Manuel Cuevas: Custom Tailor To The Stars For Over 65 Years

Whether it’s Johnny Cash’s straight black suits, Elton John’s flamboyant outfits, John Travolta’s Urban Cowboy look, Dwight Yoakam’s L.A. cowboy flair, Neil Young’s western moods, or Gram Parsons’ cosmic cowboy jacket, the goal for Manuel has always been to create garments that reflect the client’s inner self.

By: Vincent Wynne
From The Rambler Archives – 2011

Many know the name “Manuel” as the clothier responsible for outfitting some of country music’s biggest names (or rather, MOST of country music’s biggest names). But what many don’t know is that Manuel Cuevas, at the tender age of 18 and prior to emigrating from Mexico to Los Angeles, was already a self-made man. He was paying cash for homes and cars with plenty left over for entertaining the ladies. So in 1951 when, at the age of 21, he moved to Los Angeles, he did so carrying $40,000 in a paper bag, declaring it at the border and dumbfounding border agents.

Indeed, Manuel’s biography is no rags to riches story. Rather, Manuel intelligently utilized the freedoms available in the United States during those early years in Los Angeles to educate himself, become an entrepreneur, and build one of the most recognizable brands in the world. Manuel Cuevas actualized the 50s-era version of the American Dream.

His story begins in Coalcoman, Michoacan, Mexico. “I started making prom dresses when I was 13,” says Manuel. “You know that grandmothers and aunts made the prom dresses for all the kids. But I started making prom dresses that were pretty expensive, and all the girls said, ‘Mommy I don’t want you to make my prom dress. I want Manuel to make my prom dress!’ I continued making prom dresses and one year I made 77 dresses, then the next year I made 110, and from then on I hired people to help me sew. I made a fortune.” By the age of 18, Manuel had purchased his first home, as well as the best available Cadillacs and Lincolns on the market, in cash. He cut and sewed his own clothes, which were the best garments the world had to offer. His lifestyle at age 18 was comparable to those of the rich and famous in the USA. “All that stuff made me feel satisfied and, therefore, not super ambitious for money.”
Young Manuel Cuevas and his Lincoln Continental
Manuel’s childhood was not one of poverty, but rather he received a very good education in what appears to have been a healthy and stable family. Manuel’s uncle was an academic philosopher who shared philosophical insights with him as he developed into a young man. Manuel attended college and studied Psychology. But fashion and design were always Manuel’s focus and passion. The Philosophy and Psychology, however, would prove to be the key to Manuel’s later success.

After crossing the border from Mexico to California, already wealthier than most residents of Los Angeles and driving a brand new Cadillac to boot, Manuel began looking for a job. “I was on my way to LA, and as I am driving through Pasadena Ave., I see a sign that says ‘Pants Maker Needed.’ I was hired on the spot for $1 an hour.” Obviously, $1 an hour was a dramatic drop in pay for Manuel. He was not a proud man, however, and he had plenty of money anyway. He wanted to meet people and learn as much as he could.

After one month, Manuel’s first employer in the United States said to him, “Look, Manuel, you know more than we do here. I know someone who needs a key man at the Broadway stores, and I want you to find a better future than what you will have here as a pants maker.” Manuel responded with respect: “Well that’s not really what I had in mind but I’m glad that you are talking this way.” So off goes Manuel after just one month and he meets with his next employer and learns that he will earn over $8 an hour. Keep in mind that $8 an hour in 1951 is good money, but this is still much less than Manuel was making in Mexico designing prom dresses. After just two or three months handling alterations, as Manuel tells the story, this employer said to him, “You know your leather work, you know your shoes, but I know that when it comes to the finishing, the sleeves and all that—taking in coats, you are superior. And I know one of the grandest suit-makers in Los Angeles, and he needs a person like you.” “So I went there,” continued Manuel, “and I was hired.”

And only three months after starting this job, Manuel’s employer called him into his office. “Manuel,” he says, “all these coats and pants that we make here are actually for Sy Devore (http://www.sydevore.com/history.htm). And Sy Devore needs a fitter, and you’re a hell of a fitter. Go.” “So,” remembers Manuel, “I went to Sy Devore, and he admired my suits and my boots. He says, ‘I am going to pay you $55 a fitting.’ I said, ‘A fitting?’ I said, ‘Sir, a fitting might take me 15 minutes.’ He said, ‘that’s fine, my clientele is superior.’ And it was.” Manuel was offered an astounding $165 a day in 1951, when most people were making less than $40 a week, for work that he could finish in less than one hour. Interestingly, Manuel Cuevas, at this time, was not at all familiar with the Rat Pack, or most other Hollywood celebrities for that matter. But he soon realized that he was fitting high profile Los Angeles residents including the likes of Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr., Dean Martin, Bob Hope, Don Rickles, Joey Bishop, etc. Now, a mere seven months after emigrating from Mexico, Manuel begins measuring and cutting suits for the Rat Pack and other top celebrities of the day.

