Bill Cosby is quickly becoming a household face to a whole new generation of television watchers. They’re the kids who were weaned on Fat Albert cartoons; the kids who see Cosby constantly pitching Coca-Cola and Jell-0 and Texas Instruments home computers. To these new kids, he has become America’s most amiable and creditable commercial spokesman. The ad world is convinced that the Cosby style can sell almost anything.
Actually, Cosby has been a top seller for a long time. He is, without a doubt, the best-selling comedian of all time. Over the years, he’s had 20 albums on the national pop charts. (A new one, “Bill Cosby Himself” was released last fall.) And he continues to pack ‘em in and knock ‘em dead in Vegas and other live showplaces. The guest host of choice for “The Tonight Show” has combined appearances and endorsements bringing in millions each year.
Not a bad track record for a kid who started out setting track records. Cosby (oddly enough, his friends call him Bill, not Cos) grew up in the low-rent housing projects of Philadelphia, where a sense of humor was one of the few things he could. afford. He quickly made a name for himself as a track and field star, and that won him an athletic scholarship to Temple University, where he also played some football.
To earn pocket money, he worked in a local cocktail lounge. Between serving drinks, he would crack jokes for customers. He soon took his talent to Greenwich Village coffeehouses, where, in 1963, he was “discovered” and given his first shot on the Carson show. A fast-paced TV career quickly followed highlighted by “I Spy,” “The Bill Cosby Show,” and numerous specials. And Cosby’s fortune rose rapidly with his fame.
Where does he spend all that dough? On cars and cigars—but mostly on clothes. He’s had a personal tailor for almost 20 years now. He just might be the biggest clothes horse in show biz. Clothes, he knows, help make the man and his image. And Cosby’s image, from pudding commercials to the Vegas stage, is very carefully orchestrated with his tailor and clothing advisors. We spoke to the man of 1000 suits before a show at the Riviera hotel-casino in Las Vegas. He wore a warmup suit, a long cigar and a big grin as he recounted his early days of sartorial splendor.
PLAYBOY: Do you remember the first suit you ever owned?
COSBY: Ohhhhhh, yeah. Robert Hall. $19.95. I remember because it was a lot of money. It was dark blue and it came with two pair of pants.
PLAYBOY: What was the occasion?
COSBY: It was an Easter suit. It was purchased when I was nine years old, but it really fit an 11-year-old. And it wasn’t because I was that big a kid. It was that I was supposed to grow into it. And so there were about three feet of material folded under on the slacks. The seat was taken in so much I felt like I always had a load in my pants.
I always left the jacket unbuttoned and tried to stand cool. And I remember looking into the mirror and seeing what looked like a topcoat with a pair of pants, because the lapels were so wide they took up three quarters of my chest.
PLAYBOY: How old were you when you finally grew into that suit?
COSBY: Oh man, the suit was ruined way before that. You know, we had a certain amount of respect for fine clothes back in the projects, you just wore sneakers—the ones without the brand names—with everything but your best suit. And then, when it was time to get dressed up, you put on your brown Buster Browns then. You were cautious for about an hour. Then you really started to get into it. It started with a sliding burn that put a hole in the knee. That was patched with a part of the cuff from the sleeve. But it was a fence that finally did the jacket in. As I was running past, something just hooked out and ripped the jacket to shreds. All I remember was my mother telling me that I was doing it all on purpose.
PLAYBOY: Were there other traumatic clothing moments growing up?
COSBY: Well, in high school I was fixed up with this beautiful girl who allowed me to take her to her junior prom. Only I didn’t have a tuxedo, and I couldn’t afford to rent one. When the day came, I looked into my closet and all I had was a double-breasted blue suit jacket. The pants were no good. So I wore the jacket with a pair of black pants and a plain white shirt and a bow tie. And I tried to stand in the dark as much as I could, but I know she saw it. Her folks took one look at me and gave me some money it paid for the taxi cab. I was going to take her to the prom on a trolley car. My wardrobe and I probably made the evening a horrible mess for that girl. I remember she was pretty pissed about everything.
PLAYBOY: A lot of great fashion looks start in the housing projects of American cities. Growing up with Fat Albert and the crew, what were the hot neighborhood looks?
