This piece is a part of our 2015 Nashville Trail Map. Check out all the points on the trail and download our hand-illustrated map here.
Manuel Cuevas got his start making prom dresses in Mexico before moving to Los Angeles, where we eventually would start a long collaboration with Nudie Cohn in Hollywood. Maneul's hands made too many of the most famous Nudie suits of all time–from Gram Parsons to Johnny Cash to Bob Dylan. He even claims to have made the outfits for Sgt. Pepper's. He's now one of the last of a dying breed, and he likes to spin a yarn. We were fortunate enough to interview him.
800 Broadway, 1st Floor
Brit from OF: This is a big deal for me you have to understand.
Manuel: Then we should be talking.
B: A year ago I moved here to Nashville, and a year before that, my friend Daniel Frazier was in my house in Chicago and he said “Do you know about Manuel?” and I said “Of course I know about Manuel.”
M: Of course you know!
B: (laughs) Daniel said to me, “You have to move to Nashville.” and I told him “I’m never moving to Nashville,” and here I am two years later.
M: It’s a wonder you don’t look like toast right now. Chicago is colder than anywhere.
Lee from OF: So what brought you to Nashville from L.A.?
M: Well I have no sad story. I came here for convenience, to bring my family to a place where there’s nicer people. I mean I had wonderful times in L.A. that’s where I developed most of my history there. It’s being attached to the action of making the clothes for the right people at the right place at the right time I guess.
L: So you started the migration? I feel like we have a lot of people coming from L.A. now?
M: 27 years next month.
L: Did you work on Gram Parson’s suit?
M: I made his suit, I made all that era clothes for all, the majority of the entertainers who could afford it.
L: Did he tell you what he wanted on it or did you just..?
M: Well we had a little talk for awhile. I made many clothes for them, you realize that, right? That outfit has become the most famous outfit in the world, more than Elvis’ stuff and other peoples. People make a big stink out of the Beatles, uh, Sgt. Pepper.
B: That’s child’s play. (laughs)
M: To me, I don’t know.
B: I scoff at it.
M: Yeah. I actually made those outfits because of the variety of color they took to make them, I just went to the waste bin and found them. They didn’t say when or where they were made, there were things attached to them that I hadn’t put on them. But that was the house that kinda commissioned me to do things, they wanted to service their country people and I don’t care, but I know that I made them! Who cares who sold them or what or whatever. They did come and I made a lot of clothes for them, a variety that looked better than that. But such is life you know?
B: What do you see when you make things for certain people? I think about myself and I see someones personality.
M: I look at you and if I don’t make clothes accordingly to you then what am I doing? I’m not going to make you a from from white dress.
B: Exactly, it’s about reading someones energy.
M: You’re not going to offer flowers to church or anything c’mon.
B: What do you see in me?
M: I see a freedom song. You’re not the classical button down. You know what I mean right?
B: You just read me.
M: (laughs) Well that’s the way we are inclined. And that’s how I imagine the clothing that I make. Lucky they take off. But what you’re really talking about is the image. It takes a lot of huevos to keep it, you can’t look like Neiman Marcus one day and then Target the next. To keep an image is takes real huevos. Real real balls. And that is like is not easy but once you get it going you become like that kid in my store (pointing to Marty Stuart) you see his shadow, just his shadow, you know it’s him. Same with Prince, same with Osmond Brothers, all those people. They didn’t keep it up because they became but then they lost it. A lot of people do. I mean I think Little Richard, whatever he wants to do, sometimes you have a somebody else doing the stuff because you’re going to save money or whatever. I mean then he does the work because he doesn’t have the power of the style. It is something that comes from within and you yourself do not know but pour it in.
B: I feel the same way. So do you feel about having other people do work for you? I have a lot of control with what I do. I have a really difficult time relinquishing that control because it’s an energy that is mine.
