Manuel Cuevas is the man responsible for dressing Elvis in gold, Johnny Cash in black and ensuring that a tongue and pair of lips will forever be associated with The Rolling Stones. But it is only now, thanks to a documentary project by London-based photographer Cambridge Jones, that the spotlight is being turned on the unassuming costumier himself.
He’s been quietly present at some of the most defining moments of popular culture during the 21st century, watching from darkened corners of the wings. His expertise, nimble skill and aesthetic panache have helped create some of the most enduring iconography – and icons – of the age.
Nipping, tucking and stitching from the sidelines, a tailor from a small mountain town in South-West Mexico has outfitted Elvis, The Beatles, Johnny Cash, Salvador Dali, Bob Dylan, Dolly Parton, Burt Reynolds, John Wayne, Jimi Hendrix and a host of other talents in his particular brand of showmanship style. You may not have heard of Manuel Arturo José Cuevas Martínez Sr, but you certainly know his work.
From Elvis’ white suit to The Beatles’ Sgt Pepper jackets, his designs are almost as iconic as their wearers. Which is what drew London-based photographer Cambridge Jones to embark on a project that has spanned ten years and created an friendship with the man who finessed the image of the biggest stars.
“What appealed to me was the fact that here we have one of the most extraordinary stories that has never been told,” says Jones, who himself is no stranger to working with celebrities to create a particular image or sense of iconography, having captured everyone from Queen Elizabeth II, Prince Charles and Nelson Mandela to Bill Clinton, Al Pacino and Sir Anthony Hopkins.
Who is Manuel Cuevas?
While on assignment in New York, a PR agency tempted Jones down to Nashville with the tantalising offer to introduce him to “the most famous man you’ve never heard of”. Curiosity piqued, Jones then began what would become a decade-long project to film Manuel Cuevas and unpick the seams of his fascinating story. And in particular, why no-one has told it until now.
From Elvis’ white suit to The Beatles’ Sgt Pepper jackets, his designs are
almost as iconic as their wearers
“What I found exceptional was that, while others might have attempted to cash in or build themselves into a brand, Manuel has never had any interest in that. What’s extraordinary is that he is not a businessman, he’s interested in the craft and expertise of tailoring. That’s his main thrust,” says Jones.
And as for his exceptional life and relationships with some of the biggest star names of the modern world, Jones says, “just when you think ‘hold on, this can’t be the real deal, someone’s pulling my leg here’, another piece of the puzzle is corroborated or proved and you realise that he’s been introduced to the kid who would go on to be Elvis, or disputed the tongue and lips logo with Mick Jagger, which would go on to become The Rolling Stones’ emblem”.
It’s perhaps all the more incredible when one considers Manuel’s background. Born in 1933 in an unremarkable mountain town, he was raised by his uncle, who taught him to make clothes. He worked in various businesses before embarking on a move to LA to begin work with the renowned tailor Sy Devore, who outfitted the Rat Pack in their impeccable, sharp suiting. Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr and Frank Sinatra all found themselves attired in tailoring cut and crafted by Cuevas, even if it was the Sy Devore name on the label. Going to meet Nudie Cohn, the “Rodeo Tailor” known at the time for his lavish, bejewelled and theatrical attire, Cuevas began working for him and the Hollywood studios that courted his business for their costume departments.
Manuel Cuevas – Movies and Music
After working with acclaimed Oscar-winning costume designer Edith Head (where he tempted Clint Eastwood into a fringed poncho – that Mexican influence rearing its head), Cuevas set his sights on the music scene of Nashville, Tennessee and relocated his business there.
His trademark sense of showmanship, bravado and take-no-prisoners theatricality – with perhaps a dash of swaggering vulgarity thrown in for good measure – immediately struck a cord with the country and western scene there. It’s a signature style that Jones terms “rhinestones and roses”, with skulls and other emblems, floral motifs, metallic surfaces and richly embroidered and embellished touches over suiting. But despite the high-octane aesthetics, the execution, says Jones, is what is paramount to Manuel Cuevas. “He thinks of himself first and foremost as a tailor, which is why, even if he’s asked to make something by a very famous person, if he doesn’t feel that it’s right or will look good, he won’t do it. He’s interested in the material, the stitching, the artisanal quality. And that’s similar to how I feel about my own profession: I’m interested in getting the shot right, whether that’s on a farm somewhere or shooting a president.”