COSBY: I remember these two guys—Esau and Jacob. They were twins. And their mother and father always made sure they were dressed to a T. But we’re not talking Brooks Brothers here. They were dressed in pastel suits. They always dressed in yellow pastel and orange pastel with big matching fedoras. They wore those suits every Easter and Mother’s Day. That was one look. Now. for the guys who stood on the corner who were hip and knew all the latest dances and started the fights and stuff the fashionable fling was a pair of bell-bottom Levi’s. It was a uniform. The Levi’s with the newspaper folded up and stuck in your hack pocket and a newsboy cap worn broken down to one side. And there was a shoe in brown and black, with a single stripe across the toe, made of very extra-soft leather. They were called Old Man Comforts. And you made so re they were always polished to the hilt. The hippest thing was if you could find a pair of high-top Old Man Comforts.
PLAYBOY: Was this before high-top Converse All Stars?
COSBY: Well, see, first of all you had to break in and find what group you were going to belong to. There were, like, four groups. One was Macho-Macho-Killer-Joe-on-theCorner. Another was athlete. Then there was scholar. And then there was sissy. You had to belong to one of those groups.
Now, the Converses didn’t happen until you hit maybe your teens, because Converses cost a lot. But if you were running track and field, you weren’t anything unless you had Adidas. But they were so expensive that you didn’t get them unless you had it in writing that you were going to the Olympics.
PLAYBOY: And now, wearing running shoes has gotten to be quite a chic look. Didn’t you help popularize others?
COSBY: Well, while I was doing I Spy, I began to wear the Adidas. My reason for wearing them with everything except a suit was the other stuff, that Bob Culp and I did so much walking all over the place. But the uniform also comes from my background, I guess. In the projects, you just wore sneakers—the ones without the brand names—with everything but your best suit. And then. when it was time for you to get dressed up, you put on your brown Buster Browns. Now, if you want to talk fashion and style, you got the $9.95 ones—the ones they put shellac on before they put them in the window. Finally, there were Florsheims; you bought a pair of those, man, you kept them wrapped in a chamois cloth.
PLAYBOY: And you probably bought things for cash then, not on credit.
COSBY: It depended. There was this place in Philly called Macho-Macho-Killer-Joe-on-the-Cornerdown the street and they didn’t care how young you were, they pulled you into the store. You could be seven years old, man; you didn’t need credit. “Go get your mother and bring her down here and put a dollar down.” I remember when I was about 14, the style became Ivy League with a little belt at the back of the pants. But Krass Bros. hadn’t caught on yet. They pulled me in off the street one day and I told them, “You guys don’t have what I want here, man. You don’t have the pants that got the belt in the back.” But they weren’t dumb. “You want a belt in the back, we’ll put a belt in the back for you. You want a belt on the side, we’ll put one on the side. You need one on the leg?” I did have a lot of trouble, though, getting my mother to go down there to put the dollar down. She kept saying, “I’m not going. You don’t need it.” But I had to keep up with the style.
PLAYBOY: What other styles did you fall for?
COSBY: There was this coat. It was a six-button double-breasted with a belt in the back. I mean, you just never took it off at a party. You just kept your topcoat on in the house. That’s how cool it was. Now that coat was Sl8, and I wanted it so bad that I went to the store and put five dollars down and told the man my mother would be back with the rest. Actually, he didn’t even have a coat that fit me. The one I put the deposit on was way too big. But it didn’t make any difference, because I had it. And when I stepped out in that coat, I felt like a million bucks. Of course, I had to go through the lecture from my mother about what I had done and where money comes from.
PLAYBOY: Let’s jump ahead. When you started out as an entertainer—and even to this day—you had two different images: a sweatshirt-and-sneakers one and a very dressy one. Are there two Bill Cosbys?
COSBY: Oh no, no, no. The casual wear—the sneakers and the sweatshirts—is the real me. The suits have always been my work clothes—even to this day—although I’m getting to enjoy the tailored things more in my personal life. I went to Paris in 1981 Parisy wife, Camille. And I had my tailor make a whole Paris wardrobe for me. One of those outfits had a fantastic white blazer with gold buttons that had my initials on them. It fit me perfectly and looked fantastic. In fact, I was coming down to dinner one night with Camille, who’s a very beautiful and well-dressed lady, and when we walked in the room, all the mens’ heads turned. It was a very strange feeling for both of us. We realized they were looking at my outfit!
