Growing up among the cornfields of Ohio, Michael Bush never dreamed of becoming a fashion designer. He learned to sew from his mother and grandmother, but it was a chore then, not a passion. "It was getting the Butterick pattern and following the instruction sheet," he says. Yet Bush went on to create some of the most iconic clothing in the world -- pearl-frosted military jackets, glittering armbands, and rhinestone-encrusted socks.
However, say the name Michael Bush to a room full of fashion lovers and, up until a few months ago, you'd likely be met with the response, "Michael who?" His designs have long been associated with a different Michael: Michael Jackson. Bush and his partner, Dennis Tompkins, exclusively designed the King of Pop's costumes for over 25 years.
This October, Bush released a book that chronicles his journey from cornfield to internationally recognized designer. Published by local printing house Insight Editions, The King of Style: Dressing Michael Jackson includes 200 pages of lush photographs, accompanied by Bush's fascinating story of his collaboration with Jackson. "I'm very happy behind the scenes," Bush told SF Weekly. "It's scary on this side of the camera."
But despite his fears, Bush felt it was time to step into the spotlight, compiling the book from 20 years' worth of archival photographs. Bush started photographing Jackson's wardrobe when the pop star gave away one of his coats and requested a new one. Bush, unable to recall the specific details of the jacket, realized he had better start documenting his work in order to combat Jackson's notorious generosity. The book, Bush says, was Jackson's idea. He recalls Jackson telling him, "You need to show the world behind the scenes. Wouldn't everyone love to see how the Wizard of Oz clothes were made?"
The behind-the-scenes story is an endearing tale of a great collaboration among artists, made bittersweet by Jackson's passing in 2009 and Tompkins' in 2011 (In the book, Bush relates the utterly haunting tale of dressing Jackson for burial). Bush and Jackson met on the set of Captain EO when both men were 27 years old. At the time, Bush was a dresser and Tompkins was a cutter/fitter for ABC Television. But when Jackson recognized Bush's talent for making pants that were easy to dance in, he and Tompkins' futures were irrevocably altered.
Bush, who refers to Jackson as his best friend, credits the singer for his transformation into an artist. "He made me into a costume designer," Bush says. "I didn't know I could do that. Then he made me a photographer; he handed me a camera and said, 'Practice.' Now I'm the author of a book. My name is on an invention in the United States government. How do you put words to something like that?" The invention is, of course, the infamous Lean Shoe, which enabled Jackson to perform the lean move from his "Smooth Criminal" video in front of a live audience. Bush and Tompkins worked for months to create the shoe, based on Tompkins' ice-skating boots, that would enable Jackson and his retinue of backup dancers to lean at an extreme forty-five degree angle. When they presented it to Jackson and he tried them for the first time, Bush says, "He came up crying." Only later would Bush and Tompkins learn that the ever-generous Jackson included their name on the patent when he filed it.
It's not the only recognition Bush has received lately. When couture milliner Philip Treacy presented a collection of hats inspired by Michael Jackson costumes at London Fashion Week, Bush was delighted to see his coats walk the runway. The show was opened by Lady Gaga, who went on to purchase no less than 55 of Bush's designs at an auction earlier this fall. "Those people at his fashion show were coming up to me, going, 'Oh my God, I still have a photo of that jacket stapled to my wall for inspiration,'" Bush explains. "It was very humbling."
However, even though the recognition has been exciting and certainly well-deserved, he won't be pursuing a career as a fashion designer anytime soon. "I don't think anyone is ever going to treat me the way Michael did," he told us. "I want to finish the dining room drapery that has been folded in a heap for 20 years." He is considering releasing a second book though, with images that didn't make it into the first. "The book could be like a traveling museum, on every continent where Michael's fans are."
If you have any final questions about designing for Michael Jackson, now's the time to ask. Bush will be signing books and chatting with fans at Book Passage (in the Ferry Building) Tuesday, December 11, at 6 p.m.