In “Michael Jackson’s This Is It,” moviegoers will not see the elaborate costumes created for the tour that never was, bedazzled with 4 million Swarovski crystals and lighted up using LED technology. Those are on display at the O2 Arena in London, where the engagement had been scheduled to begin in July, and will go on to New York and Tokyo.
But what they will see, in addition to tough and tender moments that humanize the pop singer, and one hell of a music and dance show, is an amazing array of designer outfits Jackson wore to rehearsals.
A black leather, pagoda-sleeve jacket and a crystal-trimmed tuxedo are among pieces designed by the likes of Christophe Decarnin for Balmain, Kris Van Assche for Dior Homme and Tom Ford that speak to Jackson’s renewed relevance in fashion circles and the changing relationship between music and fashion.
Jackson became a style icon in the 1980s because of his individual, often theatrical styling choices for the stage -- the single sequined glove, the white socks, the fedora. But his recent comeback effort was engineered with the help of fashion designers, with Balmain’s Decarnin recognizing the retro appeal of tennis-ball-shaped shoulders and over-the-top embroidery, and Jackson appearing in his designs.
We had been used to seeing Jackson show up for courtroom appearances in scrubs, surgical masks, armbands and other kooky attire, some of it designed by his longtime L.A.-based costume designers, Michael Bush and Dennis Tompkins, who have a Michael mannequin in their Los Feliz studio.
But his look changed with an introduction to fashion stylist Rushka Bergman, and it is her work that is mostly front and center in the film, as Jackson’s everyday clothes end up as his de facto costumes.
A pint-sized powerhouse from Serbia who says things like “forever daaahling,” Bergman first met Jackson when she styled him in Dior Homme for the October 2007 issue of Italian L’Uomo Vogue.
Some might say it was the beginning of his comeback when she put him in Hedi Slimane’s slim-line suits, fashionable at the time with Mick Jagger, Beck, Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth, Alex Kapranos of Franz Ferdinand and nearly every other credible male rocker.
The morning of the film’s premiere, Bergman pulled out snapshots of Jackson trying on clothes at his house, and called him her “supermodel” because he fit into anything, including women’s clothes. She emphasized his sex appeal (“He’s sooooooo sexxxy!”), which comes into focus in the film for the first time in a long time, despite Jackson’s surgerized face.
“When he wears Balmain on screen, you say, ‘Wow!’ ” she said.
In the film, Jackson looks fabulous much of the time, save for a few unfortunate print shirts and patched sweat pants that could well be the influence of L.A. fashion impresario Christian Audigier, who had approached Jackson about collaborating on a line.
But more often, you notice sharp tailoring and light-reflecting color. In a Tom Ford tuxedo worn during dancer auditions, skinny orange Dior Homme jeans, a red leather Balmain motorcycle jacket with crystal-studded shoulders worn during the “Thriller” rehearsal and a Balmain suede military jacket worn with Alessandro Dell’Acqua gold sequin pants, Jackson looks powerful and contemporary.
“Seeing the clothing Rushka had selected, you could see Michael’s influence,” said Travis Payne, assistant director and choreographer for the This Is It performances.
In recent years, pop stars have turned to fashion designers for costumes with increasing regularity, with Kylie Minogue choosing Jean Paul Gaultier for her recent North American tour, and Beyonce enlisting Thierry Mugler.
Payne wanted to bring fashion relevance to Jackson’s on-stage persona too, so he solicited sketches from several designers, including John Galliano and Alexander McQueen.
Ultimately, New York-based fashion and costume designer Zaldy was tapped. Having worked with the Scissor Sisters and Gwen Stefani, while producing his own clothing line, he bridged the worlds of music and fashion.
Jackson was to have 10 costumes by Zaldy and six by Bush and Tompkins. Bush also helped dress the dancers and singers, as did Jennifer Rade, a Hollywood stylist whose star client is Angelina Jolie. The tour costumes will be featured in a “This Is It” DVD.
“Zaldy is the new cool thing and working with him gave Michael credibility,” Payne said. “But Michael Bush is near and dear to his heart. So I wanted them to collaborate.”
Bush’s “Smooth Criminal” costume is a white, 1940s-inspired pinstripe suit. Zaldy’s updated “Thriller” jacket is hand-embroidered to look as though it has blood dripping from the shoulders.
“That was probably the hardest piece to do because it was so iconic,” Zaldy said.
But his “Billie Jean” costume was the piece de resistance, with a jacket, tuxedo pants, ankle socks and a single glove that would light up using remote control, thanks to new Lumalive LED textile technology rushed through development by Philips Research in the Netherlands.
Zaldy remembers, “In the fitting, when Michael tried it on, his mouth literally dropped and he said, ‘It’s everything I always wanted.’ ”