This is a Bob Mackie moment. It's hard to think of an American designer who has done more for the advancement of glitz, showgirl glamour and the power of the bugle bead. Whether creating costumes for Cher, Liza Minnelli, Carol Burnett or lesser-known ladies with a penchant for sparkle, Mackie has always upheld his belief that a woman--in the evening, at least--wants to be neither understated nor retiring.
"It's a time to be beautiful, in evening clothes. It's a time to look a way you can't at other times in your life," Mackie says. "Women should be the beautiful flower, the jewel."
Through fashion's flirtations with minimalism, deconstruction, quiet elegance and night-crawler hipness, Mackie has held fast to his peacock extravagance. "I always held my ground," says the designer. "After all, no one was coming to me for minimalism."
Mackie was in Washington recently to present pieces from his fall '99 and spring 2000 collections at a brunch hosted by Neiman Marcus. In a town that discourages flamboyance--at least when it comes to attire--Mackie's designs went over surprisingly well.
Women gathered after the presentation to get a closer look at his colorful cocktail suits, rhinestone-studded evening gowns and red satin suits. They happily examined purple satin columns and tried on chartreuse ball dresses lined in taupe ruffled lace.
That these bold concoctions seem like a natural choice for the current roster of evening obligations is a testament to how far fashion has come in the last few years. Indeed, those quintessential Mackie looks--the peekaboo sequins, the happily garish feathers, the beaded fringe--have all turned up on the runways in recent seasons.
But in the presentation at Neiman's, Mackie offered a broader range of his work. Indeed, there was only one translucent gown and even it revealed the full expanse of only one leg and nothing more. These are, after all, clothes created to be worn at formal balls, not onstage at Circus Circus.
There are young designers, such as the team of Badgley Mischka, who enjoy encrusting a gown with beads. But their work has a light, breezy touch despite so much adornment.
Mackie's work is more solid. His dresses look as if they are constructed around a sturdy infrastructure that helps tame a woman's imperfect shape. Mackie is used to designing for performers who must maintain a facade of perfection even as they are twisting and shimmying onstage. Such experience can be reassuring to the average woman who wants to step onto the dance floor without worrying that she might tumble out of her dress.
It was only a few seasons ago that a woman who wore full battle sequins to a formal gala would have been viewed as terribly out of step with fashion's penitent phase. The '80s had sent everyone, from Wall Street high rollers to fashion's conspicuous consumers, rushing to confess their indulgences. They were shunning obvious displays of wealth. No one wanted anything more luxurious than a Gap pocket T-shirt.
"In the '80s, we couldn't put enough on a dress," Mackie says, referring to garments loaded down with everything from feathers to mirrored paillettes. "I knew things would have to swing the other way."
And now they have swung back, with folks such as Gucci's Tom Ford providing the momentum. Ford noted that his passion for Las Vegas glitz had been inspired by Cher during her feather headdress days. And, of course, it was Mackie who was responsible for helping Cher step over the line from good taste to intoxicating, delirious decadence.
In further testament to Mackie's influence, the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York is hosting a retrospective of his work. Looking back at creations that are more than a decade old has been surprisingly invigorating for the designer.
"I look back and see things and think, 'Hey, that was good!' I should do something like that again," Mackie says.
The time is now. Who knows when so many sequins may ever again look so right?