We were lucky to have the opportunity to sit with iconic fashion designer Manuel, as he reflected on his experiences in Nashville, his impact on the fashion world, and a life well lived. Here is our remarkable conversation with a remarkable man.
S&E: You’ve worked with so many iconic performers through the years and had a hand in some instantly recognizable fashions – from the Grateful Dead’s lips to fashion for The Beatles to Elvis to Johnny Cash. What have you found to be the most interesting aspect of these legendary performers?
Manuel: My friend Dean Martin always had a cocktail in his hand, but he never drank. It’s the persona. It’s what you project, you know? It’s a very delicate subject for some people. For me, I have an open mind. I can talk one way or the other, and I can change my mind, too. [laughs]
S&E: I have loved what you’ve said before, “I give to them what they need. Not what they think they need.”
Manuel: Of course! My entertainment world is just like having a table where I design different things for different people. I strive to make them look pretty, and I send them out into the world.
S&E: That’s a noble cause—staying true to your art.
Manuel: I need to pay water and power and rent and what have you, but just doing what I love for fun? My only requirement is to be happy and see my clients walk out happy and proud of what they are wearing.
S&E: The region of Mexico where you were raised looks to be a wonderful part of the world. Can you tell us more about your childhood in Coalcoman?
Manuel: It’s a beautiful place. It’s just a classic little town. When I was a kid, I went to school. I cry when I hurt…I grew up and carried wood and chopped wood. You know, I did the normal things. I went to school, to college, graduated. I felt proud, but I was always sewing. I don’t have a sad story coming to the United States of America. I actually have a very proud story.
S&E: You have even been honored by your country with Mexico’s Lifetime Achievement award. This is quite an accomplishment!
Manuel: I’m so glad they gave me my Life Achievement award. I was so blown away by that. The mayor of my little town and the president of the country are going to see me? It was all just so much. It was not a ceremonial dinner. It was just him and me. Sharing grand things with me. With me!
S&E: You have worked hard to show your gratitude for your experiences in America. Tell us more about the line of 50 jackets that you designed, one for each state in our country.
Manuel: When I made the 50 jackets for the states in America, [instant access to information] didn’t exist. Nothing like that. There was no Google. All of the information I got from going to the states and seeing the states.
I know the USA very well—the points of interest and all that.
Utah has to have John Wayne. You’ve got to have dinosaurs. You have to have things like that—so important for kids to learn.
They had about 50 or 60 children here from the Frist Museum one time, looking at my jackets. And this boy, one of the kids, was walking and says, “Mister Manuel, why did you put a mouse on our jacket for Wisconsin?” And this little girl behind me said, “Duh, cheese!” I put a mouse because I thought it was funny. Where there’s cheese, there’s mice! [laughs].
S&E: There is something so profound in having a work of art crafted by hand these days, in the midst of this digital age.
Manuel: There is nothing digital about me. As terrible as it might sound, I have never… I have not been robotized!
I think that a handwritten letter was always so beautiful, and to get it in the mail and kind of wait for it, you know? It was part of our heritage, you know.
S&E: Nashville has had a reputation for camaraderie among the music industry for decades.
Manuel: Nashville seems to be distinguishing itself from the Hollywood or the New York scene. It seems different, you know? In the beginning? Yes, yes. They all worked together, they all did “Hee Haw.” It didn’t matter if one had a straw hat, whatever. They all joined forces. That tradition goes very well. It takes communion with Nashville’s hospitality. I think it is part of the same song.
Oh, it’s real. I really believe it’s real. The guys, when they play and they write songs together? All that makes it a better way to support the country music industry. I’m not going to doubt for one second that they would love to be headlining tours, and they’d want to headline the show. But there is a quality of friendship that goes around.
You’ve got Waylon, John and Willie. Those guys. Johnny Paycheck. All those guys. Who were they, you know? Really, most of them were Ray Price’s band. They all became stars, those guys. You didn’t see the transition. It just happened. They all became one.
