Word to the Guise: Manuel Cuevas

Wearing his signature kerchief knotted around his neck, dressed in black, Manuel appears from the back of his studio. He is a portrait of white teeth and impeccable posture; a shock of white hair juxtaposed against skin the color of aged, light russet leather.

“What do you want to do with me?” Manuel asks us, grinning.

A man of inimitable style and talent, Manuel Cuevas embodies a rare dichotomy of humility and genius. Tremendously famous for creating fashion history— responsible for dressing Johnny Cash in black suits, and Elvis in gold lamé—he is immediately unaffected, warm, and hysterically funny. We’re soon swept behind red curtains and guided by Manuel upstairs, breathing in literal decades of history marked by fabric scraps, sequins, and dust.

In his shop, Manuel’s spirit is seemingly boundless. He is spryly showing us up two flights of stairs, around dressing and sewing rooms; he is nimbly flicking the lights on and off with a steel measuring stick taller than all of us combined. He is telling us dirty jokes and singing in Spanish as he walks, then cursing at a set of Venetian blinds he’s trying to raise, soon wrapping their cord around his own, likely priceless, embroidered curtains. Everything is spoken in charming, lightly accented English. We are smitten within the first five minutes.

Though responsible for such iconic pop art as the Grateful Dead’s insignia of a skull and roses, as well as cementing the Rolling Stones’ logo of a mouth and lips, Manuel is overwhelmingly modest. He never name-drops; when prompted about his favorite design, he answers smiling vaguely,  “Maybe a pair of Levi’s.” He then laughs.

“To meet a prostitute, a beggar, the president—they are all the same to me. Most of my clients are good friends of mine; there’s no other way.”

Artifacts line the white walls and dark oak floors of Manuel’s studio—mostly gifts from past clients and photographs of his couture, gathered over the twenty-three years he’s inhabited the studio on Broadway. A guitar here, a painting there, celebrity notes and portraiture abound, though Manuel references none of them. “Sometimes the most humble settings are the most rewarding, and that has always been the embodiment of my career.”

Referencing the city outside his Midtown windows, he notes, “Nashville is surprisingly artistic. It’s becoming beautifully mixed, but retains its laid-back quality.” He pauses for a moment, gesturing outside with his hands. “Fashion here—women here—are much more beautiful. In the big cities you see a sway of the hips, a promiscuity. Here you see beauty. And people here adore beautiful clothes.”

Manuel claps his hands, speaking with infectious, effortless charisma about his past. Designing from a young age, he cites fate, not fame, as what drew him into the industry. “When I was seven, I sewed my first pair of pants. It was sweet serendipity, getting into fashion, more than anything else.”

His voice lowers slightly. “I’ve never had a sad day in my life working here. I love it.” Manuel says, eyes twinkling. “It was never a struggle. Do you believe that?”

We pause, taking in all of the collective manifestations of his life sitting with us in the studio. The suits, the celebrities—the totality of his handiwork, his history. We look at each other. Nod. “Yes,” we say. And we know it’s true.

Photos by: Heidi Jewell

Interview by: Anna Arata

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