stand on her head and call it cleavage?’ They shut up and left the room. Nobody really wanted Cher to wear anything else — because the ratings were amazing! That body of hers!”

But with naked dresses now ubiquitous on red carpets, Mackie says, “You watch awards shows and say, ‘Oh, cover up! Put it away! Honey, I don’t need to see all of that!’ It gets to be so vulgar, you don’t even want to look at it anymore. I was so bored watching The Met Ball — everyone exposing everything, the same lookalike dress — I shut it off. If you’ve seen one Kardashian, you’ve seen them all. And we have seen all of them.”

“I’m just amused people are amused by me,” says Mackie of being the subject of a feature-length documentary at the age of 85.

Courtesy

But Mackie was never drawn to what he calls “normal, everyday clothes” — always to fantasy and flourish. “As a child growing up in Inglewood, the only thing I liked was going to the movies — technicolor musical from the 1940’s,” he says. “By age five, I knew every movie star’s name. I was so busy drawing them, my grandmother tried to lock me on the front porch, so I’d get some air! I was obsessed with Carmen Miranda and Betty Grable.” His early jobs were as a sketch artist for costume designer Edith Head and for fashion designer Jean Louis. (Mackie sketched the famed dress that Louis designed for Marilyn Monroe when she sang “Happy Birthday” to John F. Kennedy at Madison Square Garden in 1962. Two years ago it was worn by Kim Kardashian at the Met Gala.)

Along with career high points, Naked Illusion captures a complex life shielded by a degree of shyness. It’s full of personal moments, both tragic and triumphant: Mackie was married to showgirl Lulu Porter from 1960 until 1963; their son, makeup artist Robert Gordon Mackie Jr., died from AIDS at age 35 — a subject so painful that the designer still has no words. Later, Mackie and Porter, who are still close, discovered they had an unknown granddaughter, and two great-granddaughters, who are key players in the film. The film refers briefly to his coming out and longtime partner, costume designer Ray Aghayan, who died in 2011. “There are some really personal things in there that make me a little nervous — but not really,” says Mackie. “I don’t know . . . I’ll be happy if anyone sees and likes it.”

Carol Burnett, in 1976, as Starlett O’Hara.

Courtesy Everett Collection

Naked Illusion also looks back at the creation of one of TV history’s biggest sight gags. Burnett recalls playing “Starlett O’Hara” in the famed 1976 sketch “Went With the Wind!” on The Carol Burnett Show. The initial idea was that she just toss on some green velvet curtains before meeting Harvey Korman’s Ratt Butler. But, remembers Mackie, “It just wasn’t funny.” So he went one better: An entire curtain rod held up the makeshift drapery “dress” as she clumsily descends stairs. That outfit is now in the Smithsonian.

Mackie remains the rare costume designer who created his own namesake line of clothes in 1980. (Sold most recently on QVC, it’s mostly inactive today, save for items like watches, perfume and sunglasses.) “No one designer can do both fashion and costumes. But Bob did — he does it all,” declares Burnett in the film. She should know: over the course of her 11-season variety show, Mackie created a whopping 17,000 costumes.

Zendaya in a dress from Bob Mackie’s Fall 1998 collection at the Time 100 Gala in 2022.

Cindy Ord/WireImage

Mackie’s stock in trade was always extremes: high comedy to higher glam. Even his Barbies were showgirls. “I made a Lady Dracula Cher Barbie doll, with little baby fangs. The box she’s in is like a coffin — but she’s still dressed to the nines. I didn’t think Mattel would make it but it sold big time! I did Barbie Goddess of Africa, Goddess of the North, Goddess of the Americas — full of the culture from faraway places — but they still could get a good job in Vegas if they wanted! I always tried to make Barbie different. She wasn’t a secretary, a waitress, not somebody’s mommy. It was always something most young girls could never be. Who wants to look at the norm at 11 inches high? Or any height. Normal doesn’t work for me.”

Normal doesn’t work for many of the stars he dresses either. As Cyrus puts it in the documentary: “Bob Mackie’s legendary list of who he has dressed definitely gives a reassuring confidence that history will be made when you’re wearing one of his designs.”

Many of the stars who appear in the doc stress how Mackie predicted the zeitgeist. How? “I don’t know,” is his blasé answer. “I just made things I wanted to see. I’d think, ‘That’ll be different for a change.’ Now I’m starting to see my life’s work everywhere. They keep copying all that stuff. It’s so funny.” Witness the heavy-handed dose of sequins, beading and feathers in evening­wear right now. “Designers see stuff from 40 years ago, thinking it’s soooo cool,” he says. “Where’s the originality?

“But,” Mackie adds with a sigh, “I never really cared about fashion. I cared about show business.”

Bob Mackie, winner of the Geoffrey Beene Lifetime Achievement Award, poses with Bernadette Peters poses during Winners Walk during the CFDA Fashion Awards at the Brooklyn Museum of Art on June 3, 2019 in New York City.

Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images

A version of this story first appeared in the May 22 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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