The Style Autopsy of the King of Pop

...the clothes that made the man

by Darren Fernandes
Moving millions and sparking media frenzy, the late Michael Jackson was the undeniable master of mixing timeless music, moon walking, and style into a single identifiable image. The King of Pop was one of the greatest style icons in popular culture– a king of style, if you will – branding a uniform that became synonymous with both his on-stage and off-stage presence for better or for worse. Never giving into fashion fads, Jackson’s uniform was a clear representation of his personal style and, as such, differentiated him from all other pop stars. “He had a uniform,” commented Jim Moore, creative director of GQ Magazine. “When I think of him, I think of that leather jacket with the sleeves pushed up that we've been seeing on runway for few seasons, the white socks and loafers that were a bit of an homage to James Dean, and the short pants long before Thom Browne was doing them. Designers are always making reference to him."

Jackson’s style during his younger years with the Jackson 5 was hardly outstanding, merely mocking James Brown in 70s flares and tucked in dress shirts. Jackson kept to very simplistic di-chromatic black and white outfits and then moved on to suits and surgical masks during the course of the 1990s into the new millennium. It was in the 1980s, however, at the peak of his career that Jackson developed three distinct looks which he carried from his music videos into his street-wear: the “Thriller” Look, the Military Look, and the “Smooth” Look.

The “Thriller” Look centred around a red leather jacket with up-turned shoulders, outlining the letter V in black on the front and back. This jacket, paired with red cigarette pants, proved to be one of Jackson’s boldest looks. At the time, Jackson stood at 5’10 and weighed in at a mere 99 pounds with a 26-inch waist. As such, this look was created by noted costume designer Deborah Nadoolman Landis in order to make Jackson appear more “virile.”

“When it came to Michael’s jacket,” Landis said, “there was a tremendous amount of thought that went into it. I had sketched different looks, but I found ultimately once I came across the jacket with the V with the extended shoulders, that was it. It’s graphic and structural, and I wanted a good silhouette. The V in the jacket really echoes the pyramidal shape of the choreography.”

In terms of colour choice, Landis stated that “there was so much fog and mystery on the set, lots of black, white, beige, gray, brown, that I thought to myself: which colour would really stand out? So I went with red. Michael had never worn a red costume in his life before, and I really sold him on it. You’ll notice it’s free of gold, studs, chains, metallics, any kind of ornamentation or reflection. His pants were just white jeans that I dyed red to match the jacket.”

Belgian fashion designer Martin Margiela brought back the “Thriller” jacket in Fall 2008 with the Margiela Contrast Nylon Biker Jacket. The jacket is fashioned in black nylon with red accents opposed to the original red leather with black trimmings. Gaining attention after famed music producer Pharrell Williams was photographed at the XXX Diesel party in Brooklyn, Margiela’s jacket has only been further popularized in DEF Jam recording artist and songwriter The Dream’s music video for “Rockin’ That Thang.”

The “Thriller” jacket has also inspired handbag designer Rebecca Minkoff’s “Matinee” tote. The Italian leather bag has retractable suede upturned flaps, which embody the emphasized statement shouldering on Jackson’s jacket. Disney star Vanessa Hudgens and reality TV fashionista Lauren Conrad are big fans of this bag in wine and grey shades, respectively.

Jackson’s Military Look consisted of flood-high trousers, black loafers with starch white socks, and highly structured dark military jackets. Much like the large shoulder pads seen for women during this time, these jackets, bearing epaulets with bullion fringes, again offered Jackson exaggerated shoulders and a more masculine silhouette. The jackets were often ornately decorated with sequins, crystals, or more simply brass buttons. This look became such a staple with Jackson that he even sported a military jacket when visiting President and Nancy Reagan at the White House in 1984.

Designer Christophe Decarnin showed Jackson-inspired military and band jackets for Balmain in Paris for S/S 2009. In fact, Jackson’s hit “Don’t Stop Till You Get Enough” even played in the background during the show. R&B singer Rihanna was spotted sporting Jhery curls and this Balmain recreation in denim, while celebrities Beyoncé and Victoria Beckham opted for the jacket in distressed black leather. Even ‘the Louis Vuitton Don’ Kanye West has been caught in a MJ-inspired band jacket.

As well, as part of the Military Look, the world was introduced to the single glove, which continues to be Jackson’s single most iconic item. Responsible for the creation of the white glove is costume designer and retailer Bill Whitten. “The rock world,” Whitten stated, “is one of the few areas where you can use your fantasy.”

Yet, as ingenious as this piece may be, it is a very basic concept and perhaps this part of its charm. “Michael Jackson took something simple that everyone could emulate and turned it into a signature style,” said Keanan Duffty, New York-based musician-turned-menswear designer. “It was a genius signature styling detail because any kid from India to the U.K. to Bali could put on a white glove and emulate Michael Jackson.”

The “Smooth” Look first appeared in the video of “Smooth Criminal” in which Jackson sported a white suit with a skinny tie and a white fedora. Offering a much more sophisticated appearance, this look was sleek and chic but still masculine, as inspired by the Italian-American gangster Al Capone.

This look has been imitated by high school boys at proms everywhere year after year as well as by celebrities, recently including Rihanna and actress Annette Bening. Most notably, however, pop star Justin Timberlake has confessed to having built a solo career off of intimidating Jackson in terms of music, dance, and “Smooth Criminal” style.

A consistent trend that can be found in Jackson’s looks is the use of über masculine pieces infused with embellishment typically associated with the glitz and glamour of feminine Hollywood starlets. This juxtaposition of virility and femininity generates a sense of flashiness that directly opposes Jackson’s shy, soft-spoken demeanour and acts as inspiration for his on-stage larger-than-life persona. In ways, the clothing literally made the man.

Jackson’s great deal of confidence in his own personal style allowed him to have little care for what was in-fashion. Stylist Phillip Bloch even recalls Jackson being unable to differentiate if Japanese designer Yohji Yamamoto was Italian or whether British clothier Paul Smith was American.

“Michael Jackson was not influenced by fashion, fashion was influenced by him,” Bloch explained. “He was an innovator, a trailblazer. Like his iconic crystal glove – this was way before men were dripping in diamonds. He was 'the king of bling' before the term 'bling' even existed.”

Despite his lack of fashion knowledge, Jackson was set to launch a new clothing line with French designer and entrepreneur Christian Audigier.

“I was working on merchandising with him [Jackson] and launching a new line of clothes, which was actually Michael’s dream,” said Audigier. “What he wanted from me was the T-shirts and the hoodies and the caps. And it was very kind of royalist – kind of a mix of the real Michael Jackson and his alter-ego as the King of Pop.”

Also, about to start his final tour, Jackson worked with top designers to plan the costumes which included recreations of his most iconic looks. Costume designers Dennis Tompkins and Michael Bush fashioned a fibre-optic “Thriller” jacket, revamped military jackets, and a new “Billy Jean” suit containing 7.5 pounds of Swarovski crystals and 60 lights. In total, the sets and Jackson’s costumes would have featured 300 000 crystals in 43 sizes and 27 colours. Nadja Swarovski, VP of communications for Swarovski, explained, “As the King of Pop, it is only natural for him to be crowned in crystal.”

Unlike other great pop stars who have followed him, such as Beyoncé and Justin Timberlake, Michael Jackson’s iconic style was more than just costumes but in his everyday clothing. Jackson’s style was lived out with confidence and fully revealed itself as a visual representation of who he was. Realizing that you must wear your clothes and not let your clothes wear you, Jackson has left behind a legacy not only as a musical genius but also as a style icon.