Manuel fit right in. He made their suits, and he also made his own clothes. So, naturally, he was as well-dressed as they were. “So,” says Manuel, “I worked, and they all took a liking to me, all I had to do was drink with them. Sy Devore said, ‘Man, the way you dress, you kind of dress just like they do, or better than they do.’ I said, ‘Yes, I love to dress up.’ So, Frank (Sinatra) took a liking to me, and he gave me a $1,000 tip one time – they all did. They invited me to Vegas and stuff, ‘C’mon, it’s a free room!’ they would say. I got to meet a lot of beautiful people.”

Not long after Manuel settled into working for Sy Devore and fitting Hollywood’s top celebrities, he attended his first Rose Parade, where he encountered some of the most flamboyant clothes he had ever seen. Manuel asked everyone in his circle of friends who was responsible for making these extravagant clothes. “The guy on Ventura Boulevard – Turk,” they told him. Manuel liked what he saw, and he became inspired. So Manuel visited Turk. “I went to find out about this Mr. Turk. And I asked him for a job. Actually, I really wanted to pay him to teach me. I really, honestly, couldn’t give a damn about making those monkey suits (for the Rat Pack). It’s kind of the same thing, it’s between gray, black, and white. Rarely do you make something interesting. Why don’t they rent suits? I was not really in love with that kind of tailoring. I was good at it, and they loved me for it.”

He asked Turk who was responsible for the embroidery on his clothes, and Turk told him it was Viola Gray. So Manuel searched for Viola Gray. After meeting Viola he inquired immediately about learning embroidery from her, and she initially declined. Manuel pressed Viola for information on who was cutting her shirts, etc., and when he discovered that she was having someone else cut the shirts, he offered to barter his own expertise in cutting shirts and pants in return for her teaching him the craft of embroidery. “And so begins a beautiful friendship,” remembers Manuel, “and I learned embroidery. And, I learned from the expert. But I was ambitious, so I made them better.” During his time moonlighting with Viola Gray, she introduced him to one of her new clients, Salvador Dali. At 22 years old, Manuel designed a shirt for Dali and presented it to him. According to Manuel, “It was fascinating because Dali looks at the shirt in the mirror and he says, ‘What kind of flower is this?’ I said, ‘That is a Hispanic flower.’ He knew I was kidding him. He says, ‘Where does it grow?’ I said, ‘It grows right here, in my head.’ He says, ‘Just for that I am going to do something for you.’ And he scribbled a drawing of the two of us as we stood in front of the mirror and gave it to me.” An impromptu gift, Manuel received an original Dali, direct from the man himself.

But Manuel was not satisfied. He was learning new techniques from Viola Gray at night while continuing to do fittings for Sy Devore during the day. He was bored, and making more money than he knew what to do with. “I wasn’t spending the money. I was buying underwear and cologne, and there’s only so much of that stuff you can buy.” His passion was designing clothes, and he wanted to make clothes. “My friend Patty says, ‘Let’s go to Nudie’s.’ So, I go to Nudie’s.” At the time Nudie had a small team of Hispanics and one German working for him, and according to Manuel, Nudie was thinking about replacing Viola Gray as his embroiderer because they didn’t like each other. When he visited Nudie, Manuel made it clear to him that he wanted to work for him. After a series of conversations where Nudie discovered that Manuel could duplicate the shirts Nudie was selling, he allowed Manuel to make some shirts, offering him $6.15 per shirt. Manuel, again, was not fazed by the low wages he was offered, but rather saw the opportunity to work with a successful designer from whom he could learn.

Manuel did not like Nudie. According to Manuel, Nudie was always after money, a shameless self-promoter, not very good at marketing himself, nor did he understand how to properly price his clothes. One of Nudie’s clients at the time was none other than the great World War II hero turned actor Audie Murphy, and Nudie was currently under a deadline for outfitting a film for Murphy. Nudie was having some trouble getting the job done, and Audie Murphy came into the office one Saturday morning to complain. Serendipitously, Manuel was in the shop working on shirts, and he assured Nudie that he could fix the problems. “Nudie said, ‘No Manuel, these suits are for Monday morning for the film.” Manuel assured both Nudie and Audie Murphy that, in fact, he would have all the outfits fitting like a glove by Monday morning, on set. Manuel delivered. Audie Murphy took an immediate liking to Manuel, and because he had salvaged a valuable client, Nudie offered Manuel the full-time job he wanted.
Manuel Cuevas and Little Richard
Manuel accepted on the condition that was paid $300 a week, which was still a drastic cut from his current $165 a day fitting celebrities. Commenting on the pay-cut, Manuel admits, “Learning this was to me, I mean, you’ve gotta learn how to cut diamonds, right?” But Manuel also understood the amount of money he would bring Nudie. Manuel was no dummy. So Manuel’s condition for being hired full-time by Nudie was not only a weekly salary of $300. This salary was to increase to $450 after only two weeks, followed by one more large pay increase in a few months. Manuel knew that his design work would earn Nudie much more than $450 a week. So Manuel began designing suits, and he encouraged Nudie to raise the price of his suits from $160 to at least $250. Nudie argued, “Who will pay that kind of money?” Manuel said, “Anyone who sees these well-made suits will pay.” Manuel was right.

