Wrapped in tissue paper, tucked inside envelopes, rhinestones arrive from Austria for the last of the great rodeo tailors. Manuel is white-haired now, and the age of the spangled...
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Wrapped in tissue paper, tucked inside envelopes, rhinestones arrive from Austria for the last of the great rodeo tailors.
Manuel is white-haired now, and the age of the spangled cowboy has given way to the kind of celebrities who wear jeans and T-shirts. But inside his studio, the work continues: pink roses embroidered along the length of an eggshell pant leg; scarlet cuffs attached to a turquoise Western shirt; white crystals studding the back of a royal blue bolero.
Manuel — who uses only one name — has been outfitting tough men in sparkly outfits for 50 years. After immigrating from Mexico in the mid-1950s, he had a hand in creating cultural icons such as the black-clad Johnny Cash and the Grateful Dead’s skull-and-rose design.
Nashville’s Frist Center for the Visual Arts last week opened “Manuel: Star-Spangled Couture,” which features 50 elaborately worked jackets celebrating each of the United States. Sewn into Manuel’s clothes are glimpses of Spanish Baroque painting, Rat Pack glamour and the flotsam of his American experience.
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“I’ve always thought his clothes were a work of art,” said Katy K, a Western-wear designer and collector in Nashville. “Everyone can do horseshoes and cattle, but a cheese steak? Or an oyster?”
Manuel’s strength was in his effortless freehand design and in gorgeous, sometimes macabre embroidery like the richly worked skull — with one sparkling red eye and one sparkling green eye — that appears on a pale gray suit he made in 1956.
Manuel left California in 1986, driving east with his sewing machines to Nashville. In a two-story Victorian house on Broadway, Manuel built a following so reverent that it was routine for him to listen quietly to an artist’s request for a particular garment, smile benevolently and then make something completely different.
“That’s when I like them,” Manuel said. “Because I can discover something in their character. I say, ‘I can make something of this person. I can surprise this person. I can give this person a gift in exchange for their money.’ “
It was in this way, Manuel said, that he began sewing all of Cash’s orders in black. When Linda Ronstadt asked for black, she received spectacular rainbow flowers.
Manuel refuses to duplicate a garment — a matter of principle that caused friction with Dave Stewart, guitarist for the Eurythmics, who begged for a new jacket for a treasured white suit Manuel had made for him. In the end, Manuel sewed it for him, in black, recalled Linda Dyer, an art historian and close friend in Nashville.
Married and divorced three times, Manuel travels with such an entourage of beautiful women that Trey Fanjoy, who made a documentary about him for the exhibit, described the tailor as “the Hugh Hefner of Nashville.”
Manuel wears a trademark scarf, and has only a vague idea about what kind of car he drives. Although biographical text on his Web site describes him as 70, Manuel gives his age as 66, saying that he likes the way the two sixes fit together.
He believes in the power of a persona, and is worried by the emergence of a generation of recording artists who dress, as he puts it, like auto mechanics. As a young man, Manuel made tuxedoes for Frank Sinatra and the Rat Pack; he breaks down star power this way: “60 percent image, 30 percent packaging and 10 percent talent.”
But in the middle of all the pageantry, there are moments when Manuel looks at his work and sees a distant past.
Five years ago, his son persuaded him to visit the family homestead in the village of Coalcoman, where he grew up the fifth of 12 children. They picked through the tumbledown house, and he came across a wooden chair engraved with a flower. It was a flower — he realized — that he had sewn onto clothing for actors and musicians, millionaires and would-be millionaires, part of a cowboy fantasy that seemed nothing but American.