On this November day, Julien's Auctions resembles what Michael Jackson's closet might have looked like, albeit a much shabbier version. It's the opening of “The Collection of Tompkins & Bush: Michael Jackson” exhibit, and the Beverly Hills showroom is almost wall-to-wall military-style jackets. A week later, on Dec. 2, some very rich collectors will clean out the place during a live auction.
But perhaps none of those collectors is bigger than Michael Bush, who, with his late partner, Dennis Tompkins, designed for Jackson for nearly 25 years — a collaboration that would follow the King of Pop to the grave. Bush and Tompkins' designs make up the bulk of the collection, which also includes Jackson memorabilia that Bush purchased over the years. Prices range from a few hundred dollars to $120,000, the latter for a jacket Bush and Tompkins made for the Bad tour.
Only a few hours into the opening, the crowd is sparse. Today Bush is wearing a heavy, gold-beaded jacket decorated with different incarnations of Jackson's mug. The Ohio native recalls that he met Jackson in 1985, when both men were 27.
At the time, Bush and Tompkins had been working for ABC, Tompkins in the wardrobe department, Bush on a freelance basis. Then Tompkins hired Bush as a sewer for the Captain EO production.
In his newly published book, The King of Style: Dressing Michael Jackson, Bush writes about the first time he walked into Jackson's trailer: Bubbles the chimp grabbed his leg, and Jackson playfully hit Bush in the face with a stemmed cherry. Bush and Tompkins subsequently worked on the singer's “Smooth Criminal” video and later joined the Japan leg of his Bad tour. From then on, the duo designed almost exclusively for Jackson.
“I'm an inventor because of Michael,” Bush says. “He saw these facets in me that I didn't know I had. He saw a costume designer in me that I didn't know I had.”
Bush's book is a dizzying look at the history of every piece of wearable art he and Tompkins created for the icon, on- and offstage: the light-up Captain EO costume, the pearl dinner jacket Jackson wore to the 1991 Oscars with Madonna as his date, the “iced” Levi's denim jacket covered with 9,000 hand-sewn crystal rhinestones worn for Michael Jackson: 30th Anniversary Special in 2001. Bush actually flew to Austria to buy the rhinestones.
Designing for the biggest, and most notoriously eccentric, pop star in the world brought more than its share of challenges. Jackson had a habit of calling Bush and Tompkins in the middle of the night, asking them to solve riddles, which Bush in the book describes as part of the “molding of our creative process.”
And then there was the time he literally gave Jackson the shirt off his back. It was on the “Dirty Diana” set. “He was gonna wear a leather jacket and it just didn't work,” Bush says. “He was stepping on a fan. So we went back into the trailer and he says to me, 'Bush, your shirt is winking at me.' And that became rock & roll history, I guess. It's very humbling to know.”
The star's taste went beyond European military chic, Bush says, with influences ranging from fencing to ancient Egypt. But the one constant in Jackson's performances was his Florsheim shoes: “He taught himself how to dance in Florsheims.” Bush became so paranoid about losing them on tour that he slept with an extra pair underneath his pillow.
From the armbands to the hem of Jackson's pants, Bush and Tompkins aimed to construct clothes that enhanced his body as a dancer. “Michael said, 'My clothes have to dance as much as I do,' ” Bush recalls.
And Bush has a story behind every trick of the trade. For the “Smooth Criminal” video, Bush sewed a quarter inside Jackson's tie to give it weight and make it spin around like a blade. For live performances of the song, Tompkins (of the two designers, the craftsman) engineered for Jackson and his dancers shoes that bolted to the ground so they could lean at a 45-degree angle, replicating the video.
The early '90s saw Jackson go from being perceived as a tabloid freak to an alleged child molester. Bush gingerly skirts that subject, recounting only the times he himself was chased by the paparazzi.
“Michael to me was never controversial. It's what the world wanted him to be,” Bush says.
But, he acknowledges, he saw the year Jackson temporarily moved to Bahrain as a welcome respite, a period that gave himself and Tompkins some much-needed “me time.
“We had bought a house in Los Feliz that no one had lived in for 30 years. It was almost like, 'exhale.' We could start painting the dining room walls. We could do the dining room draperies.”
The last time all three would work together was on Jackson's ill-fated 2009 This Is It tour. A few weeks before the first concert date, Jackson died. Bush got a call from La Toya Jackson asking him to design for and dress her brother for the burial.
“My first thought was, 'I don't think I could do that.' And she said, 'Michael, you know what he would want,' ” Bush says.
He and Tompkins knew that one of Jackson's favorite items was the pearl military jacket he wore to the 1993 Grammys. Unable to find the original, Bush and Tompkins had to re-create the jacket.
“It was me and the mortician at Forest Lawn” that day, Bush recalls, fighting back tears. “He stood back and said, 'I know you've done this for Michael. But if you can't handle it, you don't have to say a word. Raise your hand and I'll step in and finish. You have to be 100 percent comfortable in doing it, but the family wants you to do it.' This was my best friend, and I was sending my best friend on his way.”
Two years later, in 2011, Tompkins died of natural causes.
And that sudden death of his partner, Bush says, was a factor in the decision to auction off these prized possessions. He insists that he's not doing it for a quick buck (the proceeds from the sale, in part benefit Guide Dogs of America and the Nathan Adelson Hospice in Vegas). It's meant to be a gift for the fans.
“The same thing could happen to me,” Bush says. “And if I go and no one knows what this stuff is or it goes into a landfill, it's lost. I'd rather have it spread around the world like Michael's music.
“I have my house. I have my cars. I have my health, above everything. I believe I'm a happy camper.”
At 54, Bush proclaims he's no longer designing, pointing to a gold-beaded jacket (also up for auction) as his last creation.
“I wanna go home and make my dining room draperies that I started 20 years ago.”