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The diva master

STYLE NOTEBOOK

When it comes to dressing Cher, Bob Mackie has always been king. Now she's back in the limelight -- and Tina's next.

May 18, 2008|Booth Moore | Times Fashion Critic

LAS VEGAS — It WAS a grand concert entrance if ever there was one -- Cher at the Colosseum in Caesars Palace in Las Vegas, descending from the ceiling like the empress of the sun. Her golden chariot might as well have been a time capsule, because when she stepped out in a blindingly sparkly gold lame cape and an Egyptian headdress with an asp, she could have been 22 again. Or even 42. But Cher is 61, and she can still rock a Bob Mackie get-up like nobody else.

Her new show is an eyeful of deliciously glittery costumes that hark back to the wonderfully tacky, pre-Celine Vegas of Liberace and feather-flocked revues. She plays the gypsy in a jingling skirt, the sultan in genie pants that are little more than ropes of gold and crystal embroidery draped across her thighs, the Indian chief in a feathered headdress and 1960s-era Cher in a Mod red minidress. Through 17 costume changes, she shares and bares -- bellybutton, hips and butt cheeks.

With the possible exception of Victoria Beckham, they don't make style icons like Cher anymore. From the beginning of her career, when her stick-straight hair and bell-bottoms amounted to fringe fashion, she understood that cultivating a look was as important as cultivating a sound. Unlike today's stars, Cher wasn't a billboard for sale to the highest bidder. She was the world's Barbie doll, a living fashion fantasy week after week on TV, who landed simultaneously on best- and worst-dressed lists. Love her or hate her, she always keeps us guessing.

"She wears everything with such ease," says Mackie, her partner in sartorial success. "Not like a drag queen."

A few of the greatest Cher-Mackie wardrobe hits are on display in glass cases outside the theater, and it's amazing to see them up close. There's the Louis XIV corset from the 1999 "Believe" tour and the red Pocahontas outfit from the mid-1970s. The handiwork on these pieces rivals haute couture.

These days, Mackie spends most of his time designing his QVC line, but his Studio City workroom is still a fantasy land of buttons, trims and bolts of fabric. When Cher came to him earlier this spring, she had several characters in mind for the production, which sent him sketching.

He had just four weeks. The costumes were engineered more than designed, Mackie says. "It was like building a battleship with all the pieces and layers," he says. "It was full, long days and lots of nervousness."

Although he shopped for fabrics on a trip to New York, all the work was done in L.A., including the embroidery. "The sketching didn't take so long -- it was coming up with what things were and how to do them. Still, it's a lot easier than it used to be. There are so many amazing new fabrics."

In one number, Cher wanted to wear a cape that lights up. "It used to be a nightmare to get things to light up," Mackie says. "But it was easy. First, we made a pattern, and I marked on it where the lights would go, then we had it beaded, and they pulled the beads out where the lights were going to be. Then we sent it out, and it was done."

It's easy to see why Cher is so proprietary about him. I tell Mackie that during the show I attended, she told the audience that he hurt her feelings by lending one of his archival dresses to Beyonce. He laughs.

The two met on "The Carol Burnett Show." He was 27, and she was 20. "Everybody was older than us, and we just clicked," Mackie says. "Nobody knew what to do with her. She looked kind of like a fortuneteller."

When "Sonny and Cher" was picked up as a summer replacement, Cher asked for Mackie. "I was on vacation and didn't want to come home," he says. "But I did come home, and everything changed."

Cher had as many as 20 costume changes on the show, and Mackie had only a week to prepare. "One time we dressed her like Anna Karenina, and another time we put her in Modigliani's art studio because she looked like one of his models. She was just singing her ballads. Now, she's much more knowledgeable about how she wants to look."

But no less excited about his clothes. "When she put that gold cape from the first song on in the fitting, she just smiled, like, 'Look what I got!' She couldn't help herself. She was like a little girl."

Cher will spend the next three years performing at Caesars Palace, alternating with Bette Midler and Elton John, who are snappy dressers themselves. But Mackie is already on to his next job. A couple of weeks ago, he made a sparkly dress for Tina Turner when she joined Cher in Vegas for a special episode of "The Oprah Winfrey Show." Turner announced on the show that she plans to tour in October, and she's asked Mackie to help.

They first worked together "back in the old days," he says, right after she had left Ike Turner. She didn't have a lot of money, so she brought a few of her evening gowns to Mackie to see whether he could do something with them. "She said, 'Ike always wanted me to look like Sheba, queen of the jungle,' " Mackie remembers. "So I got my scissors out and cut and cut."

And another sparkly icon was born.

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booth.moore@latimes.com

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