Most young singers trying to make it big in Nashville yearn for the day they can afford an outfit by Manuel. When they finally do land an appointment with the 68-year-old designer, they better have the right attitude. “These kids say they are just little country boys or girls,” says Manuel, who has built his empire on all that glitters. “And I say, ‘Go back to the farm and bake biscuits!’ You can’t bring that to the big time. You need rhinestones to make you a star.”
He may have a point. For more than 40 years, Manuel—he uses one name—has been puttin’ on the glitz. He has designed bell-bottom jumpsuits fit for a King—Elvis—made Glen Campbell a rhinestone cowboy and covered Linda Ronstadt in embroidered roses. Says Dwight Yoakam, who owns 50 Manuel boleros: “He helped me realize the vision I had of myself onstage.”
Now a new slew of country stars, including Brad Paisley, Trisha Year-wood and keith urban, are turning to Manuel to help define their fashion style. “His clothes feel like sex and money,” says urban, who wore Manuel’s cream-colored, Sept. 11th-inspired suit—the words “strength” and “freedom” were stitched on it in brown—to last year’s Country Music Association Awards. “Who doesn’t want to feel like that?”
The clothes don’t just look like money. A long black gabardine coat hanging in Manuel’s Nashville studio displays 25 embroidered red roses and costs $2,500. Shirts start at $750, and suits range from $2,500 to $25,000. For regular mortals who want to satisfy their inner Porter Wagoner, there’s a somewhat more affordable, ready-to-wear line, the Manuel Collection, available at stores like Dillard’s, with shirts and coats from $295 to $975. “Not everyone is an entertainer,” says Manuel, whose collection sales alone hit $3 million last year.
“It’s all about workmanship,” says Lisa Eisner, author of Rodeo Girl, a photographic ode to western wear. “With Manuel you know somebody sat there and put the beading on. It’s a lost art.”
The fifth of 12 children born in Coalcomán, Mexico, to grain-and-cattle merchant Jose Guadalupe Cuevas and his wife and assistant, Esperanza, Manuel Martinez Cuevas learned to sew at age 7. “I began making my own clothes,” he says.
After graduating from the University of Guadalajara in 1955 with a degree in psychology, he moved to California. There he worked for a Hollywood tailor, outfitting Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr. and Frank Sinatra, who, he recalls, “once tipped me $1,000.”
There was just one problem. “I wasn’t happy making suits that were so funeral-like,” he says. So in 1960 Manuel sought out the legendary Nudie Cohn, who created cowboy couture for stars like Roy Rogers and Dale Evans. He worked for Cohn for 14 years and even married the boss’s daughter Barbara in 1966. They have a child, Morelia, now 33 and Manuel’s administrator. When the couple divorced in 1972, Manuel and Nudie fell out as well; two years later Manuel started his own western-wear boutique, moving it to Nashville in 1989.
Manuel’s love life became as busy as one of his designs. A 1974 affair produced son Manny, 27, a tailor; daughter Jesse, from Manuel’s 1986 marriage to teacher Susan Cavitch, is 15; and he is now in divorce proceedings with Renee McKinley, 37, a seamstress he wed four months ago.
These days he can be found after hours dancing the mambo at Nashville nightclubs—”I get two or three invitations daily,” he says, “and I tell them, ‘Put down Manuel plus 10 women’ “—or relaxing in his four-bedroom farmhouse outside the city. Just don’t ask him about retirement. “I haven’t anything to retire from!” he says. “What I do is what I love. I’ll croak with the scissors in my hand.”
Beverly Keel in Nashville