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Splendor in the court

Two designers work long hours creating the clothes Michael Jackson wears at his trial.

May 24, 2005|Booth Moore | Times Staff Writer

They are the men behind the Man in the Mirror. For nearly 20 years, L.A.-based costume designers Michael Bush and Dennis Tompkins have quietly designed most of Michael Jackson's personal and concert tour wardrobes, tens of thousands of pieces.

They created the war-torn black shirt and pants he wore in the "Man in the Mirror" video and the rhinestone-encrusted American flag jacket he wore during a Washington, D.C., concert to support the victims of Sept. 11. And, since February, they have been outfitting Jackson for what could be his most important performance yet -- in a Santa Maria courtroom.

Each day, Bush wakes at 3 a.m. to drive the day's outfit -- typically a colorful print vest and a suit with military details -- from his home studio in Los Feliz up the 101 Freeway to Neverland Ranch. There, between 6 and 7 a.m., he dresses Jackson, who always says "Thank you" and gives him a hug, Bush says. The designer returns by midafternoon, in time to help Tompkins put the finishing touches on the next day's look. Tompkins makes most of Jackson's costumes with a single fitting. The pair create his courtroom wardrobe using the "Michael mannequin," built to the singer's exact dimensions.

Perhaps what they are most proud of is that Jackson has never worn the same thing twice.

"We have two or three tailors around town making jackets because we can't make them fast enough," Bush says, sitting in his workroom next to a pair of Jackson's crystal-covered ankle boots.

They try to get to sleep by 9 p.m., but sometimes they're up till 11. "And we photograph everything. That, we learned out of fear because we would make something for Michael and he would call us later to ask for a double. Maybe an outfit goes to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland or Madame Tussaud's in London, and he wants one to keep for himself."

Jackson, who is facing charges of child molestation, has been criticized in this paper and elsewhere for his flamboyant courtroom attire -- reactions the designers say are unfair. "If anybody else wore it, there wouldn't be any comment," says the silver-haired Tompkins.

"The other day on TV, Bruce Willis had on a bright orange suit. Robin Williams wears suits with threads hanging off them and red ties. But nobody comments because of who they are. If Michael Jackson showed up at court in a funeral suit, an Armani, people would wonder what he is hiding."

And the pajamas? "He was in the hospital that day. And what does everyone wear in the hospital? Pajamas," says Bush. "I understand the judicial pinstripe mentality," he goes on. "But that is a part of life Michael has never experienced. So we had to figure out how he could still be Michael Jackson and fit into that mold."

They began this latest wardrobe project as they had the others -- with research. "We buy every magazine in the world -- men's, women's, children's, interior design, anything with visual images," Bush says. "Then we all sit spread-eagle on the floor looking for ideas. Dennis gets out his sketchpad and pencil and starts sketching. It's collaborative. [Jackson] is very open to suggestions."

The pop star's directive is always a demanding one: "This is what the world's wearing; top it."

"We started with the white suit, and everyone went crazy," Bush says, referring to the outfit Jackson wore on the first day of his trial. "So we went to dark suits, the navy blues, the blacks, the gray pinstripes, then we put the red double-breasted blazer on him -- well, the world stopped. The red coat got half a page in all the papers."

The vests that have become conversation pieces during the trial are made from silk from India, jacquards from Europe and faux reptile fabric from ... downtown L.A. Some have rhinestones down the front, others brass buttons.

Jackson loves military details, Bush says. "Uniforms demand attention. They have clean lines, and they fit almost like dance clothes. They are like a second skin."

Jackson is a frequent customer of British Collectibles Ltd., a shop in Santa Monica. "With all the fine enamel work, British medals are almost like jewelry," says Tompkins. So over the years, the designers too have amassed a large collection of uniforms, helmets and books on military regalia -- all in the name of research.

Rather than a political statement, the armbands made from gold wire ribbon and sewn onto the right sleeves of Jackson's jackets are meant to act as a visual pull, Bush says.

"Showtime" is a word that the designing duo uses often. "When we get together with Michael, it's showtime," Bush says, with a glint in his eyes. Apparently some of their ideas are too over the top, even for Jackson. "He's pulling back and saying 'No, no, no,' and we're going, 'Yes, yes, yes.' And then I get to Carpinteria in the morning and wonder if it's too much. We are used to making dance clothes," Bush says with a grin.

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