Michael Jackson’s long time costume designer, Michael Bush, granted us an exclusive interview, which we think you’ll agree is the most extensive and revealing interview he has done to date! If you have not already done so, please order Michael Bush’s new book, “The King Of Style: Dressing Michael Jackson” today. Please stay tuned for an exclusive competition where you can win a personally signed copy of the book. In the meantime, enjoy the interview!
MJJC: You have said you designed nearly 900 outfits for MJ. No doubt it is hard to pick a favorite, but is there one outfit that stands out for you as being unmistakably “Michael”? Which outfit(s) did you love so much that you are going to keep and why does it mean so much to you?
MB: You will think this is cliché to say but honestly there were so many favorite outfits that it is very hard for me to pick one. I don’t think I can do it. The white beaded jacket Michael wore to the Academy Awards with Madonna, the gold metallic jumpsuit for the DANGEROUS tour, the ceremonial jacket he wore to the inauguration or the black leather jacket he wore when Elizabeth Taylor dubbed him the “King of Pop” all have special stories behind them. Some of the things that meant the most to him were some of the personal clothes we designed for him. He loved color and so did we.
MJJC: You recently said that Michael would tell you “I need more dust” (referring to Peter Pan’s “Tinkerbell”) when describing that something needed more flash or sparkle. What were some of the other words or phrases he would use to describe an outfit or “look” that he wanted you to create for him?
MB: Everything was “showtime.” Every piece of clothing always had to be ready for “the show,” he would tell us to make sure all of his clothes were always ready for that “showtime” so we lived by that in every single design. He was a master at creating a show but he was also a master of being the “Show” himself.
MJJC: Briefly describe the creative process and how MJ was involved–ie: did you typically approach him with sketches that he approved for you to design, or did he usually describe to you certain outfits he wanted, and how did all of that work? Where did the “inspiration” for an outfit typically come from? Was there one particular outfit that Michael himself seemed to be the most involved in creating/designing?
MB: The creative process was always a bit different. For instance when Michael was in the studio recording he had very little input because he was so busy making music. Other times he would send out or even to other countries to observe what styles people were wearing. He always wanted his clothes to be ready for “showtime” and there were elements of the design that always had to appear on stage as a very special part of the show, the light had to hit just right so the person in the very back row could even see it. We collaborated a lot together but he also trusted us so many times we would bring him designs and he would either love them or hate them. Either way we always got him to where he needed to be.
MJJC: Michael Jackson was well known for being a perfectionist, describe how challenging it sometimes was to get something “just right” for him. What was the longest period of time you spent on a particular outfit and which one was that? Was there ever an outfit that you kept having to redo? And was there a particular piece you designed that Michael never wore or didn’t like that you really wish he had worn?
MB: Michael wore everything. If we made an outfit he wore it. One of the more challenging costumes we designed was the chrome costume for the HIStory tour because of our fear that he could hurt himself in it. Because it was plastic, form fitting and made of different types of materials it was a hard costume to maneuver but Michael Jackson made it look easy, however, trust me it wasn’t.
MJJC: You met Michael around 1985 on the set of Captain EO. How did that meeting come to be, and how would you describe what it was like? Were you ever “star struck” to be around him then, or did he make you feel at ease right away? How familiar with your work had Michael been at that point and what was the first assignment that he gave you to do (presumably the outfit for the “BAD” or “Smooth Criminal” videos)?
MB: During the two videos you mention we were still Michael’s “dressers,” we were not named his designers yet at that time. Michael was always more concerned about finding talent to be part of his team with personality and people who he knew he could have fun with. While it was important for him to find people who understood the art, it was equally important to find people with the right personality and Michael knew how to pull the best of you out of you. It was because of this that we were named his designers and we loved every minute of every day working with him.
MJJC: Surely you could not imagine then that you and your partner Dennis Tompkins were just starting a 25 year working relationship with him, but how and when did you know that the three of you were really “in sync” together? Was it something that Michael told you, or was it a reaction to a design or concept that you showed him where you just knew you really had impressed him?
