The Man Behind Rihanna’s Naked Dress Talks To The Man Behind Cher’s Naked Dress

Even if you spent the past year under a rock, you would no doubt have heard about the naked dress that Rihanna wore to the CFDAs. Concocted by NY designer Adam Selman, her totally sheer, beaded dress made waves even on fashion's most fashiony red carpet. And though it was a groundbreaking moment for exhibitionists everywhere, it definitely wasn't the first naked dress. Over two decades ago, Cher accepted an Academy Award wearing a beaded Bob Mackie original. Recently, The Thick brought these two visionaries together to talk shop, sparkles, and what it's like to dress goddesses. Click through to The Thick for the rest of the images from the naked summit.
Photography by Chris Bernabeo
nConversation moderated by Anthony Rotunno
nSpecial thanks to The Algonquin Hotel
Bob Mackie: "When I was a kid in the '40s and '50s, I loved movies about show business — the huge stars, the big montages, playing the Palace theater — I wanted to be a part of that. But, back then, I didn’t know that there was such a thing as a costume designer. I grew up in the suburbs of Los Angeles, and then I moved to Hollywood when I got my first job."
Adam Selman: "We actually have a really similar career trajectory. I work a lot with Amy Sedaris, who’s a comedic actress, and you kind of bridged the gap between comedy, fashion, and costume. Did you always want to do design?"
BM: "I always wanted to be involved. I went to this little design school in California called the Chouinard Art Institute and had all kinds of funny, part-time jobs: washing dishes, doing department-store displays, painting murals. I thought, ‘This has got to stop.’ So I got an interview at Paramount. This was when Edith Head was there, and she brought me in to the costume department. A few weeks later, I went over to work with Jean Louis at Fox, and then began to go back and forth between the two studios, sketching designs for both."
AS: "It seems you worked like a crazy person for years. I don’t know how you found the hours in a day to make it happen. Were you just working, or were you a man about town?"
BM: "What’s a man about town [laughs]?! I was working — the first decade I really got into it was the '60s, and of course, no time was better than the '60s. Every look in the world was happening then. I was at Fox during the production of Something’s Got to Give, the Marilyn Monroe film that was never completed, and I worked with Jean Louis on a dress that ended up being the one Marilyn wore when she sang ‘Happy Birthday, Mr. President’ to John F. Kennedy."
AS: "That’s the fun part about fashion, and costume. It’s not just: Here, wear this; it’s: Let’s work together. You’ve said that you consider yourself a costume designer that just happened to do fashion."
BM: "My heart is in the theater, in performance. I understand it, and I think I do it better. There was a big peak in my career there in the '60s, '70s and early '80s. Then, I started doing fashion, which I detest."
AS: "But you bridged the gap so well. Your pieces were all fabulous and amazing, but still very fashion. I thought your 1990 show was incredible, all the girls with their lemon hats and lemon-print dresses. That’s the kind of stuff I live for that people don’t do anymore."
BM: "It’s so expensive! Some bitch held up my show one year because her ice sculpture wasn’t finished. Putting on that kind of production is ridiculous, but I hate to take fashion so seriously."
AS: "It was inspiring because you took these weird ideas and still made them clothes. You seem to have fun with everything you do."
BM: "It’s funny how people get so serious, as if fashion is a religion. How boring."
AS: "We’re two of the lucky ones, who work really hard and get to do what we want to do. It took me a long time to figure out what direction I wanted to go. I was a terrible student, and too focused on working — I worked in retail full-time. It was tiring, but I learned a lot, too, because I saw how people wore clothes."
Photo: BEImages/Gregory Pace.
BM: "There are different characters, just like in a play. Women already have an image; as a designer, you have to enhance that. Rihanna has to be Rihanna, you know? She can’t be Gwyneth Paltrow."
AS: "You can give people good clothes, but you can’t give them style."
BM: "Working for Cher, it was easy to do fashion, but at the same time you have to take it somewhere else."
AS: "Exactly. If she wants to wear an Egyptian costume, you can’t—"
BM: "She’s always some sort of fucking goddess [both laugh]."
AS: "But that’s what makes it fun. You’re not really giving people Egyptian, you’re taking it somewhere further. Do you ever get sick of being so associated with one specific thing?"
BM: "It’s not always good, because some people think that’s all I do. I’d like to design costumes for straight plays, but do you think anyone would ever call me for that? No. They put you in a bit of a niche. You’re going to be making see-through dresses for the rest of your life!"
AS: "I know, right [both laugh]? It’s amazing, but I will always be associated with that."
Photo: REX USA/Eugene Adebari.
BM: "When Cher was on the cover of Time in her see-through dress, every tired old broad in Hollywood called me asking for one just like it. Mitzi Gaynor actually wore the first nude dress I ever made on a television special."
AS: "I read somewhere that Mitzi said you designed a dress she wore for seven days a week, and a bead never fell off."
BM: "I love Mitzi, but that’s bullshit [both laugh]. Beads fall off. Those kinds of clothes need constant upkeep. But it’s easier to make a beaded dress than a beautiful, simple, crepe one, where everything has to be perfect."
AS: "It’s so true."
BM: "We learned that early on — the sparkle code! Where do you make your garments; do you have your own workroom?"
AS: "Yeah, and I’m very hands-on. I’m kind of old-school in that way."
BM: "Old-school is really the only way to do it. You have to follow your heart, and grab breaks when they come. When you get to be a certain age, there will always be new up-and-comers on the scene, and that’s okay. You have to say, ‘Now, it’s their turn.'"
AS: "Well, you seem to have lived your life, and I think that’s inspiring."
BM: "People keep asking, ‘Bob, when are you going to retire?’ Then what, I just go home and die? I’m not interested in doing that."

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