Country Couture Designer Manuel on Dressing Kesha, Lady Gaga & Even James Dean

Kesha performs onstage during the 2016 Billboard Music Awards
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Kesha performs onstage during the 2016 Billboard Music Awards at T-Mobile Arena on May 22, 2016 in Las Vegas.

In a world of microfads, daily memes and trendlets, 83-year-old designer Manuel Cuevas, better known simply as Manuel to music industry and Hollywood greats, proves that real fashion endures.

The Mexican-born, Nashville-based designer has been creating authentic country couture -- each Western or Americana influenced piece he puts out is unique -- for more decades than many of his clients, such as Lady Gaga, Kesha and The Killers, have been alive. In fact, before he dressed musicians, Manuel worked in L.A. tending to some of Hollywood’s greatest icons, including John Wayne, James Dean and members of the Rat Pack. (“I didn’t even know who the hell Frank Sinatra was until he put a $1,000 tip in my pocket,” Manuel remembers, laughing.)

Tec Petaja

After aligning with Nudie Cohn (“he was my father-in-law,” Manuel explains), he would come to help define the '60s and '70s Nudie suit: a rhinestone-bedecked, heavily embellished cowboy suit worn by rodeo greats, actors and rock stars alike.

Today, Manuel may live in Nashville, but his following has transcended just country stars. As the Nudie suit has been resurrected on the back of designer fashion (think Fausto Puglisi and Gucci’s recent runway looks), Manuel is seeing his traditionally masculine looks crossover into female pop star territory. Here, the designer takes time out of his busy December (“everything is rush, rush, rush,” he says) to speak about his Western wear and why his looks still resonate today.

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Why do you think after all these decades, your look has endured?

Well this look, it’s the old American way, to tell you the truth. It’s our heritage. It’s what America is all about. There are times when the boots are thrown away to the side, especially when it was kind of ridiculed by these urban cowboy looks, but they come back. You see the majesty of Americana in the looks. People really don’t forget their roots.

Also, people love to say that fashion is relentless and all that. But having done all those Western movies and TV shows and now doing what I’m doing now, the look has changed but only a little bit.

What do you think of women, like Lady Gaga or Kesha, adopting your looks? The pieces are traditionally masculine. 

Your style is in your closet -- that is what is important and not what sex you are.

How did you and Kesha hook up?

I’ve known Kesha for many years through her mom actually. And then we founded a little friendship. It was years later that I started making clothes for her. And here’s something I have to say: I want stylists to keep the importance of their jobs, but I cannot be making clothes for you and not meet you. Let me measure you and talk to you. I don’t do business on the run. So I told Kesha: “I’ve seen you wear some vintage things from me. I love it, but I just want to measure you and I want to talk to you. If I don’t, there’s no connection.”

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Kesha among them, but there are quite a few non-country stars adopting these country looks. What do you think about that?

Don’t forget what I told you in the beginning: It’s the earth calling you back. It’s about roots. But I can also ask, why do you have to show half a breast? Let that be for the people who need to attract that attention. It’s almost too much of a brag. Also, the world may be changing. Movies aren’t about cowboys anymore; they’re about life or about special-effects destruction kind of stuff. Kids are changing. They don’t even have conversations anymore. All this is changing because of technology, but when it comes to dressing and fashion, it’s still the same. I like that the world is very aware of fashion still.

What do you think of country stars adopting looks that aren’t your traditional country style?

Like a regular mechanic? Some of them look like they are crawling out from under their car with a beer in their hand. I was part of that too, because I created Dwight Yoakum’s look with the holes in his jeans. It’s almost the same look I did in 1954 in Giant with James Dean. He said, “Make me a pair of jeans for this movie.” I thought he was an ambitious little boy. You wouldn’t be caught dead with jeans on back then. That was for the miners, the workers. Things come around because you put them on somebody. Trends come and go because somebody out there looks hot.

Cambridge Jones

What would you say is your most memorable fitting?

The Lone Ranger, because he was my hero as a child. The person I dressed, Clayton Moore, wasn’t the same one I saw as a kid but I just loved the character. I made the uniform and the mask. He never killed anybody in his movies. He was nice. He was a nice cowboy dressed to kill with tight riding pants.

Do you have a modern-day style idol?

Gaga. I adore her. She has so much talent versus other girls. And she’s really grounded. I’m a very old school boy and I can tell talent and I can tell wisdom. She knows how to do her career. Unlike others I don’t want to mention, she’s very much concentrated in her career and her management. She can count her marbles at any minute.