S&E: Nashville still has stories like that, doesn’t it? Performers coming together—previously unknown but growing into legends. Jack White, for instance. Nashville’s newest ambassador!
Manuel: I love that kid with all my heart. He is an actor, a great singer, a great musician…He’s got the looks of a star. That character. [I’ve done his clothing] forever, but that doesn’t mean anything. He is who he is because of his talent.
We have others—Jason Isbell, for example. I celebrate that person.
We have one of the grandest ambassadors, and that’s Marty Stuart, the historian of country music. He’s the writer of great books. He’s a great photographer.
There are just a lot of multi-talented people here, you know. Really. I could mention one after the other. There are so many of them. Dwight Yoakam, for instance. He’s an LA boy, but he had his recognition by country music and he became iconic and people imitate him.
S&E: Nashville has been blessed to have you.
Manuel: Nashville is blessed with music. Music is a blessing… I’ve been everywhere, and I’ve heard that. “Oh, Nashville. The music!” They say that in Columbia, they say that in Argentina. They say that in Germany, in France.
They come for a week or two, and they see the graciousness of talent—all the talent is right on the street. I say that in a very funny way. I don’t mean to harm anybody, but you can listen to better music on the street than you can on the radio!
But that’s what great about Nashville. One day you’ll be outside Roberts, the next day you’re on the radio somewhere. Getting to be the star you always were. You’ve just got to put your time in and be patient enough, and somebody will lift you up.
S&E: Speaking of lifting each other up, you have done so much to support the fashion industry in Nashville and in America.
Manuel: We all participate, all these kids that come and learn from me. They become masters. I’m so in love with that.
Instead of always having this be European, this is Italian, this is French, this is English? I want to raise it up in the minds of the people so they know this is American made. It’s not an easy task, but I want to change that somehow!
S&E: Tell us some tricks of the trade for our readers. They may not know what remarkable skill and technique is required from such intricate work. What have you learned in your many decades of fashion design?
Manuel: The fabrics that we use for most of the pieces—they are made to last to the point that some guy says, “My daddy gave me this coat that you made for him twenty years ago. It’s my favorite, my proudest piece I own.” It’s because of the gabardines we use…They consist of so much fiber in them that they can sustain the grappling of the prongs of the rhinestones, and they can take anywhere from two to ten thousand rhinestones, depending.
The fabrication is a skill that is acquired with patience and from really sitting down at a sewing machine with no breaks. These kids, that’s what they learn from me… They need to do a couple of miles of handwork for me to say that they have it. They’re happy. They keep that smile up. “It was actually fun to learn that!” they say. And I say, “Now you’re going to learn to make wallets, now you’re going to make bags, now you’re going to make clutches, you’re going to make shirts, you’re going to make pants, you’re going to make skirts. You’ll make the dresses. Gowns. Jackets, short and long. Lapels. All lapels!”
The experiences of the trade? The needles have to be glass. Don’t put those needles in your mouth. Check your machine. Oil your machine. Thread your machine. Take the thread out and rethread it. “You have to do it blindfolded,” I say. You’ve got to do certain things to the point where you really know.
S&E: If you could pick out one of your most proudest designs, what would it be?
Manuel: They’re all my babies. People ask me sometimes, “What’s the best suit you’ve ever made?” and I say, “I haven’t done it yet.” Still to be done.
S&E: Thank you for such a remarkable contribution. Nashville is better for having Manuel.
Manuel: What else is there, you know? It’s been a happy life. It’s been a very beautiful ride.
A lot of people say, “How do you get in touch with all these people?” and I say, “You know, that was not at all the way it happened.” I opened a candy store, and all the kids in town came to buy from me. That’s all there is. I sort of hit it right, you know?
That’s the way things work in life. Not always, but sometimes, you know. I call it sweet serendipity.
Being at the right place with the right people at the right time.
I don’t see any other way.