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Cowboys Get Cool by Design : Fashion: Designer Manuel Cuevas and country-Western singer Dwight Yoakam team up to cash in on the demand for stylish Western wear.

November 10, 1989|MICHAEL QUINTANILLA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In his showroom of sequins and serapes, Manuel Cuevas--the clothier of cowboy cool--flips through color glossies of duded up Dwight Yoakam, the country-Western singer.

There's DY in a royal blue CJ--that's designer talk for California Jacket--a 30-year-old jacket style reinvented for Yoakam by Mexican-born Manuel, who is known far and wide by his first name only.

Flip.

Here's DY in a cherry-red CJ.

Flip.

And DY in a CJ that is pure JC--Johnny Cash black.

Because of more than 3,000 phone calls Manuel has received this year about the jacket which Yoakam wore on the album cover, "Hillbilly Deluxe," the two have struck a deal--to give the public what it's hankering for: the CJ as soon as possible.

So this month the Wild West-inspired jacket--a waisted, gabardine number with white piping, pearl snaps and arrowheads on shoulders, sleeves and pockets--goes on sale. But fashion cowpokes can only lasso the $900 jacket at Manuel's North Hollywood shop or in Nashville, where the first in a string of Manuel boutiques opened last month.

"Dwight is definitely a trend-setter. He has made country-Western hip again," Manuel says about the singer he met almost 10 years ago when Yoakam was playing the local club scene.

Manuel is no stranger to Western wear. It's what launched his career 34 years ago when he went to work for Nudie, the legendary Hollywood rodeo tailor, who encouraged Manuel to create costumes and images for celebrities.

So he did.

Manuel contributed his fair share to Elvis' collection of jumpsuits.

He helped along Johnny Cash's image as the man in black.

He designed the marijuana plants on Gram Parker's motorcycle jacket and the raging flames soaring up his jeans' legs.

And he created Linda Ronstadt's silver sequined charro girl costumes for her "Canciones de Mi Padre" tour.

If there's one thing that sets Manuel apart from others it's his sophisticated way of combining strong color with glitz.

And then there is the trust people put in him. His customers seem to place a near-blind faith in Manuel, putting their professional images in his hands, believing that whatever he whips up for them to wear will be right.

"That's partly why I have survived as a designer all these years. People put their trust in me to create something truly unique," he says.

Evidence of that trust is all around him.

"Just look at the walls," says his assistant, Sylvia Paz.

In his airy, hardwood-floored showroom, filled with sofa pillows Manuel hand-stitched himself, Chimayo Indian blankets folded and stacked throughout, and a saddle, the walls are covered with star shots. Rows and rows of photographs of celebrities decked out in dazzling designs by Manuel.

Among them are legends James Dean, Janis Joplin and John Lennon; movie stars Robert Taylor, Marlon Brando and Burt Reynolds; country-Western singers Marty Stuart, Hank Williams Jr. and Glen Campbell, and rockers Keith Richards and David Lee Roth. An extensive filing system stores stars' measurements for boots, hats, suits and gowns, favorite styles and colors.

From Dolly to Dali--that's Dolly Parton and Salvador Dali, he's designed for both--Manuel has whipped up rhinestoned, hand-embroidered boleros and Chimayo Indian topcoats for countless famous folk.

But it's his role as the cutting-edge cowboy consultant to young crooners--like 33-year-old Yoakam--that Manuel likes best.

"I like this new breed of mold breakers," he says about country-Western's rising stars, including Yoakam and K.D. Lang. In Los Angeles or Austin, they eventually end up in front of Manuel's mirror for a fitting.

"They remind me of me when I was getting started in the business," he says.

Born in Michoacan, Mexico, Manuel, 55, immigrated to the United States almost 40 years ago. But he wasn't in search of work. He was in search of self-knowledge.

"I wanted to learn more about life. I wanted to expand my ideas," he says. And he wanted to explore his sense of design. His oldest brother, a tailor, taught Manuel as a child how to cut patterns and sew up a storm.

When he first arrived in the U.S. Manuel worked for the Sy Devore shops, making suits that didn't excite him. So, after a few months, he moved to Nudie's. Fourteen years ago he branched out on his own.

Today, besides filling celebrities' closets, Manuel still dabbles in designing wardrobes for TV shows, commercials and movies in need of Western duds. His latest movie collaboration was "Back to the Future II." In a Western scene, Michael J. Fox dons a Manuel get-up.

Of his California Jacket venture with Yoakam, Manuel says he hopes the CJ will hit department stores in the next few months. The retail price will be around $300, one-third the price of his showroom garments.

"The jacket is the only item we're playing with right now," Manuel says. "We're thinking about other things, but we can't say what. It all depends on how this does. You have to get a feel for the market and see the results, but we're hoping it works."

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