King of Cowboy Couture : Designer Rides High With Western Clothes
When Jerry Cohn realized his wardrobe would not be complete without a pair of denim boots, he did not think twice about where to go–he took his unusual request to his designer of the last 10 years, Manuel.
“It was my idea,” said Cohn, who manages the careers of such stars as Barbara Stanwyck, Cesar Romero and Rose Marie. “I said, ‘I’ve got a great idea . . . How about making me a pair of denim boots?’ But he’d already thought of it on his own. He pulled out a pair and said, ‘You mean like these?’ ”
“Everyone who sees my Levi boots says, ‘Gee, what a great idea!’ ” said Cohn, who paid $800 to fulfill his sartorial fantasy.
Manuel, who uses no last name, is renowned among fanciers of Western-style clothing. The 55-year-old designer, working out of his North Hollywood store that bears his name, has put together wardrobes for such high-profile entertainers as Johnny Cash, Dwight Yoakum, Randy Travis and Emmylou Harris. Sylvester Stallone and Bob Dylan have purchased his brightly colored jackets, made from Indian blankets.
“People don’t realize that they’ve been wearing Western clothes all along–jeans and Levi jackets are all Western-American clothes,” Manuel said. “The American heritage, the settlers, the Army, the real Indian costumes, the weavings and patterns. I have absorbed all this and put it on the clothing. I try to follow the American tradition.”
Manuel, who was born in Michoacan, Mexico, said he started sewing “odd ends and shirts” when he was 8. When he moved to this country 34 years ago, he went to work for men’s clothier Sy Devore.
“I started working in several of Sy Devore’s shops,” he said, “but he made nothing but the regular clothes. Nothing got fancier than the regular suits. I was looking for something more than that.”
After just a few months with Sy Devore, he went to work for a North Hollywood-based clothing designer named Nudi, who specialized in Western clothing. “Country and Western was Nudi’s clientele,” Manuel said. “He used embroidery and rhinestones. I incorporated a little more than he had. It gave the clothes a more sophisticated look.”
While working at Nudi’s, Manuel started to create movie costumes. He clothed the characters in movies such as “Myra Breckenridge,” “Xanadu” and “Rhinestone,” but said the work was not satisfying. “I don’t like to deal with the character of the so-called movie star. Sometimes my way of thinking interfered with that. I don’t believe in ego stuff. I believe in professionalism.”
Manuel left Nudi’s 14 years ago to set up his own shop. And in the past few years, he has phased out of movie costuming entirely.
He looks askance at Americans who wear imported, European-tailored clothing. “I don’t think Americans should wear Italian- or French-made suits,” he said. “Those people are built so differently. When Americans wear those clothes, they look like they’ve been wrapped like a mummy.”
In addition to traditional materials such as cotton, wool, denim, silk, suede and leather, Manuel also uses blankets made by New Mexico’s Chimayo Indians. Manuel turns them into striking coats that sell for $4,000 and up. “Bob Dylan has a $7,500 jacket made out of one of these blankets, Sylvester Stallone has one, too,” he said.
Manuel also sells sterling silver jewelry embedded with turquoise, coral or rubies; hand-tooled belts; hand-embroidered or hand-tooled leather or fabric boots; and blouses, shirts, jackets, dresses, and suits that are usually embroidered, fringed or trimmed with rhinestones. Prices range from $200 to four figures.
Store Shows Style
His open, airy store, with its blond hardwood floors, provides more evidence of his sense of style. Manuel embroidered the pillows that are artfully tossed on the sand-colored couches. He also fringed and tooled Indian designs into the store’s smattering of antique chairs and he painted the Western mural on a partition near the back of the store. “I did do a couple of chairs for Johnny Cash, and for Elvis,” he said, “but I prefer to do clothes and jewelry. Really, the chairs and pillows are just for myself, to liven up the store.”
The walls are covered with gold records sent by singing celebrities and rows and rows of photographs of smiling celebrities in Manuel-designed outfits. “I made the first Western suit that John Lennon ever wore,” he said.
Clients arrange to meet with Manuel in his store by appointment only. And his clothes, like his service, are so personalized that Manuel always makes a point of sewing a label that says “Designed For (blank) By Manuel” into each garment.
Lynn Landon, former wife of actor-producer Michael Landon, has been going to Manuel for 15 years. “I discovered him when he was working at Nudi’s,” she said. “I love his country and Western clothes. If I wear jeans, I’ll have a jacket or coat or vest that’s country and Western. He did the dress I wore when my son got married. It’s a blue silk, then there’s a design in rhinestones on the back of a cropped jacket.”
‘Looks Like Art’
Landon also owns one of Manuel’s Indian blanket coats. “He did an Indian blanket coat for me and added little beads. I wore it in New York City, and people said, ‘Where did you get that coat?’ A lot of people think his work looks like art.”
Manuel is now working on a black Western jacket for Landon. “It’s from a very old design,” she said. “I think to wear it with a little black dress and heels would be fabulous, but it’s also a jacket you could wear with a pair of jeans.”
Cohn said Manuel’s designs fit his casual sense of style. “I wear a lot of boots and jeans and suits,” he said. “He makes my regular suits, and he’s also made a tuxedo for me. It’s a velvet jacket with a twill vest, twill slacks and no buttons, no pockets. I wear that with black, patent leather sandals and no socks–that’s my style.”
“I’m very comfortable there in his store. Even if his store were a warehouse, you’d still feel good being there. He makes you feel special.”