MB: I knew Michael and I would be working together for a very long time the minute he threw those cherries at me in the trailer when we first met. When someone can laugh that hard with you right away you know the friendship is there to stay. Dennis was always the technical one and I was always the creative one. It just worked and Michael knew it from the beginning and when we earned his trust and knew what he wanted it just became better and better.
MJJC: Where did the materials and ideas for the costume (such as the jackets) designs come from? Presumably, everything was custom made so did you go around to American fabric stores or flea markets to develop ideas, or did you usually commission special fabrics to industries specialized in this as Valentino, Gucci and other important designers do?
MB: There are so many answers to this question. Michael loved the military and regal styles as you can tell with many of the outfits he wore. He would also always be intrigued by what other people were wearing. He once sent myself and Dennis over to Europe for weeks just to observe people’s fashions and report back. He loved street wear, that was his thing. It had to be comfortable and move with him. He also read magazines ferociously, not for stories on him but for visuals of the latest trends so he could take those images and transfer them into his ideas for clothes. We once bought every magazine on the newsstand and he told us after that to sit down and rip out pages of things that we found interesting. Then we showed him all of those and from there he would pick out a few and then we would talk about those visuals and translate them into clothes. Other times he knew what he wanted be it crystals, gold, robotic, rhinestones. Whatever it was we always listened and then collaborated. That is what worked the best.
MJJC: What was the process by which you created costumes for each of Michael’s tours? Did you meet with him in advance to discuss an overall “theme” for each tour’s costumes (styles, colors, etc.), or was it more of an “organic” process where you would just come up with different designs and later decide where and when to use them?
MB: We always met in advance. He always told us what he was thinking and what the show was about. From there we would design and present him with ideas and sketches
MJJC: What did you find most striking or memorable about Michael Jackson as an entertainer/performer? As a person? Could you please share a funny or sentimental story (that we’ve never heard before) that will let us understand a bit more about the personal relationship you had with MJ? Was there something in particular you recall that Michael told you that really inspired or motivated you?
MB: Michael was the most generous person I have ever known. People just don’t realize how truly generous he was. He never cared about himself, but he always cared about everyone else around him and was always quick to make sure everyone was taken care of. He was generous to a fault sometime because some people take advantage of people like that. He was generous in many ways and I will never forget that about my friend. The funniest thing about Michael was his laugh. When he started laughing he couldn’t stop and then everyone around him would laugh and couldn’t stop. It was some of the most fun we ever had when this happened. I will always remember that.
MJJC: How many extra versions of the primary tour outfits did you typically have in case of an emergency (loss, theft, costume malfunction, or something needing to be cleaned, etc.) at the last moment? For example, do you recall how many of the 1988 BAD Tour jackets were done (like on the cover of your book)?
MB: Michael would lose about 4-5 pounds of water weight when he performed so we always had to have 4-5 sizes of pants for example for when he changed sets because he would actually lose the weight on stage in water so his waist would become smaller. This was particularly normal for us with many costumes.
MJJC: You created some pretty unique concepts during your working relationship with MJ—from “anti-gravity” dancing shoes, to a jacket that was covered in gold silverware (that somehow looked really cool)! What are some other original concepts or inventions that you developed for Michael’s outfits that were not necessarily visible to the human eye that we may not already know about?
MB: We had designed a strobe light coat for Michael that had 30 strobe lights on it that was affectionately called the “paparazzi” coat. However we nixed it when we realized that that much light going off on a coat could actually cause an epileptic to have a seizure because of the amount of light and fast action. We didn’t want to take a chance not knowing what fans would be there to see it. So we never used it. Michael was always concerned about his fans and because this coat had a chance of possibly hurting someone it wasn’t worn.
MJJC: What was the most expensive piece of clothing that was made for Michael? Was it the silver Dangerous Tour “Jam” jacket, and can you describe what was involved in making it? MJ had talked about it having a special interior “climate controlled” feature that would make him stay cool on hot days, yet warm on colder or rainy days. Was there more than one of this particular jacket made for Michael?
