Naked talent

Gram Parsons' unique suits told the story of his life, his music and even his death. John Robinson uncovers the art of Nudie Cohn, country's couture king

The legend, by now, is hard to ignore. Thanks to the records and the magazine retrospectives, you'll know about the songs. After the movie and the documentary film, you'll know about the life and the mysterious death. In 1969, though, if you wanted to know about the lifestyle of country singer Gram Parsons, you could find it plainly depicted on his suit.

The pills, the bottles, a huge cross, two naked women on the lapels... it is, by popular consensus, the Sistine Chapel ceiling of cowboy attire. "I was with the band when they picked up the suits," recalls photographer Jim McCrary, who did the photo session of the Flying Burrito Brothers for which the clothes had been commissioned. "Gram was especially delighted."

But as much as the image helped to cement Parsons as an icon - the suits appeared on the cover of the band's Gilded Palace Of Sin LP - it also helped celebrate another: the "Nudie suit", and its maker, Nudie Cohn.

As punk had Westwood, so from the 1940s until his death in 1984, the world of country and western music had Nudie. On the walls of his Nudie's Rodeo Tailors shop on Lankershim Boulevard in North Hollywood, photographs of the man with his clients beamed down celebrity endorsement of the very heaviest kind. John Wayne. Roy Rogers. Elvis Presley, for whom he designed the notorious $10,000 gold lame suit.

Since then, the fascination has extended into the modern rock era, with Beck and REM's Mike Mills (who owns 10 suits) both collectors of - and performers in - Nudie's flamboyant, highly-detailed garments.

Huge names, certainly, but among Nudie's talents was a genius for publicity that ensured his own remarkable story has been as skilfully embroidered as any of his lapels. What is tolerably certain, however, is this: on his arrival in the United States at Ellis Island in 1911, a customs official mishears the name of bootmaker's son Nuta Kotlyarenko, writes it down as "Nudie", and accidentally gives rise to a name which will accompany him for his professional life.

From his New York arrival, like the most ardent of the pioneers, the boy now known as Nudie Cohn made an irresistible progression westward. Moving to California with the intention of becoming a boxer, he ended up an extra and costume-maker. Hitching back east to visit his family in the early 1930s, he became waylaid in Minnesota, and there met his wife Bobbie. Back in New York, they opened a store together: "Nudie's For The Ladies", making customised underwear for showgirls.

An unhelpful dust is occasionally kicked up around the Nudie narrative - his granddaughter, Jamie Nudie, has discovered he spent a short spell in prison for running drugs, for a $5 fee - but after a while the trail becomes clearer.

In 1947, Nudie and his family arrived in California. It was here that Nudie's life's work began in earnest. Tailors such as Nathan Turk and Viola Grae experimented with ostentatious designs, but it was Nudie's talent to match his ambitions for performers' clothing with a spiel as impossible to ignore.

He talked bandleader Tex Williams into auctioning a horse to fund his first sewing machine, and used it to start an empire making customised clothes that made specific reference to the artist who wore them.

"Here is a guy who got macho cowboy types in the middle of the 20th century to dress in outrageous rhinestones and embroidery," says Jamie Nudie. "It was crazy - absolutely beautiful, but nuts. We like to say Nudie was the King Of Bling."

His was a gaudy, flabbergastingly literal vision for the Hollywood cowboy. The first to put rhinestones on clothing, he put Lefty Frizzell's initials on his sleeves, covered Hank Williams with musical notes, and for Porter Wagoner designed a trademark outfit.

"It was this beautiful peach-coloured suit with rhinestones all over it," Wagoner remembered. "A covered wagon on the back of it, and wagon wheels going down the legs." Nudie's sound business thinking meant Wagoner got the suit free. As much as it provided publicity for the singer, it was just as prominent an advertisement for his own talents.

A genius at self-promotion, Nudie's appetite for publicity ran all the way from the eccentric to the outlandish. On his feet, he would wear dissimilar boots, to remember his humble beginnings when he couldn't afford a new pair of shoes. He would drive to poor areas, distributing dollar bills on which his face had been stickered over that of George Washington. "When you get sick of looking at me," he'd say, "just rip it off and spend it."

How he drove there was the most prominent display of all - the "Nudie Mobile". A series of 18 Cadillac convertibles, these were cars customised in the same overwhelming fashion as his clothes. The classic model incorporated a dashboard studded with silver dollars, pistol door handles and, in the rear, a saddle-style seat. For maximum length, it was extended with the horns of the longhorn steer. It added a whole new meaning to pay and display.

On the Nudie lot in Van Nuys, the Nudie Mobile found a more suitable home. Divided into three sections ("off the peg", "boots" and "custom"), the huge store was the centre of Nudie business from its opening in 1963 to its closure 31 years later. With one of the cars minding the rear, the front boasted two large plastic horses mounted on wheels.

Inside, there was a stage on which local bands would play, or on occasion, on which Nudie would play, accompanying himself on the mandolin. "It's hard to separate his designs from his life," says Jamie Nudie. "He was living a life of his own design."

This was truly an empire built in one man's image. It was not however, built solely on his talents - Nudie's second-in-command, Manuel Cuevas, is remembered as warmly as the man himself. Now the undisputed king of country costume, his Manuel Exclusive Clothier has kept alive the Nudie tradition of flamboyant attire.

Fittingly, however, this being country music, the story of Nudie and Manuel speaks of great devotion, but ends sadly, and in Nashville. A tailor for Sinatra and his rat pack, in 1962 Manuel joined Nudie because he had tired of making penguin suits for wisecracking veterans.

"My thing was colours," he has said, and with Nudie he used them. Stylistically, and personally, he had found a home. He married Nudie's daughter, Barbara, and worked on commissions including the Wagoner and Parsons suits.

In the mid-1970s, however, he divorced from Barbara, and it transpired that a working relationship between the men was no longer tenable. Manuel departed for Nashville, the centre of his client base, to leave Nudie at the head of an empire with its true glory days now behind it.

The momentum of the legend, of course, kept things ticking over well into the 1990s, and keeps a thriving nostalgia business going still. Cowboy fashion has been honoured in American exhibitions, while a new biography by Jamie Nudie emerges to new interest, and no wonder. This was a man who knew the Duke. Who looked after Hank Williams when he was drunk. Whose boots John Lennon wore, and about whose store the Gram Parsons song $1000 Wedding was written.

And whose funeral was attended by 800 people, most of them wearing suits bearing his name and his lassoing cowgirl label. Even in death, evidently, Nudie was assured of a way to be larger than life.

· Gram Parsons - Fallen Angel, Friday, 10pm, BBC4


John Robinson

The GuardianTramp

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