From Elvis Presley to John Lennon to Johnny Cash, Nashville legend Manuel Cuevas has bedazzled the shit out of everyone who’s anyone.
We met up with Manuel at his studio in Nashville to hang out, but mostly just freak out over his western-meets-rock ‘n’ roll custom suits dripping with rhinestones, fringe, and serious vibes (we even got to check out his limited edition 50 State Jacket Collection—these literal pieces of art can only be found in museums and Manuel’s studio). When I ask the man who once trained under Nudie Cohn about being a tailor and designer to music icons throughout the decades (Jackson Five, Dolly Parton, Gram Parsons, Frank Sinatra—you name ’em, he’s dressed ’em), he simply said, “I tell you from my mother’s heart, I am nobody’s tailor. I have made clothes for presidents, princes, and queens—I’m a designer to the world.” So we strayed away from tailor talk, focused on designer talk, and got to know why he couldn’t get Jimi Hendrix out of his jacuzzi.
You moved to Nashville from Los Angeles. Was it the country music scene that drew you to Music City?
No, it was the bad mood of Los Angeles. It wasn’t really functioning properly in 1988 and L.A. was really going crazy. My storefront was gunned down twice. I’ve been in Nashville for almost 28 years now and it’s a cup of tea. I didn’t come here for the country music—I had a beautiful daughter who was two years old and a wonderful wife who loved Nashville.
Can you tell us a little bit about when you first moved to Los Angeles and started working with Nudie Cohn? What your experience was like?
Working for Nudie. I was very young when went to work with Nudie and he treated me like a king for a long time. To top it off, I fell in love with Nudie’s daughter. We were married for six years and once that ended, it was the end of Nudie’s friendship with me. She divorced me and I divorced Nudie kind of thing. But it was cool—like I said, he treated me like a king, and I made tremendous successes for him—until one day I did not.
Right after you stopped working for Nudie, you started your own shop. Tell us about that experience.
I never really wanted to open a shop, it just kind of happened. I always had people working for me—although they were really working with me, which is a different kind of love.
When I learned how to make pants at seven years old, I knew I wasn’t going to be a pants maker or shirt maker or coat maker or dress maker. All these people, they dressed so boring when they got married or had their quinceañeras. So I decided to offer a service at twelve years old.
So you started making dresses when you were 12 years old?!
I made coats before that, honey. Which is higher quality stuff.
I’ll never forget the number—I made 77 dresses by the time I was twelve. After that, I hired five women, bought them machines, and they worked from their homes. It turned out to be a great business, because the girls realized I could make them something no one else could.
We heard you’ve never made the same thing twice. Why?
It’s a bad habit.
When did you first start sewing?
When I was on a break in school, I saw my brother playing with a sewing machine and I asked him what he was doing. He said, “Instead of looking so fucking pretty, why don’t you help me sew some pants?” So I went and sat at that damn sewing machine and I’m still sitting there today. It was that freak calling—I never dreamed of being a goddamn tailor.
What do you dislike about being called a tailor?
I’m fucking important myself. One time I was with Loretta Lynn and somebody asked her why she called the president Bill. She said, “I call Jesus, Jesus.” All I could say was, “why didn’t I think of that myself?!”
You’ve dressed everyone from The Grateful Dead to Elton John. What is it like having such an iconic clientele?
I had the Rolling Stones, John Travolta, the goddamn Beatles—everyone—in my house, just as people. I have never treated anybody differently. I remember one time when John Lennon and I were walking out of the house he said to me, “how come you have the master over there unattended by your jacuzzi?” I said, “Listen, he’s not unattended, he’s in his fucking safety zone playing his guitar.” It was my friend, Jimi Hendrix.
One of my grandest friends was Janis Joplin. She said, “Manuel, if I ever do a man, it’ll be you!”
For more on Manuel, check out Manuel Couture here.