MB: The stories you hear about climate controlled features is not true. We made clothes with different fabrics, forms, and fittings to work within the temperatures or environments in which he worked.
MJJC: In a recent interview you said “Michael’s concept was, “I want the fashion designers in the world, the big conglomerates, I want them to copy me. I don’t want to wear what’s out there. I want to push my individuality, and being that my music is me, my look should be me.” Having said that, were there cultural, iconic, or historical figures whose fashion style he told you he particularly admired?
MB: He likes the 40’s look and styles and he also liked street wear, some of those very iconic men’s fashions that you could see as timeless.
MJJC: You have said that you never considered working with MJ as “work” but more of a “passion.” But you also admit that at times it was very demanding, sometimes having to work for 36 hours straight to finish an outfit that needed to be done before a performance. Aside from having to meet the occasional deadline, what were some of the other challenging aspects of working with MJ and how do you think they may have pushed you into improving your own craft?
MB: When you work with someone like Michael Jackson, the King of Pop, the most influential entertainer of our time, there is no way you can’t improve your own craft! He was delightfully demanding because he always made us think, he always made us want to do better, he always created things that you thought “where did that come from?” But we did it because we loved it and we did it because we loved him. It was great fun, very demanding but unbelievably rewarding.
MJJC: You recently talked about a particular jacket Michael said he wanted you to try that your partner Dennis said “was never going to work” near the early stages of your relationship. What’s the most outlandish outfit request that Michael had? Was there ever another situation when you wanted to tell him “Michael that is just too ridiculous to wear and is not your style” or had to say “Michael that just doesn’t look good on you” and did he usually rely on your professional opinion?
MB: Well it wasn’t a jacket. It was the anti-gravity board. He came to us and told us in record time we had to create something that allowed him to perform on stage while leaning forward at a 45 degree angle. There was no time to think about it, research or hire outside sources to consult. It was us and only us. And we did it with him of course. He played a huge role in developing it with us and it wasn’t easy and no I won’t give away our secret. It is patented and the patent is owned by Michael Jackson, Dennis Tompkins and Michael Bush. When that anti-gravity board and shoes worked on the stage for Michael with such precision as it did, you couldn’t imagine how amazed we were ourselves.
MJJC: You obviously wanted to create a unique and recognizable style for MJ. Did you notice how Michael’s fashion style evolved through the years, or would you say that the overall style (especially through your own creations) was pretty consistent? Likewise, did Michael’s personal tastes (or color preferences) seem to change as he got older? Did Michael himself ever set limits about clothes, like something he would never wear? And was there a certain outfit or concept that at first he did not like that you encouraged him to try that he later loved?
MB: He always loved the military style, the royal regal look and lots of embellishments. That stayed pretty consistent. Remember he loved the “Showtime” effect and that never went away. He was always dressing for his fans don’t forget. That always was consistent. One of the things many people don’t know is that Michael loved corduroy because it kept him warm. We created a lot of personal outfits for him in corduroy that he loved.
MJJC: Two Michael Jackson jackets that clearly did evolve and change with each tour were the iconic “Beat It“ and “Thriller” jackets. Which of the two did you enjoy working on most and why?
MB: We worked on both as they evolved through the tours. We enjoyed both of them, we really could not tell you one was better than the other. That’s the truth.
MJJC: Aside from custom Tompkins & Bush creations, what was Michael’s favorite clothing brand and why? How do you feel about the Christian Audigier/Ed Hardy based creations potentially becoming available on a retail basis some day? Did you ever discuss any joint business ventures with MJ, such as bringing out a public clothing line inspired by some of your designs, or do you feel that this would somehow diminish their uniqueness? In general, how do you feel when you see fans wear similar costumes as you created for MJ and how do you think he felt about that?
