By Jennifer Whitehair
Bob Mackie is bold, some may even say brazen when it comes to design. He once famously said, “A woman who wears my clothes is not afraid to be noticed.”
It comes as no surprise that a designer noted for his exuberance and flash in clothing should enjoy a 40-year relationship with a city known for its over-the-top approach to everything. Beginning with Mitzi Gaynor in 1966 through Cher’s current concert series at Caesars Palace, Mackie has gowned the stars wand the showgirls of Las Vegas.
This is just one facet of a man whose career includes nine Emmy awards for design on various television shows including the landmark “The Carol Burnett Show,” three Academy Award nominations for film costuming, Broadway, designs for Barbie, a home furnishing line, a clothing line for QVC, and more celebrity dress and stage outfits than can be listed on this page.
On Nov. 19, when Cher returns to the Colosseum at Caesars Palace, she will debut four new Bob Mackie creations.
VEGAS.com checks in with the king of costume design in Vegas.
Q: You’ve had a long history with Vegas. You designed costumes for Mitzi Gaynor’s show back in ’66.
A: I remember that very clearly and it was very exciting. That was my first star lady that kind of trusted me to do her whole wardrobe. And Mitzi Gaynor was a big deal in Vegas. There weren’t that many star acts in Vegas at the time. There became many, many acts after that, but she set the tone for the lady’s nightclub act at the time and it was an interesting thing.
Nowadays there’s scenery and effects and all that. In those days they came out in front of the band and did their act. She had four boys and her, and, you know, you better have talent.
And in ’81 you did a series of costumes for Jubilee!
I had done “Hallelujah Hollywood” at MGM Grand, which is now Bally’s. It was a huge show, a big Don Arden show. And then four to five years later, it was ’75 when we opened that (Hallelujah Hollywood), they said it’s time to have a new show.
So we did Jubilee and that was quite horrifying to get it on stage because of the fire – that was sad and terrible. (Editor’s Note: Jubilee’s props and costumes were damaged by smoke and water in the MGM Grand fire). Anyways, we got it up and it was a hit and who knew it would be on this many years later.
And now you are designing costumes for Cher’s show in Vegas. How does it all compare? Is it radically different what you are designing for Vegas now versus what you designed for Mitzi in ’66?
Well everyone has their own style and their own persona and their own look that they have developed. That’s why they are stars. It’s my job to enhance what’s already there. I never tried to change anybody or to try and make them something else because it doesn’t work.
Can you give us an idea about your process? How do you start out designing a Vegas show? Is there anything you do differently for a Vegas show?
It depends on where it is of course. If it’s in Vegas and they (the star) are known for having great legs or a beautiful body or they are known for wearing outlandish costumes like Cher is, I go in that direction. But there’s always a script, a list of numbers, and how they want it to look and what type of mood we are trying to convey and so that comes into play as well.
Do you prefer designing for a single star performer or a large cast?
I love doing the whole thing. Like Jubilee took us well over a year to put together. I think the show was bigger in those days, it had many more numbers and things. It was really a huge project and just fitting it alone took forever. It goes on and on. And showgirls aren’t the easiest to fit. I don’t mean the women themselves, but those kind of outfits that have to balance and be big and be stored a certain way. It’s not just drawing cute pictures.
What are the challenges in designing for a Vegas show?
It depends on the show, but, if it’s like, Jubilee, that starts many months, years in advance when the director/producer, Don Arden in those days, had these big long meetings and we would talk about these numbers. He would have a whole plan and sometimes he even knew what color he wanted it to be. I want this whole finale to be in blue or I want this to be in this color or that color. It’s a very collaborative thing but when you sit down all by yourself behind the drawing board it’s a whole different situation. You have to find 30 ways to make the same showgirl look different. It’s really fun but it’s a lot of work. Now as far as designing what I would have done for a Diana Ross in Las Vegas was very different than a Carol Channing or Mitzi Gaynor or Ann-Margret. They are all so different. They all have their own personality and persona that people know them for. One has to go with that and try to make that interesting. They are already interesting to start with. It is just sort of fun. You know who you are dressing. When you are doing chorus members you are trying to create an environment for the star that is standing in front of them.
You work very closely with Cher. How does that process start?
She covers the gamut of goddesses. We do everything in the world. Right now I’ve done a number where she’s dressed as a man in 1940s Zoot suit (see picture above). It’s a pin-striped suit that every stripe is a line of diamonds. Not real diamonds.
Wow, very visually impactful.
Hopefully everything she walks out in is visually impactful. Except, she does wear a pair of jeans and a little shirt to sing in at one point. But other than that, it’s all high, high drag.
Do you have a favorite costume that Cher wears in the show?
I don’t know. It’s hard to say. Sometimes the last one you did is your favorite. I’ve added a new finale costume (see picture above) and I do like it very much. It’s all strips of square-cut crystals – many, many strips. There’s thousands of stones on it. You can imagine the cost.
How does that (Cher’s new outfit) start?
People are watching her all the time and expecting her to do new things. She wants a new outfit or she has a new song or she wants to change things up and make it look different. We did several new ones this time. She wanted more but we ran out of time; we just couldn’t do it … She just loves to dress up. She really loves the whole surprise of it. But you know her personality doesn’t change because of it.
How long does it take to create something like Cher’s opening Cleopatra outfit from initial discussions to final fitting?
The sketch is easy. That is the easy part. It’s getting it made. That’s not an easy thing to make. And it takes a lot of wonderful craftsman and people that I work with to accomplish the thing. The headdresses alone are phenomenal amount of work and tedious hand work that just goes on and on. All those set stones – diamonds and topazes and god knows what. And the big cape she has on. I don’t do dresses for her, I do Rose Parade floats.
I don’t know if I could carry off an outfit like that.
There aren’t too many people that can. That’s the whole point. That’s why you pay to see her. You know, it’s kind of fun. She does it because it’s fun. Clothes oddly never wear her. Most people put it on and they would just disappear. Cher doesn’t.
Have you ever wanted to design for a male star?
Well I have nothing against designing for a male star. They usually don’t come to me for that. Though I did design a lot of things for Elton John over the years when he was doing his wild stuff. That was because he met me when he was doing the special with Cher and he said, “Couldn’t I have some of those things?” and I said sure, let’s do it. And we did. We did a lot of things. The wild stuff. Most of the wild stuff is things I did for him. But he wanted it. He never worried about can I sit and play the piano for an hour in this. He just did it. He dressed as Donald Duck and Minnie Mouse and all kinds of wild capes and headdresses. And he loved it and the audience loved it.
Is there anything you wouldn’t put on a Vegas stage?
I don’t know, probably not. The whole point is that it depends on if it’s right for what they are doing. I don’t know if I could answer yes or no on that. It has to do with the show. I’m there as a team player to enhance the whole production. A gray flannel suit I don’t think is going to do what they want in Vegas, but you never know.
Was there anything you always wanted to design for Vegas, but never got the chance?
I never think about those things. When it comes up, I do it. There are things that would be fun to do. All sorts of space age things. I wouldn’t mind dropping into the Cirque du Soleil offices and doing something for them that’s very different from anything else I’ve ever done. They think of me as doing these glamour, showgirl kinds of things because of the shows, well that one show is still running, that I’ve done. But I am able to do other things.