Putting on the Glitz—Again

updated 01/24/1994 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 01/24/1994 AT 01:00 AM EST

IN THE 1970s DESIGNER BOB MACKIE worked with more stars than Carl Sagan. But in 1982, after creating looks for the likes of Carol Burnett, Cher and Barbra Streisand, the Guru of Glitter left Hollywood to go into the couture business in New York City. "Everyone told me that I'd make 50 million-trillion dollars," he says. That's not exactly how it turned out.

Early last year, Mackie, 54, found himself so deeply in debt—he owed creditors, including the Gambino crime family, roughly $1 million—that he had to close his New York operation and sell his $850,000 Beverly Hills mansion and his L.A. studio. Then in March, his 33-year-old son Robin died of AIDS after a long battle with drugs. "I wish everything that happened was a nightmare," says Bob, "and I could open my eyes and wake up and have it be over."

At the time of Robin's death, Mackie, who had received loans of more than $100,000 from Cher and Burnett, was trying to resuscitate his career. Working out of a warehouse, he designed costumes for Gypsy, the CBS movie starring Bette Midler. (He wasn't the producers' first choice. In fact, two other designers turned down the job before one of them recommended Mackie.) "I might have gone and sucked my thumb for a month or so," says Burnett, "but after Robin died, Bob never flagged in what he had to do."

Working on Gypsy, which aired last month, helped Mackie put New York behind him. His show-stopping evening gowns had been a big hit on Seventh Avenue at first. But the late-'80s recession and the unmarketability of his glitzy designs sent his business into a tailspin. And after a government sting operation revealed that Consolidated Trucking, one of Mackie's investors, was affiliated with the Gambinos, the New York Post splashed his picture on the front page under the headline "Cher's Dress Man Connected to the Mob." "Inside were pictures of everyone I'd ever dressed," he says. "It was gruesome." Mackie, who recently outfit-led members of the Gambino family for a wedding to pay back part of his debt, is unapologelic about the gangland connection. "The clothes are clean, but the garment business isn't always," he says.

Mackie, despite his losses, remains philosophical about the ordeal. "I've never been one of those people for whom fashion was my religion," he says. "I love dressing people, but just making clothes for people to wear is so heartless. It's more fun to create a character or a look for a show—to do something that's emotionally fulfilling for the audience and the performer. That's where my heart is."

And always has been. The only child of parents who separated when he was 2, Mackie, born in L.A., was raised in Rosemead, a suburb of that city, primarily by his paternal grandparents, who encouraged him to draw. His stepsister from his mother's first marriage introduced him to the movies. "I sat in the theater totally mesmerized," he says, "watching Betty Grable, Rita Hayworth. Then I went home and drew what I'd seen."

After high school he attended the prestigious Chouinard Art Institute in L.A., only to leave at 19, already married to Marianne Wolford (they divorced in 1963) and father to Robin. Mackie was discovered by legendary costumer Edith Head in 1961 while working as a novice designer at Paramount Studios. He soon catapulted to fame, going on to create costumes for some of Hollywood's most celebrated leading ladies—including Mariene Dietrich and Milzi Gaynor—and won six Emmy Awards, plus Oscar nominations for Funny Girl, Lady Sings the Blues and Pennies from Heaven. "Bob's got tremendous wit," says Ann-Margret, for whom Mackie designed gowns for her stage performances. "He can make you shimmer or shine, feel reckless or fragile and just about everything else."

What he couldn't do was save his son. Robin started using drugs at 15 and by the time he was in his early 20s had lost interest in almost everything, though he worked occasionally as a makeup artist in L.A. He learned he was HIV positive after going through rehab at several clinics. "It was very difficult to see this person you have so much hope for finally come out of one problem, then go into another," says Bob. "As a parent, you only want the best. And when it's not like that, you just wish you could trade places."

In spite of the tumultuous past year, Mackie has managed to resettle in a stately three-bedroom town house in Hollywood and is focusing on what he does best. In addition to Gypsy, he did the costumes for Ruthless, an acclaimed small-theater production in Beverly Hills, and he has agreed to be the designer for Tommy Tune's Broadway musical The Best Little Whorehouse Goes Public, which is expected to open in May. "It's funny," he says. "The whole 10 years I lived in New York I wasn't offered one Broadway show. The minute I closed the apartment and moved back to L.A., I received the call."

JANICE MIN
TODD GOLD in Los Angeles

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