"Well, we have to give the people what they're expecting to see," says Hollywood icon Bob Mackie as we chat on a couch in the cozy 92nd Street Y green room.
The legendary costume and fashion designer was readying to take the stage (and spill a fair amount of tea) during a Q&A with New York fashion doyenne Fern Mallis as part of her "Fashion Icons" series. Mackie is as celebrated as the superstars he costumed and dressed in his storied, 60-plus year career: Judy Garland, Tina Turner, Liza Minelli, RuPaul, Elton John (his bedazzled L.A. Dodgers uniform lives on through the upcoming biopic "Rocketman" and Harry Styles on Halloween) and, of course, Cher.
The designer's famous 50-plus year collaboration with Cher is currently being showcased in the Broadway biopic musical, "The Cher Show," which the Mackie fans in the audience were very excited to hear more about (along with the juicy asides — and shade — that the longtime Hollywood insider happily threw into the conversation). It goes without saying that his costumes in "The Cher Show" give us what we want to see and more.
Although cold season was throwing a wrench in the evening over at the Neil Simon Theater, where the show was readying for another performance. "Everyone is going crazy because they don't have understudy clothes quite ready," says Mackie, with a smile and a shrug. Apparently, two out of the three on-stage Chers depicted at various stages of her life and career — Babe, Lady and Star, chronologically — called in sick. And considering how the real Cher's iconic body-celebrating looks were custom-fit to down to the millimeter, the evening was going to be a scramble.
But Mackie wasn't sweating it. He's a pro, after all, designing for Cher since they met in 1967 when she guest-starred on "The Carol Burnett Show," which he worked on at the time. (Fun fact: He came up with the "Gone With the Wind" curtains parody ensemble, complete with rod, which is currently on exhibit at the Smithsonian.)
Since their partnership began, Cher's costumes and paparazzi-photographed red carpet gowns have become an integral part of the Cher brand. Long before the "naked dress trend" took over the Hollywood red carpets, Cher graced a 1975 cover of Time magazine in a jaw-dropping, Mackie-designed sheer, sparkly and feathered dress — which Stephanie J. Block wears the hell out of as Star. (Another fun fact: Mackie was also sketched the original design for Marilyn Monroe's proto-naked dress, by Jean Louis, which she wore to breathy sing "Happy Birthday" to J.F.K. in 1962.)
Clad in Mackie's ground-breaking and headline-making looks, Cher made red carpet appearances a thing before the age of the never-ending Red Carpet, social media and TMZ. "Every time [Cher] wore one of those get-ups, it would be in the paper the next day — all over the country," Mackie says. "Then for years [after], when they talk about red carpet, they'd print [one of her looks] and they'd either hate it or love it or whatever. But it wasn't fashion. It was like, 'look at me!'"
But in an initial head-scratcher move, the designer wasn't originally signed on to costume design "The Cher Show," which features over 680 costumes, including the most iconic ones worn by Cher. "I thought, 'Well, if someone else does it, I'm gonna be really pissed off because it's not going to look right,'" he says, about the original choice of a stylist-slash-costume designer. "They weren't going to hire me anyway. I'm going, 'that doesn't seem right somehow...'" But what did Cher, who also co-produced the show, have to say about it?
"Cher made a fuss," he says, with a smile.
But considering the volume of head-dress-to-toe costumes that Cher herself has worn throughout her career, the star subject sometimes needed a memory refresh during the design process. "'I didn't wear anything like that!'" says Mackie, mimicking her reaction to seeing a look revisiting her own 50-plus year career. "I said, 'But you did. This is a huge theater and you're seeing it on-stage. When you wore it, it was probably a close-up photo for a fan magazine and you [only remember the] pirate hat.'"
Luckily, Mackie has a sharp memory and maintains excellent records. He kept all his original embroidery and dress patterns for the iconic costumes, from the theatrical get-ups on "The Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour," including a tiger print catsuit, complete with butt padding, and the aforementioned pirate ensemble, to the beaded, belly-baring showgirl gown (and head-dress) she wore to steal the show at the 1986 Oscars. Mackie keeps the archives of the remaining original Cher costumes — a few of which he's appropriately lent to the upcoming Metropolitan Institute of Art Costume Institute "Camp: Notes on Fashion" exhibit.