M: Well my people can tell you that I’m not in control (laughs) I tell them do this, you know? I say “Do it.” All you can do is make a mistake, well we are all going to learn from it. And what you do as right is because I like it which means I found something. But I never worry about my job, i never worry about my sales, i don’t worry about nothing. I have a constant sense of security working wherever I go. It’s just the power of being. I keep telling my student now, my employees, “Look, I grew up and it was very hard but I wasn’t a bragger.” If somebody was bigger than me “Oh you look so huge.” Sometimes I’d be happy when I wanted to be the best in the world, but I’ve never been and I never want to be.
B: But you’re doing what you need to do as yourself.
M: Yeah. You hit it right on the button, girl! (laughs)
B: (laughs) I’m an artist, I understand. I’m making things for other people.
M: For people to understand that it’s not going to happen. You understand that, right? It’s parents, as great as they are. I’m sure you one time suck your mothers boobies and had your daddy’s arms but they had nothing to tell you.
B: I am what I am. Just as you are what you are.
M: Yes! Even then they do not understand you. There are parents who grew up to be carpenters, brick layers, and they want you to do the same but you do not do the same. (laughs) I want to be a fucking musician. They say “No!!!! What’s wrong with you?” There are artists and musicians in the world, there was once Schubert and others, c’mon, and Frank Sinatra. Find people that understand it, maybe when something happens that is nice, like you making a living.
B: Well I guess I’m still waiting for that making a living moment. (laughs)
M: You do make a living but you haven’t found the ‘exit door’ yet but that’s another story. I mean I know you feel it, you don’t brag about it though.
B: No I don’t , I want to share it with people.
M: Yeah that’s what I do with my forever employees, my interns, anybody. I have a lot of advice from my workers. You teach these god damn kids and then they go out and compete with us. I didn’t know I even had competition, I thought I was all on my own. I have no time to check what they did because it looks like what I did. I have no time to criticize. I can say, “If I inspire this I’m going to keep doing it until I find a better artist.”
B: Thank you that’s the most beautiful advice that I really needed to hear right now. I take my work so preciously.
M. But you should, yes you should. It’s about your spirit. This is why I don’t blame the world for not understanding the artist because the artist themselves do not even understand it.
B: We are trying to understand it. I am.
M: It’s a calling. A calling is something. I know a lot of lawyers, but they never held a job more than a month. I was listening to a lot of people like my father. All my brothers, they wanted to be doctors, and dentists but I had no desire for that. I didn’t even like their girlfriends (laughs). My wife and I went together for the first time, we went to Europe together last week. But she can’t understand why the English are so old aged.they don’t have taste, no taste for food or talking i mean i say pussy over there and you can hear a fucking fly. (laughs) So quiet. Cultures are just so different. It’s not flavor enough.
L: Bland, like their food.
B: I need flavor.
M: People need flavor in conversation.
B: I’m fiery so.
M: Ohh yes. Culture is just so different.
B: That’s how I feel about the south. I came from the north. Moving down here it’s just a different culture, a different way of life. It’s not right or wrong, just different. I love it.
M: I will tell you that I really do things are changing and it’s here in this city. This might one day a center for fashion. People laugh. Especially my friends from New York. This is a place where it could be culture from the bottom up.
B: I think that’s what we are trying to do. The entire of launching Nashville as our new home for this company is: I don’t play guitar and I’m not a musician but I’m a visual artist. It’s important for me to bring those worlds together.
M: Perhaps you put some rhinestones on it. ‘
B: (laughs) How we build the culture and community of makers and food and rich things that exist here. We are all creative people and what can it look like when you try to bring all of that together.
M: Yeah just like it’s not what I do. I’m not western guy, even though I make western shirts.
L: Do you think you were drawn to that because...
M: Don’t you see my culture in that? It’s there. They say they see a black cross and wonder. Maybe it was burned? But it’s my expression. People don’t get it because they don’t get it. I don’t expect them to get it quick. But they will eventually.
B: And that’s what makes it so interesting. it shouldn’t always be so easy.
Thanks to Tyler George for setting up this interview for us.