Designer Bob Mackie Makes It in New York

Times Staff Writer

"The last time I saw Bill Blass he called me 'lad.' My God, nobody's called me lad in 25 years."

They could, though. Robert Gordon Mackie, whose golden boy looks belie his 45 years, was recounting his lukewarm reception on Seventh Avenue almost three years ago.

"I wasn't that totally accepted at first," he explained cautiously.

A costume designer of the highest Hollywood order, Mackie had dressed female stars from Judy Garland to Marie Osmond, earning four Emmy awards and three Oscar nominations along the way. There simply was no substitute for the impact of a Bob Mackie goddess gown. Ask Carol Burnett. Or Cher. Or Diana Ross.

Rebounding From Crisis

But after a mid-life crisis of sorts, Mackie decided to leave the world of glitz and illusion behind and try to make it with the big boys of fashion in New York.

When Mackie first arrived there, however, he said he had never even seen a Seventh Avenue fashion show, much less staged one of his own. His business partners placed calls to several leading designers asking if he could come to see their openings. Except for John Anthony, they all said no.

"Nobody wanted me to see one," Mackie said. "Am I invited now? No."

"Designers can be insecure. They're all locked up in the same buildings working on their collections. That's why three or four lines all look alike. It's just in the air. Seventh Avenue is basically a small town.

"Pauline Trigere has been fabulous to me since the beginning. She had me out to the country for the weekend. She was lovely. Completely secure. I see Oscar de la Renta in the elevator all the time. He's a gentleman . . . I think he's a little shy, Oscar.

"It was more the press than anybody. When they wrote about me, they'd always say, 'Hollywood's Bob Mackie.' Now they go, 'showman Bob Mackie.' I like that better." A pause. "At first people thought I wouldn't last long. But I think they think I'm going to stay now."

His Own Fur Collection

Indeed, with a sales volume last year of $5.5 million, a fur collection of his own and a new $135-an-ounce signature perfume that he will introduce Thursday at Bullock's Beverly Center, nobody's calling Bob Mackie lad anymore.

Over the weekend, Mackie became the second designer, in addition to his first boss in Hollywood, Jean Louis, to be honored by the Merchants Club of the City of Hope. Among the 900 guests who paid $250 per ticket for the Beverly Hilton Hotel dinner were a retinue of his star clients--from Cyd Charisse to Cheryl Ladd--all dutifully swathed in Mackie gowns. Another longtime customer, Linda Gray, served as the evening's honorary chairperson and presented him with his award.

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A dedicated professional and consummate diplomat who protects his clients as carefully as he protects himself, Mackie, a Southern California native, explained what prompted him to leave town--at least for the six months a year when he is based in New York.

"When Carol Burnett went off the air after 11 years and I did the 'Sonny and Cher Show,' the 'Cher and Sonny Show,' 'The Cher Show'--whatever it was--and lots and lots of specials and lots of movies, I was 39 years old. It was 1978 and I was thinking, 'Wait a minute, I don't remember what I've been doing for the last 10, 15 years.' All of a sudden, I didn't remember any of it. I was going to turn 40. You start having a mid-life crisis. So when some people asked me to do a ready-to-wear line, I said yes. I needed a change."

In 1982, he became an equal partner in Bob Mackie Originals with his longtime collaborator Ray Aghayan, Guido De Natale, formerly vice president and general manager of Halston, and Bill Levin, a New York dress manufacturer. "I'm not a hired hand," he cracked. He found an apartment in New York and virtually abandoned what he knew best: sound stages and shooting schedules and his Hollywood clientele.

Mackie had learned the hard way that you can't have it all. He had made several other attempts to translate his designs into the public sector--to design for the "civilians," as he puts it. His first stab at ready-to-wear in 1971 with Aghayan was a "nightmare," he recalled. "We were trying desperately to do that and lots of show business work at the same time. You really can't do both at once."

Swimsuit Line Followed

A swimsuit line for Cole of California followed that, but after the executive who hired him left the company, Mackie said, "I just wanted out." A line of lingerie for a local manufacturer came next. "That was fine," Mackie said, "but they were being picketed and bombed for six monthes. They finally went out of business."

Mackie even designed a collection of fine jewelry. "They wanted me to do such tiny jewelry to make it affordable. I thought, what is this? They don't need me to do a little diamond on a chain. Then the owner decided he shouldn't be in business." Mackie stops mid-thought. "It sounds like I put these people out of business. That's awful.

"But I must admit, it was really like I was doing all of these things with my left hand. The movies, the TV were really my basic center of interest. That's why when I went into this, I said I wasn't going to try to hold down three jobs at once. This is too important. I gave up 90% of my theatrical work."

The 10% he holds onto includes only those clients he considers "family--I'd kill myself to do something for them if I can." They include Mitzi Gaynor--his first important client-- "Diana" (that's Ross), Linda Gray, Cheryl Ladd, Joan Rivers, Lynda Carter and Bernadette Peters. Peters is one of his closest friends and one of the noses he relied on most to test his fragrance.

Mackie was adamant that his perfume smell like freesias. In show business parlance, he explains why: "They're so fragrant. In a bouquet, they're not the stars, but they're like the supporting flowers that make everything else smell good."

Mackie was repeatedly told that freesias were impossible to capture and have never been used as a top note in a perfume. Still, Mackie persisted. It took two years, but Mackie finally got his freesias. "He was impossible," remembers Irwin Alfin, president of the fragrance company that is manufacturing the Mackie perfume. "He insisted on freesias. He wouldn't settle for anything else."

Meticulously Made Clothes

Mackie also insists that his clothing designs for the general public are as meticulously made as those he does for the stars. All the originals for his collections are made by the West Hollywood costume house he co-owns, and then reproduced in New York. He employs the same construction techniques in his "civilian" clothes that he learned making show clothes.

"Every inner lining is the same," Aghayan explained. "When a woman pays $8,000 for a dress (the retail price range is $1,200 to $14,000), Bob believes she'd better be able to use it as an heirloom."

"The clothes move with you," Linda Gray said. "You never feel like a strapless dress is going to fall down."

Cheryl Ladd described wearing a Mackie dress as a "serene experience. There are some bones and things holding it up and underneath there are weights to keep it down." On the inner waistband, she said, are "before dinner, during dinner and after dinner hooks."

Mackie is learning that dressing civilians is not all that different from dressing the stars. "The civilians spend more time on their clothes because they have more time," he explained.

"When I first started doing the collection, everything I did was very ladylike. But they like flashy things too. When those ladies go out and get dressed, honey, that's show business, too. They're out there to turn heads."

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