"You'd have to have known him at the beginning," explains the gregarious designer. "He was very sinister looking. I told him, 'You should wear just black.' And, oh, when he did, he looked like a count."
Manuel, whose first name is his trademark, says he put Clint Eastwood in dirty canvas for Sergio Leone's Hang 'Em High and A Fistful of Dollars. He has dressed Lennon, Joplin, Jagger and Dylan. But if he's bound for immortality, it will be as the undisputed king of country costuming. "To me, the purest expression of America is country music," he says. "It's about people smiling, dancing, enjoying music. It's the real essence of life."
The gratitude of the stars is reflected in the tributes scribbled on 8x10 glossies adorning the walls of the three-story Victorian house in Nashville where Manuel and a staff of 16 whip up his one-of-a-kind creations. (Emmylou Harris: "Thanks for all the great duds! Happy Trails.") Manuel's specialty, the eye-popping jacket—often bedecked with as many as 15,000 rhinestones—can cost upward of $15,000. When a young singer full of dreams but with empty pockets comes into the shop, though, Manuel sometimes designs gratis. If the singer becomes a star, the price goes up. Marty Stuart carried a Manuel tab for years before establishing himself financially. Since then, Stuart says with a smile, "he shows no mercy."
Manuel does show uncanny intuition and command. Linda Ronstadt once ordered a black skirt; Manuel made her a white dress. Nervy? "Either you're an artist or you're not," he declares. Terry McBride recently ordered a jacket, explaining what he wanted. "But Manuel had his own ideas," McBride says. "He just said, Trust me, trust me, trust me.' "
There's a method to Manuel's manifestos. "I have to figure out who they are before I can design," he says. "I have to see them perform, hear who their heroes are." Manuel had Dwight Yoakam bring in photos of himself as a young boy. "You know what he looked like? A proud little peacock. I said, 'Look at this. This is who you are.' And so I made clothes to match that Dwight."
Who, then, is Manuel? He was born Manuel Cuevas in Coalcomán, Mexico, sometime between 1933 and 1938 (he claims the latter). He started sewing at age 7 and working in a tailor's shop at 12. He moved to the U.S. in the mid-'50s, eventually becoming chief designer for the famed Los Angeles western-wear clothier Nudie. Fourteen years later, Manuel opened his own shop in L.A., then in 1989 moved to Nashville to be nearer his fanatically loyal clientele. Twice divorced and the father of three, he lives on a bucolic, 26-acre estate that he calls Manuel's Mountain.
Country stars tend to cluster around him there. More than a designer, Manuel is friend, father figure and therapist. In 1987, he tricked Marty Stuart into playing mannequin for a black leather suit the then-struggling singer coveted. Asked how it fit, Stuart said, "It's a little big in the shoulders." "No," replied the master, "you just have to stand a bit taller and walk with your head up."