The first thing you notice in the Victorian house near Nashville’s Music Row that holds Manuel’s workspace, showroom and retail store is that everything shines. From the Western-style shirts — embroidered with roses, skulls, musical notes, crosses and dozens of other iconic images — to the tailored-to-fit suits coated in flashing rhinestones, there’s glitter, glitter everywhere. Even T-shirts sparkle.
The vivacious designer, 79, knows it’s an impressive sight. “If I was walking in here for the first time in my life, I’d go ’Wow!'” he says proudly.
Equally wow-worthy is the client list he has amassed over his six decades in the fashion biz. Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley, the Beatles, Keith Richards, Jimi Hendrix, the Grateful Dead, the Jackson Five, Linda Ronstadt, Dolly Parton, Hank Williams — even Marlon Brando and James Dean — have sported custom Manuel pieces.
“There’s nothing flamboyant about Johnny Cash in his black suits,” Manuel says. “That’s a man who had a charisma and who could fill up a room with his presence. If he coughed, everyone would go quiet. The same was true with Marlon Brando.”
One of his most ardent supporters, Marty Stuart, has lost count of his own Manuel collection, guessing he owns about 500 items. “His clothes and his designs come from the heart, not the assembly line,” Stuart says. “He’s my brother. He’s never wavered in the best of times or the worst. I love him.”
A recent visitor to the atelier is Jack White of the White Stripes, a new Nashvillian. Manuel says that White is the rare client who wants to be very involved in his creative process. “I talked to Jack for two hours [about the suit he ordered]. For most people I don’t do that. But for Jack, I do.”
Working with performers like White, who has strong opinions about how Manuel’s work contributes to his highly stylized public image, is a pleasure, he says. However, the designer has no problem creating looks with little to no guidance from the artist. As long as folks can pay the $5,000 and up it costs to have a custom Manuel suit made — some elaborate orders ring up at more than $20,000 — he’s game. The King of Morocco has a Manuel suit and a pre-presidential Ronald Regan commissioned him to make some pieces. Former President George H.W. Bush has done the same. Manuel says a private sector group from San Jose, Calif., orders $400,000-$500,000 of clothes a year.
It’s more than just shine that keeps Manuel’s fans coming back. His tailoring is superb, thanks to a sharp eye that allows him to fit a suit without even taking measurements. It doesn’t hurt that Manuel, sometimes called the Rhinestone Rembrandt, is majorly charming and full of great stories populated by boldfaced names. It was decades before the Mexico native would become one himself.
Born Manuel Arturo José Cuevas Martinez, he learned to sew as a child. By the time he was 8, he was whipping up his own creations. After studying psychology at the University of Guadalajara, Manuel moved to Los Angeles. There, he worked for several legendary designers, most famously Nathan Turk and Nudie Cohn (a.k.a. Nudie, Hollywood’s “rodeo tailor.”) Turk had a healthy clientele of musicians, including Gene Autry and Roy Rogers, and Manuel quickly fell in with them. During the ’50s and ’60s, he’s credited with creating many iconic pieces, including the gold lamé jacket Elvis wore on the cover of his 1959 album, 50,000,000 Elvis Fans Can’t Be Wrong. Later, he designed the King’s black leather outfit worn on his 1968 comeback special on NBC as well as those infamous fringed jumpsuits.
One of Manuel’s most notorious pieces is a suit worn by Gram Parsons for the Flying Burrito Brothers’ Gilded Palace of Sin album in 1969.
“That boy put his stamp on the map,” Manuel says. “First of all, he initiated the creation of country rock. He taught the Rolling Stones about dressing up on the stage. He brought the flamboyancy of a parade to his clothing. The marijuana suit, with the pills … Gram and I talked about it for months. You can imagine at that time what a cross on fire meant, but we did it. I didn’t care for marijuana — or the genitals that I did for the Rolling Stones. But it was breaking ground after the ’50s.”
In the mid-’70s, Manuel struck out on his own, opening a studio in North Hollywood. In 1989, he moved his family — including his kids, Morelia and Manny, who both work for the company — to Nashville. The style of Music City performers alternately delights and disappoints his sensibilities.
“There is a love-hate affair with dressing up (among Nashville musicians),” he says. “I think they should be dressed properly. I see them when they first come here, asking for a break on a pair of pants, and all those things change. I want them to be stars because we’re in this together. But when it comes to [looking like an] old country boy? They should go back to the farm and work with cows. The people don’t want to see that.”
Indeed, Manuel’s work is enduring. A substantial exhibit of his most famous clothing was showcased at the Frist Center for the Arts in Nashville in 2004 and 2005. A shirt he made for the artist Salvador Dali is displayed in the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C.
“You consider his romance with painting, his life, his flamboyance and character,” he says of his creation for Dali. “It was kind of chilling. I made him a beautiful shirt. … I kind of invented a flower [for the design]. He asked ’Where did you find this flower?’ I said ’It’s a Spanish flower. It only grows in minds like mine.'”
Today, Manuel has no intention of slowing down. “I wouldn’t know what retiring is,” he says. “I’m just working away. There’s nothing else to do. I was born to do this kind of stuff. It’s my livelihood and my passion. And my life.”