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Jewels, pearls, and plain Florsheim shoes for Michael Jackson

A portrait of the late pop star Michael Jackson is displayed on a slot machine at Gaming Expo Asia in Macau May 22, 2012. REUTERS/Bobby Yip
A portrait of the late pop star Michael Jackson is displayed on a slot machine at Gaming Expo Asia in Macau May 22, 2012. REUTERS/Bobby Yip

By Patricia Reaney

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Michael Jackson was the ultimate entertainer, who oversaw all the details of his shows, from the slick choreography to the rhinestones and pearls carefully hand sewn onto his elaborate costumes, his longtime costume designer says.

As much as music and dance characterized the pop superstar, the late Jackson was also known for his style, from military outfits and regalia, to jewel-encrusted gloves, fedora hats and intricately beaded jackets.

In a new book, "The King of Style: Dressing Michael Jackson," Michael Bush, the man who designed and made Jackson's stage costumes for 25 years until the pop star's death in 2009, offers a behind-the-scenes look at the iconic superstar and the development of his signature style.

"The clothes had to work around the way he was performing," Bush told Reuters in a telephone interview. "He wanted his outfits, or his costumes, to be as entertaining on a hanger as they were on him. It was an added layer of refinement and detail that he was projecting to his audience."

Everything Jackson wore had a focus and was an extension of what he was doing on stage, with dance playing a pivotal role in the designs. He favored rhinestones and beading because they reflected the stage lighting.

Function, fitness and comfort were essential, with neckties and fringes forbidden because they could be grabbed by fans.

"It was very contrived. It was very thought out," said Bush, adding that as the stadiums got bigger, Jackson's pants got shorter and shorter, the better to see his rhinestone socks.

"Michael was concerned that the people in the back row paid just as much to see him perform as the people in the front, so no one got cheated out of the entertainment he was projecting, because everyone could see what he was doing," Bush said.

MAN OF PARADOXES

Each of the 800 to 900 costumes Bush and his partner Dennis Tompkins, who died last year, made for Jackson were over-the-top, skin tight, flashy pop-star creations. Many are shown in detailed photographs in the book, along with sketches and performance photos.

Still, away from the spotlight, Jackson preferred more casual, loose-fitting corduroy shirts, black cotton pants with front pleats, and loafers.

And despite all his fame and wealth, and gifts of expensive designer shoes, Jackson always performed in Florsheim shoes, which can be purchased in most U.S. malls.

"He taught himself to dance in Florsheims. They were comfortable and were what he had worn as a child star," Bush explained in the book, to be published October 23.

Jackson's style evolved from his military outfits, featuring taut lines and embellishments and designed with his female audience in mind. These were followed by a more rebellious, edgy look with leather jackets, including one with small spoons and forks dangling, like military medals, across the front.

"The first layer was the jacket, then we put the zipper underneath that and the buckles from the "Bad" album look, and then we asked: 'How can we make this larger than life on stage?'"

Strobe lights and electric jackets were the next step. Each album had its own look, which evolved from the look preceding it.

Perhaps Bush and Tompkins's greatest achievement was Jackson's "lean shoes," which were eventually patented. He first performed his "lean move," leaning forward at a 45-degree angle in the short film "Smooth Criminal" in 1987, thanks to behind-the-scenes magic.

Bush and Tompkins were tasked with developing shoes that would allow Jackson to perform the move before a live audience, without falling over. It took Tompkins a month but he devised shoes that bolted to the floor and worked perfectly on stage.

Although Jackson claimed not to have a favorite costume, Bush said the one the pop star liked the most, and in which he was laid to rest, was the pearl and bead encrusted white military jacket that he wore when his sister Janet handed him a Grammy award in 1993.

There wasn't time to track down the original jacket when the Jackson family contacted Bush and Tompkins and asked them to choose his final outfit, so they made a copy.

"Michael was a man of many paradoxes, most of which we were able to represent in the clothes we designed: Rigid military cuts that were also elastic and moveable; rebellious regalia, fit for army commanders, worn over the heart of a gentle man; bedazzled embellishments adorning a man blessed with a quiet humility; one of a kind, handcrafted clothes worn with aged, scuffed Florsheim shoes," Bush said in the book.

Jackson, 50, died in Los Angeles in June 2009 from an overdose of the surgical anesthetic propofol, which he was taking to help him sleep. His personal physician, Dr. Conrad Murray, is serving a four-year prison term for involuntary manslaughter.

(Editing by Jill Serjeant and Bernadette Baum)

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