Before the days of celebrity stylists, before everyone from celebutantes to teen moms had personal brands, before pop star images morphed with the speed of a Justin Bieber drag race, there was Manuel Cuevas.
The Rhinestone Rembrandt, as he’s known in the industry, put Elvis in his trademark jumpsuit. He made Johnny Cash the Man in Black. The Dia de los Muertos symbols he decked Jerry Garcia out in became the band’s brand. And the Rolling Stones lips logo? Looks awfully similar to a pillow Cuevas made for Mick Jagger in the ’70s.
This sartorial Svengali was one of the original branding geniuses. His mix of couture know-how and sweet-talking swagger has carried him through a half century in the entertainment business to the recent launch of a new ready-to-wear line and a 3,100-square-foot Nashville atelier.
He worked his way up from a $1-an-hour sewing gig to tailoring suits for the Rat Pack and dressing James Dean in Giant.
Born in 1938 in Coalcomán, Mexico, Cuevas learned to sew at age 7, spinning his sartorial skills into a mini-empire that netted him his first home and a sweet little Cadillac by the time he turned 18. He earned a degree in psychology at the University of Guadalajara before setting his sights on the U.S. At 21, he packed up his Caddy and $40,000 cash in a paper bag for the big move to Los Angeles.
In a matter of months he worked his way up from a $1-an-hour sewing gig to tailoring suits for the Rat Pack and dressing James Dean in Giant. He hopped from suit-fitter to embroiderer to costumer before finding a mentor in over-the-top western tailor Nudie Cohn. And he started to develop a reputation. “I have never bought any clothes from anywhere. I make my own boots, my belts, my suits.” Looking as swank as his A-list clients allowed him to run in their circles.
That’s how he met Elvis’s manager, Colonel Tom Parker. And Johnny Cash. “Actually, drinking is how I’ve met practically everyone that I’ve worked with,” Cuevas says. “Then the famous ones introduce you to the new guys — George Harrison, Yoko Ono, Elton John, John Travolta. It was like opening a candy store; all the kids just came to buy.”
But it was Cuevas’s psychology background that helped him connect with his clients both in Hollywood and later at his atelier in Nashville. “Image has always been my thing. I create style, working from the personality to make clothes that distinguish what makes that person unique,” he says.
The process is always the same. Cuevas meets with the artist, gets a feel for their personality and then has free reign over what to make. After chatting with Gram Parsons, Cuevas crafted a white suit with embroidered poppies, pills and pot plants on the front, naked ladies on the lapels and flames up the pants, juxtaposed against a cross on the back. It became an advertisement for the rockers fast-lane life. But after Parsons’s overdose and cremation, the suit haunted Manuel.
I wouldn’t mind making a suit for President Obama, but … he’s gotta pay some beautiful dollars for it.
“I was just making the outfit according to all the ideas that we put together,” he told author Michael Jarrett. “It wasn’t until a few years after his death that I really started thinking about it. This boy was really telling me how he was going to die.”
His other suits carry less tragic weight but are equally prophetic. He made Johnny Cash one black suit. Then another. And another. “I order suits from you all the time and they’re always black,” Cash complained to Cuevas. Cuevas told the future Man in Black to trust him. “Six months later he calls and says, ‘I’ll need two suits a week. The color is no longer in question.’”
Customers from Salvador Dali (who dashed off a custom portrait as a tip) to Dolly Parton, Bob Dylan to Jack White have been willing to pay for that image-making privilege (more than $10,000 for a full custom suit). Cuevas has even been known to fire clients who aren’t open to his process.
What’s next for the 75-year-old? “I wouldn’t mind making a suit for President Obama, but only if he orders it. He’s gotta pay some beautiful dollars for it,” Cuevas says. “Once a whore, always a whore. And I’m the biggest whore in Nashville.”
Why you should care
Because if you’re bigger than life you want to look bigger than life.