And while the visual impact of Cuevas’ pieces can’t be underestimated, to ones, there’s a curious alchemy as to the timing over precisely when a star is drawn to the tailor. “He meets people as they are on the cusp of going to that next level. Perhaps it’s because a performer has read about him, is about to break into the big time and thinks that they’ve reached a stature where they can pull off one his suits,” says Jones.
The King Maker
Another factor is cost. Given that one custom-made suit can run to tens of thousands of pounds, it’s the performers who have already made a start in their career that have the funds to afford one of his creations. Likewise, the boldness of his suits means that they aren’t the kind of attire one slips on for a recital: lavish stage performances and grand awards ceremonies are the setting for these pieces. Hence Cuevas’ moniker of “The King Maker”.
As for Cuevas’ relationship with his clients, it’s telling that many of them went on to become lifelong friends. He was, famously, the person who put Johnny Cash in black when Cash asked him to create three suits, and Manuel did so in uniformed black because he felt it would “look good”. He was a close comrade of the music icon until he died in 2003 (Cuevas was one of the few people bar family allowed to see him in his final weeks). And his proximity to fame also has parallels with Jones’ own experiences.
You’re too cool to fool
“We’ve had many, many chats about the nature of fame,” says Jones. “I think we both reached the conclusion that, while we’re involved in that world, we’re glad not to be the subject of it ourselves.” Both, says Jones, are able to work so successfully with presidents, movie stars and rock icons for the very reason that they are unfazed by their star wattage and focus on seeing the person behind the persona.
“I think in both our mediums, we have to get to know the real person. Manuel, quite literally, because he has to get to know their measurements, etc,” says Jones. “And it’s also integral to what I do. Then there’s the fact that both of us want someone to look their best and get the best out of them, whether that’s through cut of cloth or through the way they’re photographed. It’s in their interests to work well with both of us in terms of what they want to get out of it; to look good.”
Similarly, Manuel Cuevas’ refusal to treat the clients he works with as the demi-gods they are generally revered as, has built up the most trusting and solid
of relationships. “What’s striking is that celebrities will, at an event, line up to have their photo taken with Manuel. Not the other way around. He’s incredibly well regarded and liked. Possibly because he treats them just like everybody else.” Which is not to say that some curious incidents have not occurred in his dealings with super-egos in the past. We’ll perhaps leave it to Jones’ film to reveal the occasional spats that have occurred, but disputes about the origins of The Beatles’ jackets, about who created the lips emblem for The Rolling Stones and about who rendered the final, final version of Elvis’ gold suit just serve to add to the richness of the stories.
Fame – What’s Your Name?
But then Cuevas has never chased fame himself nor pursued the notion of becoming a “brand”. “I don’t think it’s something he’d even give thought to,” says Jones. “He’d never think of himself as a fashion designer. I think he’d put himself somewhere between a costumier and a tailor.” But his is a form of couture, highlighted by the Manuel Couture name of the company.
For now, Jones continues to make trips to Nashville to visit Cuevas and build on the narrative of his documentary, making the pilgrimage to the designer’s unassuming HQ on the city’s Broadway. And each time, another nugget is unravelled, another tale unwinds over a stiff shot of tequila.
Be that the time that a pre-fame John Travolta found his way to Cuevas’ Hollywood store and said he wanted to look like a cowboy. Cuevas sold him
a bandana and, decades later, was told by Travolta that the same bandana still hung over his bed as a symbol of making it in Hollywood. Or when Brandon Flowers found a pair of gold shoes in a vintage store and began researching gold suits. He stumbled upon Elvis’ suit and sought out the man who had made the original.
And so on and so on, from presidents who longed to dress like Eisenhower to the time when music manager Colonel Parker asked Cuevas to take the measurements of a kid he thought might do well, who, as it turned out, was Elvis. The stories, documented so diligently by Jones, keep stitching another place in fashion history, the garments revealing insights as animated as their bauble-like rhinestones. ML
Find out more about Manuel Cuevas here: manuelcouture.com