Thursday, May 19, 2011

The Man Behind Michael Jackson’s White Gloves and Socks Speaks “Off the Wall”

Famed designer Mike Salisbury, the man behind the imprint on a multitude of diverse products from HALO, the world’s most popular video game, Rolling Stone, Surfer and Playboy magazines to O’Neill and Gotcha surfwear and Levi’s 501 jeans (a brand Salisbury created), is also the genius behind Michael Jackson’s iconic image in black pants, glittery socks, and loafers wearing a single white glove.

Reflections on MJ by Mike Salisbury

Question: How did you end up working for Michael Jackson?

Salisbury: I saw Michael Jackson in the movie, The Wiz.  I knew his agent and called him to say that Michael Jackson was going to be the biggest star ever and I would be anxious to work on something with him. Michael’s agent called me in to his office.  He showed me an album cover mock up and said, “This is to be his solo album. What do you think?" I told him that it looked like a cheap ad for the children’s department at Macy’s. “I know," the agent said. “It sucks."  "He is going to be huge—the biggest!" I exclaimed. "Let me come back with some ideas."

Q: What did you come up with?

Salisbury: I sketched out several variations of my concept and returned to the agent's office.  I presented the concepts and he just kept staring at them, looking perplexed, like a cross eyed-chicken checking out a worm.

“It’s a metaphor,” I tried explaining. “He’s just a kid out from under his dad so I think the album cover should make a statement that his solo debut is as big as Sinatra coming on stage in Vegas."

Q: What was your concept?

Salisbury: At that time, young Michael was gangly and had an Afro. I explained the concept by pointing to the fashion type drawing. “I put him in a tuxedo. That says big deal!"

The agent hemmed and hawed and was just about to dismiss the whole nutty idea when a little, high-pitched voice softly squeaked, “I like it,” and Michael stepped out from behind the drape covering the large office window. "Let's just do it," he said.

So we did.

Q: Did Michael change anything in your concept?

Salisbury: He wanted to make one change. “I want to wear white socks," Michael whispered to me.
"They have to be über socks then," I told him. “Glamorous!"

Q: What else did you do to create the look that has become engrained in our popular culture?

Salisbury: My wife at the time found an Yves St. Laurent woman’s tux in Beverly Hills that fit Michael. I also told him to get loafers like Gene Kelly wore in An American in Paris. When we went to shoot the photo, I instructed him, “Roll up your pant legs, put your fingers in your pockets and pull your pants up like Gene Kelly—to show off the socks.” The loafers really made the white socks work. By the way, the socks were custom-made for Michael by famous Hollywood costume designer Bob Mackie.

Q: Where did you do the photo shoot?

Salisbury: The shoot was taken at the Griffith Observatory at the Hollywood Planetarium. Michael drove up the hill to where we were at in the front of the building, the same location where they shot the knife fight in the movie, Rebel Without a Cause. He was just 21 and had a new Rolls Royce. It was smashed up a bit and he was driving badly. 

There was no place for him to change and we were under the gun because we had no permit to shoot there. Fortunately for us, the women's restroom was open and like a real trouper he ran in there and put on the tux.

Here (above picture) is my first attempt at the photo for the cover of his solo album. After reviewing it, I thought that it didn’t show the real Michael. We were rushed and Michael was just not that into it. I thought he was a little too serious. We needed to shoot this differently. I mean, this album cover was just for him, not him and four other brothers.

I suggested we re-shoot it and when we did, I directed him to be more animated. I suggested he smile and exaggerate the pulling up of his pants and get into it like he was dancing. He was a great sport and agreed to do the re-shoot. We did the second photo shoot against a wall and voilá—“Off the Wall." (Below)

Q: Did you also suggest Michael wear a white glove?

SalisburyThe white socks were so successful in drawing attention to Michael and his dance moves, there was a conversation about doing gloves, too. White gloves. To me, I felt that would start looking literally Mickey Mouse (and of course Michael was a big Mickey Mouse fan). Between the agent and Michael and me, we got it down to one white glitzy glove. Another great move for attention.


Salisbury created Michael Jackson’s “Off the Wall” debut album cover art in 1979. Today, Salisbury is recognized worldwide as one of the leading talents in American brand design. His artwork is seen by people every day in some of the world’s most recognized corporate branding and product designs for companies such as Volkswagen, Suzuki, Honda, and Hasbro—the biggest toy company in the world.

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