Nashville’s fashion trends may come and go, but one image comes to mind when you think about country music icons: that of the quintessential cowboy, from stark and black to covered in rhinestones and embroidery.
This is not accidental, even if the earliest iterations of country music wardrobes may have been a bit more “Oh Brother, Where Art Thou” than “The Lone Ranger.”
The Men Behind the Bling
Manuel Cuevas is one of the men behind the blinged-out cowboy. Known simply as Manuel, his work starts with his mentor, famed Los Angeles designer Nudie Cohn, and works its way into contemporary designers, including his own son, Manny, and his apprentice, Eric Bornhof.
Glitz isn’t the only thing that makes this look. The key lies in its classic cutting and impeccable tailoring—of a kind many up-and-coming designers are no longer trained to do. Manuel is a master tailor and a self-proclaimed lover of fabrics.
“My creations are my children. My biggest dream was always making clothes,” said the fashion icon. “I’ve been very lucky to do as well as I have.”
Even now, with a career dressing celebrities since 1952, he designs, measures and cuts every garment himself. It’s the fine construction, from the first toile to the last stitch or embellishment, that sets Manuel above everyone else dressing the Nashville firmament.
Glitz and Glamor, Then and Now
The classic Nashville look evolved from icons like Porter Wagoner, Dolly Parton, Hank Williams Sr., George Jones and their peers from the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s, through the likes of Marty Stuart, who has the best collection of razzle dazzle Western wear in all of country music.
Gen X and Millennial musicians are bringing the style back to the mainstream in an effort to move past the simplified status quo of plain T-shirts and torn jeans.
Western wear in country music is an emblem of its success, a style statement with deep ties to global cultures. Like so much in the music industry, Hollywood provided the first inspiration for Nashville’s Western aesthetic, decades in its crafting by two highly skilled designers.
Russian-born Cohn traveled the U.S. extensively before moving to New York, where he made pieces for burlesque. Ultimately, he made a home for himself in Los Angeles. Cohn and his wife began tailoring clothing out of their home. After dressing well-known musicians with a Western flair, Cohn won over Roy Rogers and Dale Evans, and the rest is history. He eventually opened shop on Lankersheim Boulevard, where he would go on to dress Elvis and many of Hollywood’s most famous cowboys.
Cohn's protégée and eventual son-in-law, Manuel would become the most celebrated name in Western wear—a reputation that seems to grow stronger with time.
Born in Coalcomán, Mexico, Manuel learned to sew as a child. His tailoring career began with making formal dresses and prom clothing for his sisters. He too found his way to L.A. circa 1952, when he was just 18 and got a job working for Rat Pack tailor Sy Devore.
Manuel said he found true inspiration when he attended the Tournament of Roses Parade in Pasadena. There, he was struck by the intricate embroidery and gleaming rhinestones worn by the parade horsemen. The level of embellishment fixed itself in his mind.
Manuel promptly employed himself with Rose Parade designer Nathan Turk, cutting and learning from master embroiderer Viola Grae. Then he met Cohn, already famous for his rhinestone cowboy suits, and went to work at the outpost on Lankersheim. It was as Cohn’s apprentice that Manuel got the opportunity to cut and tailor pieces for Elvis, including the King’s famous jumpsuits.
Manuel parted ways with Cohn to set up his own atelier on Lankersheim after divorcing Cohn's daughter. His success in L.A. hinged on dressing rock-and-roll royalty, in addition to tailoring clothing for film and television.
Finding Home in Nashville
In the late ‘80s, Manuel made the move to Nashville. Music City’s finest came to him to be outfitted like rodeo kings—Little Jimmy Dickens from the Grand Ole Opry was one of the first. Manuel paired with Colonel Tom Parker, with whom he had a close friendship, to dress Elvis for his 1968 comeback tour, and later for his ‘70s Vegas shows.
“I had to make something distinctive for Elvis,” he said of the signature rhinestone-covered jumpsuits that are now emblems of Elvis’ persona. “It couldn’t just be a black leather jacket and jeans, and besides, I’d made that already years before for Marlon Brando.”
He would go on to dress most of Nashville. The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Linda Ronstadt, Emmylou Harris, Janis Joplin, Miranda Lambert—the list goes on.
Country crooner Marty Stuart knew as a child in Philadelphia, Mississippi, that he wanted to wear the cowboy hats and embroidered shirts sported by so many legends that he saw sparkle on his family’s black-and- white TV.
“These were people with an image as mighty as their sound,” mused Stuart. “Manuel said to me, ‘If you can tell who someone is by the shadow on the wall, they’re a star.’”
When Stuart moved to Nashville as a teen in the early ‘70s, the cowboy flash that has informed country and rock was going through one of its periodic pauses. “The biker look—the kind of thing the outlaws represented—and then Urban Cowboy took over for a while.”
The obsessed young singer hit yard sales and thrift stores, picking up every single piece he could. Back then, those were intended for his personal use, but eventually the collection became an obsession. In fact, the size and quality of Stuart’s collection earned him an exhibition at the Tennessee State Museum in 2007, to great acclaim.
“I like to say the great depression took place in the summer of 1987. I lost my recording contract, got a divorce. I was sitting in a bar and the bartender told me I had a call from Manuel in L.A. ... He told me to come see him, bought me a ticket,” recalled Stuart. “I spent my time hanging out in his shop, while he was working on this beautiful leather suit with silver decoration. Talking with him, I got myself together. At the end of my visit, he asked me to try the jacket he’d been working on. ‘How is it?’ he asked me. I told him it was little big in the chest. He said, ‘It won’t be if you stand like a man.’ The suit had been for me the whole time.”
A New Wave of Fashion
New, younger designers who parade their works at Nashville Fashion Week (NFW) know they owe a symbolic debt to Manuel as they dress up-and-coming performers.
Eric Adler Bornhop, the creative mind behind Eric Adler, offers up a line of well-cut jackets, suits and trousers with a hint of the bold ‘60s palette that helped make Manuel de riguer. Bornhop started his career as a student of Manuel, although his aesthetic takes him in a different direction—he now dresses the likes of Big Kenny, Shania Twain and Alan Jackson.
An acclaimed up-and-comer in his own right, Bornhop serves as a reminder that the traditions of craftsmanship and embellishment established by Manuel and Cohn continue forward.
“One of my friends said my style was a mix of Manuel and Ralph Lauren,” said Bornhop laughing, but he’s not far off. Right now, his talents—along with those of peers like Betty Malo, Poni Silver, Olia Zavozina, Amanda Valentine and Truly Alveringa—are helping to drive Nashville fashion into the future.
But at the heart of Nashville fashion—past, present and future—is Manuel, with a singular vision informed by the brightest aspects of U.S. and Mexican embellishment, passed through the lore of Western culture, and transformed into the Music City’s signature look.