Michael Bush’s tell-all fashion book about singer Michael Jackson has been in the works for two decades.
But Bush’s closely guarded secrets as the king of pop’s personal dresser and designer aren’t tabloid fodder. They’re fascinating insider tidbits about his superstar client and friend.
“The King of Style” (Insight Editions, 2012) was honored last month with the top prize — a gold medal — as the pop culture/leisure winner at the Independent Publishers Book Awards. The book is loaded with the lavish garments Bush and his significant other and business partner, Dennis Tompkins, who died in late 2011, covered in “icing” and “dust” — words Jackson used for anything shiny. But it’s Bush’s behind-the-scenes stories about the legendary entertainer that keep you turning the page.
For instance, Jackson only danced in Florsheim loafers, and he instructed Bush to never, under any circumstances, polish them.
So his fans in the back row could see him moonwalk, Jackson danced in white socks covered with nearly 5,000 rhinestones (each hand sewn) and high-water pants — or “floods” as Jackson called them. Military-inspired jackets became his trademark because the style was worn by royalty during Victorian times as a form of entertainment.
“And Michael was the ultimate entertainer,” Bush said on the phone from his Los Angeles home. And then this, referencing a Napoleon quotation: “Michael believed in the saying, ‘With baubles men are led.’”
When he entered Jackson’s trailer with his wardrobe for the day, the pop superstar was sitting in the dark with his pet chimpanzee, Bubbles. Jackson threw a cherry at Bush, then another and one more — “a test for a sense of humor,” Bush figured. So Bush tossed one back and then got Jackson into his outfit.
Bush and Tompkins refashioned rhinestone gloves, added “Thriller” jackets — including snakeskin, sea bass and neoprene ones and a 27-pound version loaded with lights and batteries. They created outfits for the singer’s videos, short movies and world tours.
They received a patent — a surprise gift from Jackson — after inventing for him a pair of boots fashioned with Florsheim loafers that became known as the “lean shoes.” With the footwear bolted onto a board, Jackson could lean into a stunning 45-degree drop for his 1987 “Smooth Criminal” video and, later, live stage performances.
“He burst into tears” over the device, said Bush, who was always near Jackson, either in the dressing room or offstage during a show. He’d spend hours in the studio watching Jackson dance in order to make a jacket fit like a second skin — and then wait for Jackson to say, “Bush, you can go ice it now.”
“Life with Michael was anything but regimented,” Bush said. “He would call at 2 a.m. and ask, ‘Did I wake you up Bush?’ ‘No,’ I’d tell him. ‘I had to get up to get the phone.’ He would laugh and say, ‘OK, this is what I’d like for you to do for me, Bush.’”
When Jackson died on June 25, 2009, La Toya Jackson phoned Bush and told him, “The family wants you to design and make Michael’s burial outfit.”
“I told La Toya, ‘I don’t think I can do that,’” Bush recalled.
But La Toya was insistent.
“’You have to,’” she told me. “’Who else would do it?’ She was right. Who else would do it?”
Jackson’s garments, which took Bush and Tompkins five days to complete (Bush spent an hour putting them on Jackson, saying his own personal goodbye), were anything but mournful. They were sumptuous: a milky white military jacket saturated with pearls and cream-colored glass bugle beads, and black leather pants adorned with black seed beads. Cherubs held a crown on a gold bejeweled oversized belt. A British royal crest decorated an armband. And Tinker Bell was slinging glittered dust inside the right breast of his jacket; the fairy was Jackson’s ultimate fantasy character “because he would say when she slings her dust, the magic begins.”
“I asked La Toya what shoes should he wear because when he wasn’t performing, he wore Beatle boots,” Bush said. “La Toya told me: ‘Bush, he has to go out of this world dancing. Definitely the Florsheims.’”
Bush had more to say about his book and dressing Michael Jackson:
Q: In the beginning of your book, you write that you likened Michael to a canvas.
A: Clothing is like a canvas; it explains people’s personalities. Michael was extremely shy on a one-to-one basis, but with his clothes, it was always about, “Look at my clothes, not at me.” Most of all, Michael really understood showmanship. He always said, “I dance the beat and the clothes have to show the beat.”
Q: Where do you think that sort of thinking came from?
A: He once told me, “If I study the greats, I’ll become greater.” That was what drove him to perfection, even with his costumes.
Q: He knew how to manipulate clothes, didn’t he?
A: He wanted designs that were authoritative and demanded respect — and that was the military jacket. That look was his iconic visual.
Q: As you point out, he was extremely shy. Did you find that his clothes opened him up?
A: He often wore a dinner jacket we made for him when he entertained at Neverland Ranch because it was a conversation piece that helped him open up, even with friends like Liz Taylor and Marlon Brando. It was so juvenile, covered with forks, spoons and knives. It clanked and moved and caught the light and was the ultimate garment for Michael because everybody that saw it on him broke into laughter. And he loved that.
Q: I was fascinated to learn that he only danced in Florsheim shoes.
A: Those are the shoes that his family could afford when he taught himself to dance. Everyone thought he should have custom-made shoes, but he said to me, “Do what you want with my clothes, but don’t touch my shoes. I’m a dancer, that’s my art form.” I remember once, in Japan, a manager came up to me and said, “These shoes look like hell, polish them.” So I did and handed them to Michael, who didn’t get mad but told me, “Listen, Bush, if my heel slides off the back of the other heel of my shoe and I get shoe polish on the bottom of my sole and fall down on stage, we are all unemployed.” For the next 21/2 years, during the “Bad” tour from 1988 to ’90, I slept with those shoes under my pillow for fear of someone else polishing them. I never let them out of my sight.
Q: I guess it’s safe to say his glove or several of them also were guarded?
A: That, too. I was the guy with the clothes. Michael would say, “If I go onstage and do ‘Billie Jean‘ and I don’t have the glove, it’s really no longer ‘Billie Jean.’” I remember asking once what would happen if he didn’t have his glove? “Well, Bush, you don’t tell me. You go tell 80,000 people I don’t have the glove.”
Original post can be found in My San Antonio.