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A western that is set in New York

The rhinestones are tougher to spot in Manuel Cuevas' new, subtler line.

February 09, 2006|Valli Herman | Times Staff Writer

New York — WHEN you have a clothing line that appeals to rock 'n' roll icons, country-western stars, fine artists and U.S. presidents, you know you're doing something right.

For more than 50 years, Manuel Cuevas has been creating the spangled cowboy couture worn by Elvis (remember the white rhinestone jumpsuit?), the Beatles (in their Sgt. Pepper phase), Dolly Parton, Johnny Cash and the Rolling Stones (the tongue and lips? Cuevas designed them). Presidents Reagan and George W. Bush have owned sequined Manuel jackets. Bob Dylan wore Manuel to meet Pope John Paul II in 1997.

Throughout most of the 1960s and early '70s, Cuevas was the head tailor for Nudie Cohen, whose North Hollywood shop was the source of not just clothing for famous performers, but also of their entire images.

Now Cuevas, 72, and his son, Manuel Cuevas Jr., 33, are finally bringing a portion of that history to the well-heeled public in a new collection named Manuel. On Friday, they will present their men's and women's luxury ready-to-wear at New York Fashion Week.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday March 11, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 27 words Type of Material: Correction
Fashion designer -- An article in the Feb. 9 Calendar Weekend about fashion designer Manuel Cuevas misspelled the last name of cowboy clothier Nudie Cohn as Cohen.

But it's not what you'd expect of the man who famously put Elvis in both a gold lame jacket and the eagle-embroidered, fringed white jumpsuit.

The collection is rather subtle, a surprise considering that Cuevas' custom-tailoring business in Nashville annually buys crystals and sequins by the million-count. Walk into the new Manuel showroom in the heart of New York's garment district and you have to look closely to spot a single rhinestone.

There are touches of cowboy couture -- cavalry jackets, conchas and cowboy shirts -- but they're rendered in black or subtle tones, not the pink, purple and green blasts of stage wear. Instead, the collection is a sophisticated mix of embellished jeans, thick cashmere cable-knit sweaters, topcoats, silk blouses, denim jackets, tuxedo coats, gowns and, OK, some over-the-top python pants.

The denims, which are manufactured in Los Angeles, have either been distressed, pieced, stamped with silver foil or embroidered with marijuana leaves (a nod to the controversial motif Cuevas made for Gram Parsons). The collection also includes rhinestone belts and heavily decorated cowboy boots -- including some with toe caps studded with black crystals.

Such luxury doesn't come cheap. Embellished T-shirts start at about $250, python pants are $5,000, embroidered jeans are $850, and jackets with elaborate trims are $2,000 and up, way up. Though the toned-down glitz in the collection separates it from the showbiz attire that made the Manuel label famous, the new line doesn't stray far from its roots.

"A lot of the romance of the West is in here," says Allen Tucker, a fashion-industry veteran who licensed the brand in August. Tucker, a Dallas resident who held top positions at Calvin Klein, Anne Klein and JC Penney, looked to Europe for fine textiles and exotic skins that help give the collection its polish.

The new Manuel's modern edge also comes from Cuevas Jr., who for 15 years has worked in Nashville with his father as they continue to create custom and off-the-rack looks for stars such as ZZ Top and Aerosmith. Cuevas Jr. said Kid Rock was so taken with the ready-made designs in the Nashville store that he spent $113,000 in one 90-minute shopping session.

With such a strong legacy behind the label, Cuevas Sr. could have branched out into any number of apparel-related ventures. "This was my 16th offer," he says. An earlier attempt to expand the collection ended badly because Cuevas was disappointed in the product and the methods of production.

"I recognize the abuse of labor," Cuevas says. "And I don't like that at all. That's what really scared me, and that is what made me walk away from a lot of conference tables. It's not about money."

The collection was designed to appeal to "adult rich kids, the secretary, the lady executive, the guy that is the CEO and puts some boots on once in a while," Cuevas says. "I'll have clothes for everybody for all occasions. But it will be what my other clothing has been forever, which is just American design, things that relate to the land and our heritage."

Neiman Marcus has already sent an executive to see the line, and representatives from stores in the United Kingdom, Russia, Hong Kong and Mexico City are lined up too. Colette, the trendy Parisian boutique, is planning a special display of the collection.

Evidently, the father-son duo continue to have that certain something that performers love. Cuevas Jr. taps into the sensibility of today's stars to tweak the motifs his father made famous.

"The wagon wheels are still there," Cuevas Jr. says, "but now they've got flames coming out of them."

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