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Manuel JacketNashville is fortunate Manuel has chosen to make it his home-not only because of his prodigious talent as a fashion designer, or because of his world-wide acclaim as clothier to the stars, or because of his way with an embroidery needle and a rhinestone-but also because of the unique qualities of the man. At 66 ("because he likes the way it sounds"), he's as boisterous, loving, fun-loving and hard-working as ever. Give Manuel a bottle of Cuervo Gold tequila, and a gaggle of beautiful women on his arm, and ready he is to laugh and party the night away. And he's just as ready to wake up the next day, ready to do what he loves most- turning fabric into art.

Thus, it is fitting that Nashville’s pre-eminent art museum, the Frist Center for the Visual Arts, has honored Manuel with his first one-man couture show entitled “Star Spangled Couture”, which runs through March 13, 2005. It features 16 of the signature garments custom-designed and created by Manuel for such superstars as Johnny Cash, Marty Stewart, Gram Parsons, Elton John, Mike Mills of R.E.M., Dwight Yoakum and many others, including the recently spotted Little Richard entering Manuel’s shop. In addition, the heart of the exhibit honors a magnificent collection of 50 spectacularly designed state jackets, each featuring up to “8000, 10,000 rhinestones,” says the artist, weighing 40 pounds, and including each state’s motto, flower, bird, and tree as well as other relevant-to-each-state imagery hand-chosen by Manuel.

These jackets were all created by the Mexican-born Manuel to honor his adopted country, the United States. Manuel tells Dish about the origin of the jackets, “I had kind of a solitary thinking...everything has worked for me all the time. I came to this country and the doors opened for me one after the other, and it was a mixture of people who did this for me. So I asked myself, how am I going to pay this back? After thinking about this for months, maybe a year, I came up with an idea. ‘Why don’t I make 50 jackets? I’m going to make eight for each state, and give one jacket to each state with all the information about the state that I can gather that identifies the state.’ So that was 1986 when I started working on this.”

Manuel Jackets

Manuel is currently the reigning master of a style of couture long closely associated with Country Music, that has been described through its almost 100 year history as rodeo attire, fiesta dress, dude ranch duds or cowboy couture, and is surely familiar to anybody who has ever seen Porter Wagner, Little Jimmy Dickens or Dolly Parton glitter on the Grand Ole Opry stage. Beginning with Rodeo Ben, who designed clothing for Gene Autrey in the 30’s, and followed by the brilliant Nathan Turk who was the favorite of Roy Rogers and the glittering Maddox Brothers and Rose, the tradition of custom designing rhinestone and embroidered suits in brilliantly colored fabrics and luxe finishes and tailoring reached its peak when a dubious character from NYC named Nudie Cohn opened a shop in 1951 Los Angeles on Lankersham Boulevard. It was  called Nudie’s Western wear.

It was here that Manuel got his first taste of custom designing for the reigning stars of the day. By the early 1960’s, Nudie employed 21 tailors, among them the young Manuel Cuevas, who quickly became the shop’s steward, overseeing every aspect of a garments creation. “That’s when I discovered what I wanted to do with my life”, Manuel said. “I dressed artists in rhinestones, fringe and embroidery, and brought all this craftsmanship into clothing for entertainers. It was a wonderful time.”

Before long, a new set of country-rock pioneers discovered Nudie, beginning with Gram Parsons, who had him design and create a decidedly counter-culture garment, featuring marijuana leaves, poppy plants, pills, and naked women, known as the “Sin City” suit. Gram forged a friendship with Manuel and his boss Nudie, and he introduced them to his friends, including the Rolling Stones, Linda Ronstadt, and his band, the Flying Burrito Brothers. Soon, customers included Elvis Presley, Bob Dylan, John Lennon, and Elton John, who wore his best Nudie suit when he was presented to the Queen of England. Later, when Bob Dylan met the pope in 1997, he also wore Manuel.

Manuel
Manuel
In the 1980’s Manuel left Nudie to open his own business, and many of his long-time friends and clients, followed him. Manuel also rapidly attracted his own clientele, and pretty soon artists like Dwight Yoakam were coming to him for help developing their signature style. “I asked him about what I used to call the Buck Owens jacket,” according to Yoakam. “Manuel said, ‘Oh yes, the bolero. I did so many of them in the Fifties and Sixties.’” I said, “Yeah, I wanna try one of those,’ and he started making them for me.” Thus was born Yoakam’s signature style, as pictured on the cover of his famed CD, “Hillbilly Deluxe.” It consisted of a cowboy hat, with fancy embroidered bolero or suede fringed jacket, over skintight jeans (sometimes adorned with suede chaps) or leather pants and cowboy boots. “Manuel makes reality from ideas I have in my head,” Yoakam has said. Today, he’s as much known for his look and his style as for his music.

With a completely different twist, Manuel helped create the image of the venerable “Man in Black”, Johnny Cash. His most subtle entertainment garments, the black clothes made for Cash supplant color in favor of a manly silhouette, thus empowering him through the negation of distracting ornamentation. This is not to say that these garments were without detail, it is just that the detail was in the art of tailoring.

Another famous achievement of Manuel is the famous “Trio” album cover, which features Linda Ronstadt, Dolly Parton, and Emmy Lou Harris, who are diametrically opposed in terms of their stage personae. Manuel however, was able to connect their look using a well-known Mexican symbol, the rose. He was able to weave this thread into contemporary culture brilliantly and unite these very three diverse talents in terms of their visual performance on stage.

Manuel

The day of the opening of the Frist exhibit, titled  “Star Spangled Couture”, Manuel was in attendance, along with his son Manny and daughter Morelia, who work with him in his Nashville showroom. Also in attendance were about 1000 of his dearest friends, many of whom arrived wearing their own distinctive Manuel-made couture. Obviously moved by the beauty of the exhibition, and the huge turn-out, he told Dish, “I just think that these people have made a fabulous job, and I’m totally overwhelmed and I’m holding my tears back. I know that one time I’m going to walk in here by myself and look at my work, and capture the feeling of the things that I have been doing during all these years.”

Manuel’s “Star Spangled Couture” and other well-worth-seeing shows will be at the Frist through March 13, 2005. Check out their website at www.fristcenter.org to find out more about the ongoing activites happening there.

www.Dishmag.com / Issue 158 - December 2017
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