MB: Michael liked Florsheim shoes. Michael loved seeing fans wearing their interpretation of his costumes. To see his fans interpret his own designs in their own way was one of his greatest pleasures. The fans didn’t copy Michael, they would take what they saw him wear and create their own designs and art. It was fascinating to him. It was the ultimate flattery for him. I dealt with Michael on a one-to-one basis and there was never any desire to mass produce.
MJJC: You have said one of your goals was to design clothes that Michael could freely dance in from a functional perspective. In what other ways do you think Michael’s artistry, dance, or music inspired you as you were creating these designs? As an aside, did you typically listen to MJ music when you worked on creating them with your partner? What was your favorite MJ song to listen to or see performed live?
MB: When I saw Michael perform “Another Part of Me” it was magical, it really showed me instantly what a “showman” he truly was. There will never be anyone else like him. We didn’t listen to Michael Jackson music when designing, it was often classical music because that music is so timeless. Even Michael Jackson would have told you that.
MJJC: Mr. Bush, your own costume creations were “works of art” all by themselves. When Michael took the stage, it was a “Michael Jackson” show, yet he was wearing “Tompkins & Bush” outfits that represented hundreds (if not thousands) of hours of your own blood and sweat. Describe if you can how much personal pride you and your partner felt for each Michael Jackson performance, and the lasting legacy you and your partner have helped him to create.
MB: There are no words that can fully describe how much personal pride both of us had and I still do. And I thank you for saying they were “works of art.” Truly appreciated.
MJJC: Your eagerly awaited book “Dressing Michael Jackson” is finally being released this month. What will MJ fans like most about this book? What do you think fans/readers will find most extraordinary or surprising?
MB: It’s an art driven book so there are hundreds of photos of Michael’s fashions, both stage and personal. The book is meant for the fans. It is a book Michael and I spoke about before he passed and it was my duty to bring it to the fans. I want it to serve as a great piece of history for each of them to take home. I share some really fun personal stories in there too. And I hope after one reads through it they realize how much influence Michael really had on the world of fashion.
MJJC: You have said that MJ “always hoped his costumes would be celebrated in books and museums”. Even to benefit charities such as MusiCares, how do you feel about forever parting with many of these precious items and seeing them sold at auction? Now that you have released the book, how else do you think these treasures should be preserved and appreciated? Would you like to see some of them in a permanent museum and if so, what would you envision?
MB: Michael always gave us back the costumes and clothes. The auction is only a small gathering of costumes and it will benefit charity. These treasures will likely be purchased by museums, avid collectors and fans so I am positive they will be celebrated in all around the world for many years to come. There are many other outfits of Michael’ already in museums and around the world on display. I know many of these will join those. Also, the fans who bid on them will cherish them forever. Michael would not want them packed away somewhere. He would want people to enjoy them and now they will be able to.
MJJC: And finally, you recently stated “It’s my job now to keep Michael’s legacy alive and pay homage to all he did for the world, music, his fans, and the environment”. Apart from promoting your book, can you share with us what kinds of projects relating to Michael Jackson and his legacy you would like to be a part of in the future?
MB: I just want to do what I can to preserve the legacy of Michael Jackson, to let the world know what a generous, caring and creative person he was who will forever leave his mark not only on the world of music but on humanity. There was never anyone like him and it’s hard to imagine there will ever be anyone else like him in the future.
Special thanks to Darren Julien and Caroline Galloway for assisting us in making this interview with Michael Bush happen. You can view and bid on several of these amazing costumes at Julien’s “The Collection Of Tompkins & Bush: Michael Jackson” Exhibit and auction. The exhibit is currently running here in London and the auction is taking place this Sunday, December 2nd, 2012 at Julien’s in Beverly Hills, CA, and online at Julien’sLive.com.
Our heartfelt appreciation to Michael Bush for taking time out of his busy schedule to conduct this interview. Visit his official Facebook group and enter his exclusive contest where YOU could win amazing prizes including an 8×10 piece of gold four-way stretch mirrored finish spandex cut from the very same bolt of fabric that the Michael Jackson costume was cut! Don’t forget to order the new book, “The King Of Style: Dressing Michael Jackson”.