PLAYBOY: Do you think wearing tailored clothing becomes a part of growing up—you’ve made it, and it’s time to start wearing suits?
COSBY: No, I think most men wear suits because they’re followers. It’s just a matter of the company you’re keeping and what’s expected from you. See, the president of whatever company may be knocking down $750,000 a year with stock options, and he’ll pay a ton of money for a suit that just doesn’t fit him, a suit that has nothing to do with the contour of his body. You look at these guys and their pants are an inch above their wing-tip shoes. And you’re looking at the president. Now, his underlings will very seldom outdress him. They’ll wear the same dull gray suits. They’re following the old man. And it’s important in business to be sure you’re not looking too hip and having your shoulders puffed out and your jacket pulled all the way in at the waist. The idea is to look as though you just came out of Yale. I think there are an awful lot of business and professional men who’d like to have just 12 blue blazers with gray slacks. And maybe one or two pairs of those god-awful red-and-green checkered pants. The old hunting clothes. They’d keep those things the rest of their lives.
PLAYBOY: What made you different? What got you going to a tailor?
COSBY: I was in the service—it was 1958—and I was running track for the Quantico Marines. We wound up at a meet in Sausalito, where I borrowed sonic money from a friend to buy a sports jacket that was way over my head. But it was probably the first time I had anything on that had any quality feel to it. You know, one sleeve wasn’t longer than the other. The buttons were set right where the openings were. I loved that sports jacket. I wore it everywhere for years. And then, in 1963, I was playing a coffeehouse in Toronto and this guy named Cy Mann kept coming in and we got friendly. Cy told me he was a tailor, and I asked him if he could copy that jacket for me. Well, I watched him work and started to learn about the artwork that goes into tailoring. A good tailor is a real master. Cy’s been making my clothes ever since. Other than my wife, no one’s been in my life longer than my tailor. He did the suits that helped get me the role in I Spy. He does everything. And I leave the styles up to him. He knows what looks good on me, and he knows how to fit my body. That’s the important thing. I’m oddly shaped. I think most men are. I have a flat waist, big shoulders and very prominent hind quarters. TO give me free-flowing lines, he needs to cut things very easy over the seat. There’s magic to that.
PLAYBOY: And is your tailor the one who’s helped create the different images for you in commercials?
COSBY: Yes. Texas Instruments wanted a business look, so Cy made me the perfect three-piece suit.
PLAYBOY: But he sat out the Jell-O commercials, right?
COSBY: Actually, no. In fact, he made them work. When I was doing the Pudding Pop one, they wanted me to dress up like an ice cream vendor. So they gave me this uniform. I don’t know where they got it, but it was terrible. It had no construction, no lines—I felt silly in it and I had trouble playing the part. So I called Cy and said, “You gotta help me feel more comfortable, man.” We were shooting the commercial in four days, and he worked night and day to make me three fully constructed custom ice cream man suits. I was the classiest-looking ice cream man in the world, but it worked.
PLAYBOY: Not counting the ice cream man look, how many suits do you have made a year?
COSBY: Oh, about a dozen.
PLAYBOY: And we hear that, by New York and Beverly Hills standards, your tailor’s pretty inexpensive.
COSBY: Shhhhh! Don’t you tell a soul. Look, there are all these dumb asses walking down Fifth Avenue with their damn Louis Vuitton briefcases looking real proud because they got their suits made for $1200 or $1500. Hey, mine are twice as nice and cost half the price. But don’t you dare mention that.
PLAYBOY: The secret’s safe with us. Just one more question. What’s the difference between fashion and style?
COSBY: That’s simple. Fashion is what’s out there. Style is what you do with it.
PLAYBOY: Sounds good. Anything else you want to add?
COSBY: Why yes, on April 26th, Bill Cosby will be appearing at …
PLAYBOY: Oh sorry, Bill, but we’ve just run out of time.