Manuel Cuevas

Rodeo Tailor, Nashville
National Heritage Fellowship (2018)

From his early life in Michoacán, Mexico, to his training in midcentury Hollywood, to his residency as a creative luminary in Nashville, clothing designer Manuel Cuevas, best known now as just “Manuel,” has measured, cut, and stitched a brilliant and indelible legacy in American culture.

Born in 1933, Manuel learned to sew at age seven from his older brother. By 14, he was a popular creator of prom dresses in his hometown in western Mexico. Sewing, Manuel believed, came naturally to him. In 1952, he migrated to Hollywood, where influential clothiers took notice. Manuel soon worked with celebrated designers Sy Devore, Viola Grae, and rodeo tailor Nathan Turk, whose spectacular, glittering Rose Parade costuming sparked new inspiration in Manuel.

Manuel eventually became lead tailor for Nudie Cohn, the exuberant designer most identified with the rhinestone-adorned and elaborately embroidered suits that were indispensable for country and western stars like Tex Williams and Porter Wagoner. With Cohn, Manuel clothed everyone from Elvis Presley to Johnny Cash, James Dean to John Wayne. In 1975, Manuel launched his own Los Angeles store, serving clients such as Dolly Parton, Emmylou Harris, Neil Young, and Glen Campbell.

Manuel, like Cohn, has worked most prominently in Western wear, a complex genre that, though identified with Anglo America, has multiethnic origins in Native-American, Central-American, and Eastern-European cultures. While Manuel’s work inhabited this form, he elaborated on its tangled lines of descent. The cowboy image and iconography are deeply rooted in Mexican culture, which Manuel both highlighted and transformed in his designs. Many have noted in his designs the renewed bravado of the Mariachi’s trajes de charro, or on a deeper level, the patterns and palettes of indigenous Mexican textiles and furniture painting.

To Manuel, these influences were mostly subconscious. His vital contribution, whether through cultural or personal sensitivities, was guiding the cowboy aesthetic toward increasingly modern, emotional, and individualistic modes. In Manuel’s work, the subject, while still heroic, achieved a more mature dimension. His most iconic work often evoked complicated, moody masculinity. Johnny Cash, Marty Stuart, Dwight Yoakam, Jack White, and countless others credited Manuel for discovering and forging the tangible essence of their public identities.

In 1988, Manuel moved to Nashville, where he remains a marquee brand name. His clothes have earned exhibitions at the Frist Art Museum, the Johnny Cash Museum, and are displayed extensively at the Country Music Hall of Fame. He has been given lifetime achievement awards from Nashville and Los Angeles, and has been recognized by the Country Music Association and Cody High Style. Now in his eighth decade of design, Manuel works in his shop nearly every day, fashioning singular new creations that, he said, he continues to discover at night in his dreams.

By Bradley Hanson, Director of Folklife, Tennessee Arts Commission