For the next 14 years, most of Nudie’s clients knew Manuel as the quiet Mexican in the back who did the fittings. In reality, Manuel was responsible for the success of Nudie during these years. Manuel not only designed and created many of the fabulous suits and western wear credited to Nudie, but he also taught Nudie how to properly price the clothing, which made Nudie a lot of money. The genius of Manuel emerged while working for Nudie. This genius was the true convergence of psychology and design, and his unwillingness to repeat designs. In fact, Nudie wanted Manuel to repeat designs that sold well. Manuel refused to make what he called “copies.” Manuel said, “Let me be responsible for what goes on the rack. I can cut 50 suits at one time, but I will make 50 different suits.” Nudie agreed, and success followed.

When the marriage of Manuel and Nudie’s daughter fell apart, Nudie and Manuel parted ways. The split was not friendly. According to Manuel, Nudie called Manuel a dirty Mexican among other things, to which Manuel responded, “You are lucky that you are old. And if I was a violent person I’d probably paint the walls with your skin.” Three days later Manuel rented a space up the street from Nudie’s and, for the first time since he was a teenager in Mexico, he opened his own business.
Manuel Cuevas and Johnny Cash

Little did Manuel know at the time, that most of Nudie’s clients understood fully that Manuel was the creative genius behind the clothes, and most of Nudie’s clients followed Manuel. “That first week I had about ten calls from people who called me just to say, ‘Make me whatever you want.’ The first month I made something like $69,000. Johnny Cash called me and said, ‘You are my man, you are my tailor.’ It was nothing but good stuff, you know, you harvest what you sew.” Manuel’s business grew enormously as requests came in from all over the world. For anyone else, the pile of design work might have challenged their creativity. But Manuel’s creativity flourished as he consistently designed for the client’s personality and the film character’s backstory. Manuel is noted for saying that when he designs clothing for his clients, he designs for what the client needs not what the client thinks he needs.

Manuel’s designs are, in fact, a beautiful marriage of psychology and design. There are no repeats in his designs because a repeated design (or copy) would not be clothing designed for the client, but rather clothing designed for the sole purpose of making money. The goal for Manuel has always been to create garments that reflect the client’s inner self. And he has succeeded. Whether it’s Johnny Cash’s straight black suits, Elton John’s flamboyant outfits from head to toe, John Travolta’s Urban Cowboy look, Dwight Yoakam’s Los Angeles cowboy flair, Neil Young’s western moods, or Gram Parsons’ autobiographical jacket, Manuel studies his client’s personality and delivers a design that fits both physically and psychologically, every time. His method is a combination of intelligence, passion, and gift. And if there is one thing Manuel understands after designing for entertainers for over 60 years, it’s image.

“Some people have come to me,” says Manuel, “and said that they want to look just like my dear friend (and client) Dwight Yoakam. And I could mention some big names but I won’t. They wanted to look like him, but there was no way in the world that I was going to make clothes for them like his. There’s only one Elvis, one Elton John, one Dwight Yoakam, and one Marty Stuart. You design for the person and you let them fly. And it always works because people who do not have an image have never made it. If people cannot distinguish your shadow and know who you are…I’m sorry but you are only famous around your friends and your family.”

Many have wondered why Manuel never started mass producing his designs. After all, wouldn’t churning out “Manuel” tagged shirts with some of his more popular designs make him enormously wealthy? To this question, Manuel sharply declares, “Cheaper fabric, longer stitches, cheap labor, cheap everything – I would never get familiar with that stupidity.” And for this reason, Manuel’s clothes remain original, and expensive. Manuel suits, jackets, dresses, skirts, shirts, etc., are all unique works of art. He has a deep respect for the clothes that he creates, and they are priced accordingly.

Pondering his pricing policies, Manuel says, “I absolutely have no respect for people who try to under-buy me. I am the only tailor that is known to fire clients. And they have been big names. But I don’t mind, because I don’t think they have the ability to perceive what it takes to make what we make, and if they don’t have respect…listen, I’m better off without them.”
Manuel Cuevas suirt for Jack White
Manuel moved his business to Nashville, TN in 1988 and opened his store in an historic red brick building at 1922 Broadway near Vanderbilt University, where anyone can walk in and view the clothes he has for sale. Every piece is unique, and once a design is gone it never returns. Manuel refuses to make copies. Most people, upon entering his store, become distracted by the countless framed photos hanging on the walls of Manuel with a small percentage of his famous clients over the past 60 years. There is a great story behind every photo.

Manuel just recently celebrated his 75th birthday, but his energy has not faded. He continues to design for anybody who wants one of his custom-made shirts or suits, and he continues to teach fashion students from Nashville’s O’More College of Design. At the end of our time together, I asked Manuel which design — over all these years and designing for so many amazing, interesting, and creative people – he was most proud of. Manuel smiled and said, “The next one! And then the next one after that! And the next one, and the next one!”

UPDATE: In 2013, Manuel his building and moved to a shop downtown at 800 Broadway, Nashville, TN 37203, Phone: (615) 321-5444

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