Meeting Manuel: a bedazzling visit with a Nashville legend

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weed jacket at Manuels in Nashville
Jim McGuinn models the pot-leaf jacket at Manuel's American Designs in Nashville. (courtesy Jim McGuinn)

The gold-lamé suit of Elvis. The crazy pot-pills-flame-cross western suit worn by Gram Parsons on the cover of Flying Burrito Brothers' Gilded Palace of Sin album. The Man in Black, Johnny Cash. All these iconic looks were brought to fruition by the thread and stitchwork of one man: Manuel Cuevas. Most know him simply as Manuel.

A few weeks back, Bill Deville and I went to Nashville to attend the Americana Music Association's annual conference and award ceremony. The artists took the stage of the Ryman Auditorium to collect awards and to play for the crowd; many were decked out in the classic fancy suits of country music. Seated in the audience was Manuel along with members of his staff, the creators of so much of that eye-grabbing attire.

A lifelong vocation

The description on Manuel's website reads: "The man is not a fashion designer; he is a costumer and an artist. His original designs have become the trademark of true American style."

Manuel's vocation has been a lifelong pursuit. He was born in Mexico in 1933, and as a youngster, Manuel's older brother, Adolfo, taught him how to sew. By age 13, Manuel started making quinceañera and prom dresses. When he was 18, Manuel moved to Los Angeles, learning embroidery along the way, and eventually working for Nudie Cohn, who was famous for his grand, rhinestone-embellished "Nudie Suits." Working alongside Nudie, Manuel later became head tailor, head designer — and eventually — partner of Nudie's Rodeo Tailors in North Hollywood. It was at Nudie's Rodeo Tailors that Manuel became known for his unique designs.

In 1965, Manuel married Nudie's daughter, Barbara L. Cohn; when they divorced in 1975, Manuel opened his own shop, called Manuel Couture, in North Hollywood. Clients that Manuel knew while working with Nudie — including Johnny Cash, Marty Stuart and George Jones — continued to give Manuel their business at his new shop.

Manuel relocated to Nashville in the late 1980s. His current shop, Manuel's American Designs, is located on the corner of 8th Avenue and Broadway, just a few blocks from the Country Music Hall of Fame.

When Bill DeVille and I visited the Country Hall of Fame upon arrival in Nashville (to catch a panel discussion led by the Star Tribune's Jon Bream on Bob Dylan's Nashville recordings), we marveled at Gram Parson's famous Manuel-designed suit. When I realized Manuel's shop was just up the street, I made it a point to get there the next morning.

An unforgettable visit

Stopping in at Manuel's American Designs, I was awestruck by the glittering rhinestone masterpieces on display. Trying on several, I loved the feel of these clothes; every jacket and shirt is custom-made in the shop by Manuel and his team. That's right — Manuel is still hard at work, even at 82. While I was there, I saw him working to fit other customers, and I wondered about all the hips and inseams his tape measure has traversed.

Although Manuel's jackets were out of my price range, I did buy a t-shirt of his design, which I had augmented by Tyler, the rhinestone guy, who showed me how to operate his vintage bedazzler that Manuel bought from his old boss, Nathan Turk, back in the '60s.

When I introduced myself to Manuel and thanked him for his work, I showed him my t-shirt, the first Manuel item in my collection. "It's like cocaine, my friend, be careful, or you will become addicted," he chuckled to me.

Later that morning, I found myself at the Country Hall of Fame gift shop, where I saw a vinyl re-issue of the Flying Burrito Brothers' debut. On a whim, I decided to purchase it and go see if I could learn more about Manuel, Gram, and the Gilded Palace of Sin.

I asked Tyler George, the rhinestoner at Manuel's (who happens to be from Bloomington, Minn., and knows The Current), if anyone ever asks Manuel to sign albums. Tyler returned a couple minutes later with Manuel, who, over the next half hour, proceeded to tell me much of his life story: From suiting up Elvis to helping Johnny Cash, from working for Nudie to striking out on his own, and to moving to Nashville. Here was a man with so much passion for life, still going strong into his 80s, and not above telling it like he saw it.

Finally, I asked him about Gram's suit. "Oh, I would have expected Elvis's gold lamé to be my most famous creation, but the kids today don't remember Elvis. THIS [Gram's] is the suit I get asked to recreate the most!" Manuel exclaimed.

"I remember when they came in — and Gram, he wanted the cross and the flames, and all I could think of was the KKK, so I didn't put them together. I put the cross on the back and the flames up the pants legs," Manuel continued, pointing out his work on the album cover. "And this photo, taken at the Joshua Tree. Then we had to bury him so soon," Manuel said, referencing the short and troubled life of Parsons.

As to whether anyone prior to Gram Parsons had ever asked about putting marijuana leaves on a Western suit, Manuel said, "Oh, no — this was the first, but now it is a classic."

Stories to treasure

Speaking with Manuel was a treasure, comparable to times in my life when I've gotten to speak with Ian McLagan of the Faces, or Bob Koester of Delmark Records and Chicago Jazz Mart — you want to drink in the stories, because these are some of the last links to an era, and there's only so much longer that folks like this will be around.

But Manuel's creations will live forever. Not only are several of his works enshrined in the Country Music Hall of Fame, but he's also completed a set of 50 jackets for 50 states that has been exhibited in museums. His shop regularly takes on interns from leading design schools, spreading Manuel's skills and craftsmanship to the next generation of rhinestoners.

Manuel's life is a documentary waiting to happen, but in the meantime, if you are in Nashville, it is totally worth the time to stop in at Manuel's to try on some clothes. I keep dreaming of that Gram-inspired jacket — it fit me like a glove, and the more I got to know Manuel, the more I want to join his long legion of admirers and wear a piece of his art.

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7 Photos

  • Manuel Cuevas
    Clothing designer Manuel Cuevas in Nashville. (Rick Diamond/Getty Images)
  • Minnesota jacket at Manuels
    Jim McGuinn tries on the Minnesota jacket at Manuels in Nashville. (courtesy Jim McGuinn)
  • pot-leaf yoke shirt at Manuels
    Is there a theme at Manuel's? (courtesy Jim McGuinn)
  • Jim McGuinn rhinestone jacket selfie
    "...Like a rhinestone selfie ..." (courtesy Jim McGuinn)
  • Dia de los muertos shirt at Manuels
    This jacket at Manuel's American Designs has a Dia de los Muertos design. (MPR photo/Jim McGuinn)
  • Tyler George, the rhinestoner at Manuels
    Tyler George, the rhinestoner at Manuels, is originally from Bloomington, Minn., and knows The Current. (MPR photo/Jim McGuinn)
  • Manuel Cuevas autograph on Flying Burrito Bros LP
    Manuel Cuevas was happy to autograph Jim McGuinn's Flying Burrito Bros LP. (courtesy Jim McGuinn)

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