"We used the exact patterns from the originals," he says, later confirming to Mallis that all the costumes were made in New York City. His (and Cher's) longtime beading artist completed the hand-embroidery in Los Angeles. "It's just outrageously expensive, the costume budget," he adds.
Broadway costume design is unique in many ways, starting with requiring multiples for evening and matinee performances, plus a rotation of performers and understudies. Recreating costumes originally custom-fit within a millimeter of Cher's eternally impressive physique for another set of actresses, all with their own unique body shapes, creates another layer of meticulous custom-design. But Mackie stays flexible in tweaking the costumes as the show runs, especially for the leads. For example, he customized the "boxing outfit," for Teal Wicks as Lady, the '70s-era Cher.
"It doesn't have to exactly like the previous one. So we cut up high," he says, while gesturing at his leg. "And cut it down really low and she looked amazing."
The musical numbers, which feature 35 hit songs over six decades, also require exceptionally fast quick changes, made that much more complicated by Mackie's signature super-strappy, heavily, but delicately embellished, extremely body-con and exceedingly cut-out costumes. Mackie, who's received nine Emmy wins and three Oscar nominations, credits designing with quick changes in mind, exceptionally strong magnets — a Broadway staple — and a crack team of dressers.
"It's all choreographed with the dressers backstage. Bomp, bomp, bomp, bomp. Drop that [piece], step in there. Pull it up. Zip, zip, zip. Put on the head dress and she walks out," he explains, in rhythm. "In the meantime you forgot she left."
Despite the seamless transitions through upwards of 400 quick changes, the powers-that-be wanted more. "We thought we were making them really fast, but the director [Jason Moore] kept pushing it to make them faster — 'You only have so many seconds for that one. I want it to keep going because the thing dies when there's not a Cher on stage,'" he says. But then there's the irony of it all, too.
"Of course, it probably took her three hours to get dressed originally," he adds. "But that's a whole different story."
For the spectacular finale, featuring Cher's 1999 club hit "Believe," Mackie had to make a pretty major change to allow for both quick changes and meet Moore's vision. "Those [costumes] were last minute. We put those together just before we opened," he says, about quickly designing even more spectacularly feathered, sequined and cut-out looks. "I think the director was tired of all those white outfits at the very end during the bow. [He said]: 'I want some warrior goddess.'"
"The Cher Show" details the rise and dip and rise again of Cher's inspiring multi-faceted career and the empowering story of she took control of her life and narrative — while using fashion as a tool along the way. The script is packed with irreverent lines about her savvy wardrobe choices, like "I plan to wear nothing and wake them all up" and "Who cares what Standards & Practices has to say?!" during a dressing room number depicting the early '70s on "The Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour."
"[The costumes] became part of the show itself," says Mackie, who designed for the hit variety series and the later "The Sonny & Cher Show," which ran from '76 to '77. "People were watching to see what she was going to wear." And he really did have to deal with the CBS censors. "They were making a fuss about navels. There's nothing more innocent than a navel," Mackie says. "They made a big fuss about [the costumes overall], but it was mainly for publicity purposes for people to read about in the paper: 'Oh, they’re having trouble with Cher because she's wearing blah blah blah.'"
Appropriately so, the writers incorporated Mackie's real life work and experience into the show. "Then they used one of my lines that I said about seeing an 'underboob,'" he says, with a laugh. "I said, 'If you stood her on her head, it would just be cleavage!' and they just took that right out of an interview of mine. I would have been annoyed if they hadn't used some of my stuff."
The writers did more than that, as a play about Cher's career wouldn't be complete without actually featuring Bob Mackie himself. The designer is portrayed in the show by Michael Baresse, but with the Hollywood effect: blonde pompadour and heightened costume. "Bob said, 'You know, I would never wear anything I’m making for you,'" Beresse told the New York Times, about his jazzy velvet and python-print jackets.
"I wasn't going to do it exactly like I dress," says Mackie, clad in his signature tweed blazer, navy knit and button-down shirt. "But at the same time, it's theatrical. It's a stage show."
Top and homepage photo: Joan Marcus/Courtesy of 'The Cher Show'