If Tom Mix got out of his grave and saw my clothes,” Nudie says proudly, “he’d get back in again.” Nudie, whose real name is a closely guarded secret, is the 73-year-old, Brooklyn-raised court tailor to the ever-growing Hollywood rhinestone cowboy set. He splashes gold lamé and glitter over Country & Western stars and creates boots for the executive cowpoke out of lizard, rattlesnake and ostrich skins. Nudie’s boast: “Some of the stuff could blind you.”
All that glitters in C&W is not Nudie’s, but his clients include heavyweights from Charlie Rich, Merle Haggard and Porter Wagoner (whose outfits are often embroidered with silver wagon wheels) to Tammy Wynette and Loretta Lynn (fringed pastel jumpsuits). Nudie has also corralled some rock groups like the Byrds, the New Riders of the Purple Sage and the Grateful Dead. Diana Ross bought a lavender suit embellished with rhinestones and silver appliqué not long ago. Another favorite customer is the Duke, John Wayne. But, says Nudie, “His clothes are working Western, not fancy Western.”
Nudie’s prices are as outlandish as his gringauche fashions. Western singer Judy Lynn’s wardrobe of Nudie originals cost her more than $300,000. Elvis Presley’s famous gold lamé suit ran $10,000, and the cheapest custom outfit in Nudie’s repertoire is a plain denim number for $500.
His personal insignia—lavish but unmatched boots—is a reminder of his beginnings as the son of a poor cobbler in Brooklyn. “I used to wear rags around my feet in the winter,” he recalls, until a sympathetic lady gave him two warm boots of different sizes and styles. Nudie started his working life as a free-lance boxer (“at stag parties, $1 for three rounds”) and a self-proclaimed but unskilled tailor. He lost one job after another, “but I learned a bit more about tailoring each time,” he says, “until I was a tailor, as good as any in the world.”
Broke and hitchhiking across the country in 1932, he met his bride-to-be, Bobbie, in a Mankato, Minn. boarding-house. The newlyweds’ first business together was in New York, making G-strings for show girls. Eventually the couple moved to L.A., and in 1946 the Nudies went into business for themselves—”in our garage, without even a sewing machine.”
Tex Williams was the Nudies’ first big customer. He gave them a horse and saddle, which Nudie sold for $135 and bought a Singer. Later an oil millionaire threw a “suit party” for some 75 friends in Houston, and Nudie collected $28,000—enough to stake his first shop. His present North Hollywood haberdashery has a staff of 21, including Bobbie and her two sisters.
The Nudies live near the store, close to their daughter and two grandchildren. An unabashed round-the-clock promoter, he drives a Cadillac gaudily decorated with pistol door handles, backseat saddle embedded with silver dollars and a Longhorn-steer hood ornament. (“Bobbie is always begging me,” Nudie admits, “can’t we take her car instead.”)
Nudie has no intention of toning down his act. Although the Western film epics he used to costume aren’t being made anymore, the business of outfitting riders for parades (like the Rose Parade) is booming, and among weekend cowboys, flash is smash. “Western is an American custom,” Nudie declares, “going all the way back to cowboys and Indians.”