By Pam Windsor | Photography by Pam Windsor
He’s created clothes for Elvis, the Beatles, Johnny Cash, Dolly Parton, Elton John, Prince, Lady Gaga, and so many more. At 86, the man known simply as ‘Manuel’ is still turning out one-of-a-kind designs.
Manuel Cuevas is the designer behind the iconic looks of some of the biggest names in film and music over the past six decades. He was the first to put James Dean in jeans in “Giant;” he crafted Clint Eastwood’s look with that signature poncho in those spaghetti westerns; and he designed the wardrobe for John Travolta in “Urban Cowboy” – just to name a few.
The man who learned to sew as a young boy in Mexico, then moved to Los Angeles and later Nashville, has influenced pop culture fashion every decade since the 1950s.
Manuel put Sonny and Cher in bell-bottoms and Elvis in a jumpsuit. He created the cowboy look for Dwight Yoakam, and famously decided Johnny Cash should wear black.
He recalls when Cash first came to him for several outfits all those years ago.
“He ordered a few jackets and some pants, “Manuel says, “and when they came, he was shocked that everything was black.”
When Cash asked why, Manuel explained he saw something special in the singer and musician that seemed best reflected by an all-black ensemble. Cash, who was getting ready to head out on tour, had little time to debate the issue. A month or two later, he called Manuel to order more outfits. When Manuel asked about the color, the singer replied, “Color is no longer a question. I want everything in black.”
Manuel, who remained close friends with Cash until his death in 2003, said they laughed about that for years.
He has stories about the many other famous names he’s dressed like Marlon Brando, Michael Jackson, June Carter Cash, Emmylou Harris, Porter Wagoner, George Jones, Kid Rock, Chris Stapleton, and more. He remembers his first meeting with singer and musician Marty Stuart, the Mississippi-native who began playing with Lester Flatt and his bluegrass band as a very young age.
“At 12 years old, he was a hell of a mandolin player,” Manuel says. “He came into the store and I figured this was the kid everybody was talking about. We met and he told me he wanted to buy a rhinestone suit. He said, ‘I’ve been saving money forever and I have $250.’”
Manuel told him it wasn’t enough for a suit, but he would give him a shirt.
“I put it on him and he walked out like he was walking on foam,” Manuel says with a smile. He knew then, Stuart would go on to achieve great success. Today, he and the Grammy-winning artist are good friends.
He recalls another chance meeting with a child who would go on to become a well-known actor.
“He was about six years old and he came into my former father-in-law’s store. (Manuel worked for years with designer Nudie Cohn in California and was previously married to Cohn’s daughter). His mother was buying him one of those lace-brimmed hats and I asked, ‘Are you a cowboy?’ He said, ‘Yes!’ so proudly. So, I went to the back of the store for a rhinestone scarf and I put it around his neck.”
Years later, he says, actress Debra Winger came into his shop and asked if he knew John Travolta. He said he didn’t think he did. She was starring with Travolta in the film “Urban Cowboy.” Manuel had been asked to work on the wardrobe and already had measurements, but hadn’t met Travolta. When they finally met, Travolta told him he still had that rhinestone scarf Manuel gave him all those years ago.
Last year, Manuel was awarded the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) National Heritage Fellowship. It’s the country’s highest honor in folk and traditional arts. Always humble, Manuel says he was overwhelmed to receive it.
As Manuel continues turning out designs at his shop in Nashville, some of his previous work is currently on display at the Country Music Hall of Fame. It includes pieces he made for Johnny Cash, Rosanne Cash, Porter Wagoner, Zac Brown, Hank Williams, Jr, and others. The exhibit will remain through February 2020.
Manuel, who still designs for a number of current artists he won’t name to protect their privacy, says his work has never been about fashion. It’s about style.
“Fashion is what hangs on the racks all over the world. Style is what you have in your closet, what you choose to wear to adorn you as a person.”
Manuel believes style should highlight that special something unique to each and every person. His success has come from helping people find it.