NASHVILLE — Wrapped in tissue paper, tucked inside envelopes, rhinestones arrive here from Austria for the last of the great rodeo tailors.
Manuel is white-haired now, and the age of the spangled cowhand has given way to the kind of celebrities who wear jeans and T-shirts. But inside his studio the work continues: hot-pink roses embroidered along the length of an eggshell pant leg; scarlet cuffs attached to a turquoise Western shirt; dazzling white crystals studding the back of a royal-blue bolero.
For the last 50 years, Manuel -- who uses only one name -- has been outfitting tough men in sparkly outfits. After emigrating from Mexico in the mid-1950s, he had a hand in creating such cultural icons as the black-clad Johnny Cash, the Grateful Dead's skull-and-rose design and, according to some accounts, the lolling tongue logo of the Rolling Stones.
Last week, Nashville's Frist Center for the Visual Arts opened an exhibition titled "Manuel: Star-Spangled Couture." Sewn onto Manuel's clothes are glimpses of Spanish Baroque painting, Rat Pack glamour and the flotsam of his American experience.
"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?"
The great cowboy image-makers, it turns out, were not who you'd expect.
When Manuel Arturo Jose Martinez Cuevas arrived in Hollywood, the apprentice tailor from a little town in Mexico joined a circle of Western-wear gurus who had emigrated from Russia or Eastern Europe. Rodeo Ben was born Bernard Lichtenstein in Poland; and Nathan Turk started out at age 10 as an apprentice to a tailor in Minsk, Belarus.
Manuel joined the workshop of Nudie Cohn, who outfitted Hollywood gunslingers and rock 'n' rollers in rhinestone wagon wheels and Technicolor fringe. Cohn, who was from Brooklyn, N.Y., wore unmatched cowboy boots -- a reminder, he said, of his deprived childhood; he liked to drive through poor neighborhoods handing out dollar bills with his picture stuck over George Washington's.
"It was Hollywood," said Patricia Mears, a New York fashion historian who is co-curator of the exhibit. The tailors, she said, "followed that long tradition of reinventing themselves."
Manuel's strength is in his effortless freehand design (Katy K compared it to watching Fred Astaire dance) 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. He sewed licking flames onto his daughter Morelia's pants when she was in elementary school, to her embarrassment, she recalled.
Manuel left California in 1986, driving east with his sewing machines to Nashville, a place that offered a quieter life and the extravagant pageantry of the Grand Ole Opry. 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 them 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 Cash's orders in black. When Linda Ronstadt asked for black, she got a spectacular rainbow of flowers.
Manuel refuses to ever duplicate a garment -- a matter of principle that caused friction with Dave Stewart, the guitarist for the Eurythmics, who begged for another jacket for a treasured white suit Manuel had made him. In the end Manuel sewed it for him, in black, recalled Linda Dyer, an art historian and close friend in Nashville.
Divorced three times, Manuel travels with such an entourage of beautiful women that Trey Fanjoy, who made a documentary about him for the exhibition, described the tailor as "the Hugh Hefner of Nashville." Manuel wears a trademark scarf around his neck, and has only a vague idea about what kind of car he drives. Although his biography on his website 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 tuxedos for Frank Sinatra and the Rat Pack; he breaks down star power this way: "60% image, 30% packaging, and 10% talent."
"I was lecturing a set of students at the University of Oklahoma," he said. "One of them said: 'How can you physically describe image?' I said: 'Say you and I are sitting in a train station and in comes a nun. You and I are gentlemanlike guys, and one of us stands up to offer her a seat. Unbeknownst to us, she's a prostitute and a pickpocket. What moved us to rise up? An image.' "