Rhinestone Cowboys: The Embroidered Suits Once Rocked By Johnny Cash and Gram Parsons Are Making a High-Fashion Comeback
Nudie Cohn outfitted everyone from Elvis Presley to Dolly Parton as his business comes back and inspires the runway
Decades have passed since cowboys wore rhinestones -- specifically, the bedazzled suits created by country and western tailor Nudie Cohn. The eponymous Nudie suit, born in Hollywood in the early 1950s, was worn by everyone from Glen Campbell and Cher to Keith Richards and Robert Plant.
Though Cohn's family closed its North Hollywood store in 1994, more than 30 years after he died, his influence resurfaced on the spring and pre-fall runways at Gucci, Valentino, Fausto Puglisi and in collections from fast-fashion retailers like Nasty Gal. For Jamie Nudie, 54, granddaughter of the designer who changed her last name to honor his legacy, the look's revival comes with the relaunch of the family's tailoring biz, which she runs with partner Mary Lynn Cabrall, 56.
The two recently outfitted the cast of the Hank Williams biopic I Saw the Light and dressed Instagram-famous canine Doug the Pug for the American Country Music Awards. But the focus is on the custom orders, which start at $795 and take four to six weeks to create. Nudie and Cabrall use a vintage Singer sewing machine and Cohn's original rhinestone setter to create western fringe shirts, guitar straps and, of course, the sparkly suits.
The story of these bespoke suits is detailed in Nudie, the Rodeo Tailor: The Life and Times of the Original Rhinestone Cowboy, the 2004 book about Cohn's life penned by Nudie and Cabrall. A Ukrainian immigrant who grew up in New York, Cohn began his garment business creating G-strings and other undergarments for showgirls. He later moved to Hollywood, refashioning himself as a cowboy, and convinced western-swing musician Tex Williams to loan him money to start the business.
"My grandfather always got to know his clients and represented them in the design of the suit," says Nudie. "He'd go to the Roxy and the Palomino Club and listen to everyone play." One of his closest patrons was Gram Parsons, who commissioned a white suit festooned with marijuana leaves, poppies, pills, nude women on the lapels and a giant cross on the back. "Gram and my grandfather were buddies -- he bailed him out [of jail] a few times," says Nudie. "He took him under his wing as his son. And Gram looked up to him as his father figure."
Nudie owns all the family archives, which include original suits, boots, hats and more than 5,000 photos of famous clients. Many of those pictures are on display at Nudie's Custom Java, a Santa Clarita, Calif., coffee shop she opened last fall. "My grandfather always had coffee brewing. Glen Campbell, Marty Robbins, Roger Miller and Roy Rogers, they were always there. I was the one serving the coffee in the shop." She also recently partnered with Johnny Cash Museum owner Bill Miller to open Nudie's Honky Tonk in Nashville.
The bar, set to open in June, will house many of the suits, along with a customized "Nudie Mobile," a 1975 Cadillac Eldorado outfitted with silver dollars and gun door handles that Cohn made. "Before my grandmother died, she handed over the keys to the car and said, 'You're the keeper of all of this.'"
Jenny Lewis' Weed Suit
Working within the tradition of Nudie Cohn, Fort Lonesome founder Kathie Sever is repurposing western wear for a modern audience that includes Jimmy Kimmel (who gifted Bill Murray a bespoke armadillo-embroidered button-down) and Jenny Lewis, who recently celebrated the 10th anniversary of her album Rabbit Fur Coat. "She had a vision of Nudie suit-inspired stagewear," says California native Sever, who once worked on a cattle ranch in Montana and now lives in Austin. "I realized it was this unique national costume that seemed to cross all boundaries. Whether you were an oil guy from Houston or musician from L.A., everybody seems drawn to this aesthetic."