Tompkins points to a baby blue brocade vest that's in the running for a courtroom outfit. "Sometimes I look at things we do and I think that I would wear them," he says. "But we can't afford our clothes." Rather than keeping the designers on retainer, Jackson pays for items individually. And Bush and Tompkins do have other clients.
A former ice dancer, Tompkins started his career in Hollywood as a cutter and fitter working in the costume department at ABC on shows such as "General Hospital." During the summer of 1985, while on hiatus from the network, he got a call to work on "Captain EO," the science fiction short directed by Francis Ford Coppola and produced by George Lucas. "I didn't want to do it, but Michael [Bush] said it was a great opportunity."
John Napier was the designer on the project, but Tompkins was the mechanic who turned his sketches into three-dimensional garments. During the filming at Laird International Studio in Culver City, Jackson took note of Tompkins' talent, especially for making pants cut for dancers. "When he tried them, he said, 'I can dance in these; I can move in these!' " Tompkins remembers. It was the beginning of a long relationship.
Bush, who grew up in Ohio and worked in Las Vegas as a bartender and blackjack dealer before moving to L.A. in the 1980s, joined the "Captain EO" production soon after Tompkins. "When I first told my mom I got the job, she asked me who Michael Jackson was."
After "Captain EO" wrapped, the pair began building costumes for Jackson's music videos. "It turned into a weekly job, a daily job and an hourly job. Then there were about five or 10 years when we exclusively touched Michael. We lost all our other clients," Bush says.
The chrome robot outfit Jackson wore during the 1996 HIStory World Tour was a challenge. "We made a cast for the chest that breaks away onstage to reveal his dance clothes underneath," Tompkins said. For the 1992 Dangerous World Tour, they crafted 18-karat gold leg pieces.
Though Jackson's clothes appear extravagant, price is an issue, Bush says. "He's a businessman. A lot of people assume money means nothing to him, but that's not true." Over the years, the designers have used wool, silk, canvas, ripstop nylon, silver, gold, British regalia, police badges, even car parts from the Pomona Swap Meet. They made a jacket with closures crafted from V-8 hood ornaments and another festooned with badges from European race car clubs. "He kept us so busy that every time we touched something, we wondered if we needed it, if it could be turned into something," Bush says.
Jackson once called in the middle of the night with a question: "What's the one thing that every man, woman and child in the world knows?" Bush says he asked. Mickey Mouse was the first thing that came to Bush's mind. But eating utensils were what Jackson was thinking. "He said, 'How are you going to make that into clothing for me?' "
The result was a jacket with knives, forks and spoons hanging from the front like fringe. "Michael calls it his dinner jacket," Bush says. "That's the humor, the human side that no one knows."
As the pair bring out Jackson's tour books for show-and-tell, ticking off his likes (corduroy) and dislikes (being touched too much), they lament being known only for working with the music legend.
"We will go into a job interview and they'll say, 'We don't need military clothes,' " Bush says. "But we can do so much more."
They have designed costumes for Britney Spears, including the red jumpsuit with a sprayed-on look that she donned in the "Oops I Did It Again" video. ("She had to use a whole can of baby powder to get into it," Tompkins recalls.) They created the leather evening gown that Denzel Washington's wife, Pauletta, wore to the Golden Globes in 2001. They also made a coat out of fish skin for Elizabeth Taylor to wear to her 60th birthday party at Disneyland.
And in the corner of their studio is a crystal-covered gown that debuted on a model at a charity fashion show earlier this month. "It's about 17 pounds. We sewed each crystal on one by one with fishing line," Bush says. "That's [also] the kind of detail Michael demands."
Even as the designers ponder a future that may not include the King of Pop (they have launched a line of vests similar to Jackson's under the name Vested Interest), they can't stop talking about him.
"Nowadays there's not much of a demand for costumes because things in movies and TV are store-bought," Bush says. "That's why we have been so gifted with Michael. Because it is always showtime."