He isn’t just a fashion designer — he’s an artist and couturier to the stars.
He’s the man who suggested Johnny Cash stick with basic black, created the gold lamé look for Vegas-era Elvis, designed Gram Parsons’ iconic living-in-the-fast-lane white suit, dressed Bob Dylan when he met the Pope, and encouraged Marty Stuart to amp up his sartorial splendor. He was born Manuel Arturo José Cuevas Martínez in Michoacán, Mexico, but he is best known simply as Manuel — aka Fashion Designer to the Stars or, more colorfully, The Rhinestone Rembrandt.
After moving to the United States in the late 1950s, Manuel quickly established himself as a master of apparel and accouterment design, serving his apprenticeship with such luminaries as Viola Grae and Nudie Cohn before branching out on his own and accumulating a client list ranging from The Rolling Stones to Ronald Reagan, Madonna to Michael Jackson, two George Bushes to all three Hank Williamses.
While in LA, he designed wardrobes for more than 90 movies and outfitted such young stars as James Dean and Clint Eastwood. In the late 1980s, he moved to Nashville, largely to be near many of the country music artists who treasured his expertise. Manuel has remained a Music City institution ever since, designing stylish apparel for industry tycoons and showbiz icons, everyday people and A-list celebrities.
If you want a basic business suit or a simple black dress — well, yes, he can do that. But most people who go to Manuel want something more. Much more. Ask Jack White (pictured above with Manuel), a relatively recent Nashvillian, who trusts his carefully crafted image to Manuel with orders of equally carefully crafted suits. Special custom outfits worthy of Grammy performances might set you back as much as $20,000. But Manuel also designs more affordable ready-to-wear that won’t have you selling the farm to make the best-dressed list.
Though he’s celebrating his 81st birthday this April, Manuel isn’t ready to retire or rest on his stylish laurels. He can still be found making his legendary creations at his studio on Broadway in Nashville, and he just said “I do” to his lovely bride, Maria, in January. We caught up with the master of celebrity couture to talk about how clothes really can make the man—or woman.
Cowboys & Indians: You were a psychology major at the University of Guadalajara in Mexico. Has that background influenced your work as a designer?
Manuel: I think there is something to that. No matter what you do — whether it be toasting peanuts or dealing with clients like I have through the years — you kind of judge people quickly. We all do. But I have this résumé, this perspective, in my own mind, when I look at them. And I talk to them. When they come to me in a suit and tie, I will ask, “Who was your hero when you were a child?” And they may say “Roy Rogers.” Wow. So then I’ll think, OK, he’s wearing this Ivy League suit with this boring tie. He shouldn’t be dressed like that. Now that he’s 25 or 30 years old, or even if he’s a multimillionaire and he’s 60, what can I bring to him that will make him admire himself and really be happy with himself? Because, you know, how people feel about themselves, they really want people to see them that way. So what will make other people see him as he really is?
C&I: So your work involves bringing out a client’s inner self?
Manuel: If they have a personality that they’ve never had the chance to express, because they were involved with meetings and involved with the world and they forgot about themselves, I bring out a reminder for them. And I am sure that when they look in the mirror — not when I am looking at them, but when they are looking in the mirror at themselves — they feel so great and so happy. And sometimes they’ll throw me a compliment. They’ll say, “How did Manuel know I could be this person?” You see, through the years, they’re involved with what society more or less gets them involved with. So they don’t think there is a sophisticated way to bring out their [inner self]. But that’s the kind of black rock you want to find. Because if you can turn that into a diamond, I’m telling you, you’ve arrived as a designer. You’re there forever.
C&I: Are there times when you have to politely tell clients they really can’t pull off the flamboyant look of someone they want to copy?
Manuel: Oh, yes, many times. And many times, when they want to copy what they’ve seen in a magazine, I have to tell them no. I had a guy who was about 5-foot-5 and I would say, oh, about 280 pounds. And he wanted a shirt like Johnny Cash. And I had to tell him, “I don’t see a Johnny Cash in you.” So I had to bring him on the right track.
C&I: So if I were to come to you and say I wanted a shirt exactly like the one you made for Johnny Cash...
Manuel: I would never make it. I have tailors I would recommend to you that could do a good job. But if you were trying to make me turn you into Johnny Cash, I would tell you from day one: uh-uh.
C&I: What about bringing out the inner cowboy/cowgirl?
Manuel: Many times I have made for cowboys city slicker outfits. And I have made city slickers cowboy clothes, too. So I have mixed the cowboy with the urban, and the urban with the cowboy, so many times.
C&I: Marty Stuart seems like he was born to wear Manuel designs.
Manuel: [Laughs.] You know, Marty Stuart has a collection of fashions that many museums in the United States, and throughout the world, would love to have. And believe me, most of those things fit him like a glove, because I made them for him. But he also is a very great historian and collector. And he has a great eye for style. Whoever he liked, he bought their leftovers or what have you. He’s been smart enough to create his own collection.
C&I: You weren’t only a designer for Johnny Cash — you were a close friend for decades. What’s your most vivid memory of him?
Manuel: In two or three hundred years, he will still be looked on as the cool guy, with that aura, that thing, that power of presence. I was never so ridiculously —but happily — embarrassed as I was by Johnny Cash. I was there in the sports arena in LA, where the Lakers play. And I am walking down the hallway to see him in his dressing room before the show. And when I get there, he is surrounded by all these people. But when he sees me, he stands and says, “Here comes my friend Manuel. I want to have a real good talk with him.” And when he said that, all the other people walked out of the room. Why? I don’t know. But I was so embarrassed. I remember one of his people said, “Have a nice chat!” And then —bam! — closed the door.
So I said, “John, why did you do that? Am I going to eat all of these celery pieces with sour cream or whatever the hell it is you’re giving away there?” And he says, “I didn’t tell them to walk away.” And I told him, “But John, when you talk like that, you command.”
C&I: You also were a friend of and designer for Ronald Reagan. What was he like?
Manuel: Very informal, very down-to-earth. When he came to visit me in my store, I said, “What a great honor, Mr. President.” Well, what does he say? “Cut the crap, Manuel.” And then he laughed. So I thought, I can’t be impressed even when I want to be.
From the April 2014 issue.