Yeah, "the music is supposed to always come first," but don’t let anyone kid you: In popular music, a musician’s look is a very close second.
Would KISS have half as many fans if the band all dressed like Elvis Costello? Probably not. Do we want Lady Gaga looking like some mousy singer-songwriter while belting out her postmodern pop hits? Lame. And while many artists maintain an active role in creating onstage looks, they also heavily rely on designers who know how to make a star look like a star. Here are 10 of the best in the business.
Dressing flamboyant Queen frontman Freddie Mercury was surely a dream gig for any costume maker. English fashion designer Zandra Rhodes had the pleasure of creating looks for Mercury during the operatic singer’s ’70s prime. She once told Vogue one of her “15 favorite fashion memories” was “'Freddie Mercury waving his arms to try out the sleeves on a pleated ladies top that I had on the rail, late at night in my attic studio.” Rhodes also designed garb for Queen guitarist Brian May, foxy T. Rex frontman Marc Bolan and punk princess Debbie Harry. Nonrocker Rhodes clients have included ultra A-listers like Princess Diana, Elizabeth Taylor and Jackie Onassis.
In 2012, when Lady Gaga sat in with the Stones to sing “Gimme Shelter” live, she was wearing a black and gold Ray Brown jumpsuit. An Australian custom tailor, Brown is best known for creating awesome studded and leather designs for heavy-metal and hard-rock acts like Judas Priest, Black Sabbath, Dio, Lita Ford and Guns N' Roses. Gaga’s Stones look is very reminiscent of the distinctive striped jumpsuit Brown made for Nikki Sixx during Motley Crue’s Theatre of Pain era. More recently, Brown has created clothing for Muse, The Darkness and The Struts.
You know those sexy, sequined jumpsuits Mick Jagger sashayed around in on early '70s Stones tours? Ossie Clark designed them. Clark created the jumpsuits in several colors, including gold, blue and white variations. "With the Ossie Clark jumpsuit, it was like I had almost nothing on," Jagger said during an interview with fashion mag Another Man.
London “image maker” Antony Price styled Duran Duran in the early '80s – those are his dashing silk suits in the “Rio” music video. Price also worked with David Bowie and The Rolling Stones, and dressed model Gayla Mitchell for the back cover of the 1972 Lou Reed album Transformer. But Price is most closely associated with dapper singer Bryan Ferry, whom he styled for the first eight Roxy Music LPs.
Marina Toybina designed more than 275 costumes for pop singer Katy Perry’s 2014 Prismatic tour. According to a Hollywood Reporter interview, these included “80-plus original outfits for the dancers, 170-plus duplicates and 21 one-of-a-kind looks for the band.” Egyptian and animal themes played a prominent role. Toybina also designed for Perry’s 2015 Super Bowl halftime extravaganza — hello, Left Shark! — and Taylor Swift's Red tour. More recently, the Emmy Award–winning designer created shimmery costumes for Ariana Grande’s Honeymoon tour.
Laurie Greenan’s far-out KISS costumes can be seen on the sensory-overload photos that grace the band's 1977 concert album KISS Alive II. A New York native, Greenan’s costumes were also used by KISS (and their stuntmen) in the dubious NBC made-for-TV film KISS Meets the Phantom of the Park. Those Mego Corporation-made KISS dolls … sorry, action figures ... from ’78? Those were based on Greenan’s costumes. Over the years her clients also included Billy Idol, for whom she created a Mad Max–inspired onstage look.
Los Angeles native and costumer Ola Hudson worked with superstars including Stevie Wonder, Diana Ross, John Lennon and Janet Jackson. Hudson’s designs for David Bowie have been displayed at the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art in New York. And one of Hudson’s most enduring creations fell outside of fashion. She's the mother of Guns N’ Roses guitarist Slash, one of his generation's finest rock musicians — and a man who knows a thing or two about crafting a badass signature look.
Even among Elton John’s outrageous stage outfits, the Donald Duck getup John sported during his 1980 Central Park concert stands out. Give credit where credit is due: Bob Mackie. Elton and his band were visibly amused with the duck suit as they performed the classic ballad “Your Song” in front of hundreds of thousands of fans. Elton even inserted a couple of random “quacks” into his vocals during the song. Mackie also created some of Cher’s most preposterous outfits. Interestingly, he also did the costumes for the homely characters on the ’80s Vicki Lawrence sitcom Mama’s Family.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
Nudie Cohn and Manuel Cuevas
L.A. country-rock singer Gram Parsons liked to call his work with Flying Burrito Brothers “cosmic American music.” On the cover of the Burritos’ 1969 debut LP The Gilded Palace of Sin, Parsons and his band wore rhinestone “Nudie” suits that reflected this vibe. Parsons' suit featured plainly visible images of pills, weed leaves, poppies, a naked lady and, on the back, a beaming red cross. It’s now on display at the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville.
Parsons commissioned the suit from Nudie Cohn and Manuel Cuevas of Nudie's Rodeo Tailors in North Hollywood. Nudie famously designed Hank Williams’ musical note–adorned white cowboy suit and that gold lamé suit Elvis Presley sported on the 50,000,000 Elvis Fans Can't Be Wrong LP cover. Country singer Porter Wagoner reportedly owned more than 50 Nudie suits, each costing him more than $10,000. Nudie, born Nuta Kotlyarenko, passed away in 1984. Now in his 80s, Cuevas’ client list grew in recent years to include 21st-century stars like Jack White and Miranda Lambert.