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Meet the Man Who Made Elvis’ Signature Gold Suit

Manuel Cuevas has dressed presidents, athletes, artists, and created the wardrobes of more than 90 movies.

Freunde von Freunden is an independent and international publication documenting inspiring people from diverse creative and cultural backgrounds. Through online interviews, videos, mixtapes, and studio visits, from Istanbul to Seoul, FvF documents the lives of global creatives. In their latest 'Workplaces' segment, FVF’s Sarah Rowland interviews 82-year-old fashion designer Manuel Cuevas in his Nashville, Tennesse shop.  

Manuel Cuevas isn’t your typical clothing designer. He’s the man who hand-crafted Elvis’ signature gold lamé suit and made Johnny Cash into “The Man in Black,” and he’s sewn clothing for more superstars than he can count—Bob Dylan, James Dean, The Beatles, Frank Sinatra. He casually refers to Marilyn Monroe and Raquel Welch as “his girls,” and he’s responsible for influencing the notorious insignias of both The Rolling Stones and The Grateful Dead. He’s dressed presidents, athletes, dancers, and artists, and he created the wardrobes of more than 90 movies and 13 television shows. Over the years, he’s dressed everybody who was anybody. 

Born in the small town of Coalcomán, Mexico, Manuel’s true fascination with his art form began when he was only seven years old. His older brother, Adolfo, taught him how to sew, and he began making all of his own clothing. When he later moved to Los Angeles, he worked for several tailors, including Sy Devore, who was famously the tailor for The Rat Pack. Soon after, he moved to making costumes at Nudie’s famous western store in Hollywood, where he designed suits for people like Roy Rogers and the Lone Ranger. After working with Nudie’s for 14 years, he relocated to Nashville, Tennessee in the early 80s to continue his work in the music industry.

Today, record companies call on him to help create personas for their artists. He attributes this to the fact that’s he’s not afraid to create what artists need, instead of what they think they need. For more than 50 years, his designs have become iconic statement pieces that personify many musicians, actors, and stars. His Nashville shop is a true facet of the city’s cultural scene and, even more, a piece of American history. Each unique garment is made by hand in his downtown shop, where Manuel shows up for work every single day. 

Freunde von Freuden: What’s the process behind each piece? How do you start a new design?

Manuel Cuevas: I know how to do every damn thing you see in this shop. I design everything, I do the drawings by hand, I do the sewing and stones and leather. We start with something that’s like a drawing. I draw it out on paper first by hand, and then it becomes a sketch of what we embroider. On my new one I’m doing today, I have this skeleton sketch. See, here! The skeleton is smoking a little grass! So then we take the drawings, and we puncture them into the fabric. We draw the back part of the jacket, the sleeves, the front and the bottom all on paper. Then we perforate. When it’s perforated, it gets little speckles on the fabric. It’s done with a hammer. You’ve got to have imagination for this. Then we use the rhinestone machine. We embroider. We put it all together. Yes siree—it’s like magic! 

Read Sarah Rowland's entire interview for Freunde von Freunden here

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