Nudie Cohn: The Real Rhinestone Cowboy

Timeless tale of legendary Western couture..

“Nudie was Old World, New World, and out of this world,” says the tailor-to- the- stars’ granddaughter, Jamie Nudie, neatly abridging the iconic designer’s life, work and inventive methods.

With his elaborate suits custom-made for clients such as Hank Williams, Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Elton John, Bob Dylan, John Lennon and – perhaps most famously – Gram Parsons, Nudie Cohn is remembered as the man who put the sparkle into western clothing. His ornately embroidered garments, highly coveted by country and rock ‘n’ roll artists alike, were unique and conceptual works of art. “Owning a Nudie Suit became a rite of passage, and a source of pride,” Jamie explains, “as it still is.”

The humble beginnings of Nudie’s “rags to rhinestones to riches” story take place in Kiev, where a young Nuta Kotlyarenko served as a tailor’s apprentice, and was bewitched by the images of America he saw at the movie theatre where his mother worked. Immigrating to the US in 1913, the 11-year- old was branded with the name ‘Nudie’ at Ellis Island, later settling in New York, where the dazzling lure of Broadway eventually led to his first store, Nudie’s For The Ladies, which opened in the ’30s, and produced undergarments for burlesque queens and showgirls.

Nudie and his wife, affectionately known as Bobbie, moved to California in the ’40s, where their operation continued at its Hollywood (and later San Fernando Valley) base. Western musician Tex Williams was an early client and benefactor, causing a sensation with his custom tailoring that lit the fuse of Nudie’s association with music that would endure to this day. “Nudie was always a fan of westerns, and loved horses – he even rode them in New York, and owned them as soon as he could,” Jamie explains of his abiding influence. “The western look appealed to Nudie, because it was highly detailed, but he was never hemmed in by it. Elvis’ gold lamé suit is not western, neither is Gram Parsons’ Nudie Suit, or Sly Stone’s funky outfits. Nudie always followed fashion, but of course set it as well. His works are timeless classics.”

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Nudie Cohn: The Real Rhinestone Cowboy

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Collaborating closely with his clients, yet also trusted with free rein in his concepts, Nudie was assigned to conjure up bespoke signature looks, incorporating western elements such as piping or fringing with colourful details based on individual themes. “Many times the subject matter of a Nudie Suit may seem obvious – a person’s name, or title of a song,” Jamie elaborates, “but it was Nudie who grasped the thematic concept early on and ran with it. Some suits are still sort of mysteries, but always visually striking and beautiful.”

The motifs on Gram Parsons’ infamous ‘Sin City’ suit – as seen on the cover of The Flying Burrito Brothers’ debut album, ‘The Gilded Palace Of Sin’ – included marijuana leaves, pills, poppies and naked women, all evoking Gram’s nefarious predilections, but the eccentric designer – a natural showman – was not easily offended; he’d worked through the changing fashions of rock ‘n’ roll as it progressed and raged through its evermore controversial phases of the ’50s and into the ’60s. “Nudie was a wild guy himself, and began making bold statements with his clothes very, very early on in his life,” Jamie admits. “The roots of rock run deep, so it was nothing unusual to Nudie. The younger generation adored him, and who else would get on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine at the age of 67 in 1969?”

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Gram and Nudie had a very special relationship…

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His relationship with Gram Parsons evolved and thrived until the cult country rocker’s death by overdose, aged just 26, in 1973. “Gram and Nudie had a very special relationship, a very deep love and respect for each other,” Jamie says. “Gram idolised Hank Williams and Elvis Presley so naturally he was thrilled to meet and work with Nudie. Nudie was always hip, but it didn’t hurt to have Gram’s admiration… The bond between them grew very strong, and Gram looked to Nudie for advice on many occasions. Nudie looked upon Gram as the son he never had, and you can imagine how devastated he was when things turned out how they did.”

Also catering to film stars and studios, and similarly adept at customising cars, Nudie flourished as a successful tailor and businessman (at his peak employing 17 skilled artisans) until his death in 1984. Subsequently helmed by Bobbie (“the backbone of the business,” Jamie attests), Nudie’s Rodeo Tailors finally closed its doors in 1994, and Bobbie died in 2006. In 2015, however, the family opened Nudie’s Custom Java in Santa Clarita Valley, where customers can grab a coffee and admire vintage Nudie memorabilia while ordering their custom suits.

Yes, the Nudie name lives on – you can place orders on their website – and, while his most famous designs are still collected in museums around the world (and in their own archive for all to see at Valley Relics in Chatsworth, CA, where these images were taken), Jamie has further expansion plans in the pipeline to honour her grandfather’s persistent popularity and the determination that built an empire. “The future is wide open for Nudie just as the past was,” she says, “and we are lucky that the legacy is constantly celebrated and new followers are always interested in his work and life. [Our] goal is to educate the younger generation that if you have a dream you can realise it.”

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Nudie Cohn: The Real Rhinestone Cowboy

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Notes On Imagery:
1. + 2. Blue Cowboy Nudie Suit
This is another Nudie Suit that came from the collection of Skull Schulman. He wore it often and it shows lots of signs of wear and tear but still maintains its beauty. It is a classic Nudie western scene done in colourful chain stitch embroidery by Viola Grae. It is fully rhinestoned on wool and lined in a beautiful silk print.

3. Orchid Suit
This western-style pant suit was made for one lucky cowgirl. It features a fully rhinestoned silver metallic fringe, which adds considerable weight to the piece. It is also made of wool with chain stitch embroidery in an orchid motif surrounded by crystal rhinestones. This dates from the 1950s.

4. Tex Williams' Peach-Coloured Nudie Suit
Tex Williams gave Nudie his start in the San Fernando Valley by auctioning a horse and saddle to buy him a sewing machine. They were very close and Tex had many Nudie suits made throughout the years. Sadly, he lost them in a house fire in the 1960s. This suit was made shortly after, and features metallic soutache-style embroidery that is popular on a matador’s ‘suit of light’. It also features aurora borealis rhinestones on a peach-coloured pinstriped wool fabric, lined in colourful silk, which was another Nudie signature.

5. Replica Of Elvis Presley's Famous $10,000 Gold Lame Nudie Suit
The original gold lamé Nudie Suit is arguably the most iconic artefact in rock ‘n’ roll history and resides at Graceland. The suit, made of gold lamé fabric and rhinestones, includes matching gold kid shoes, a rhinestoned belt, ruffled shirt and matching tie. It was cooked up by Nudie with the help of his good friend, Colonel Tom Parker, to celebrate ‘Elvis’ Golden Records’ in 1957. It famously appeared multiplied on the cover of ‘50,000,000 Elvis Fans Can’t Be Wrong’.

The $10,000 price tag was more a publicity stunt than anything – a receipt from Nudie’s Rodeo Tailors states $2,500 as the cost, and Nudie would later joke that $9,500 was pure profit.

Still, it was a feat to produce and its value today is incalculable. Elvis loved his Nudie Suit but only wore the full ensemble a few times as he felt the trousers were a bit constricting for his wild moves. He is said to have left gold skid marks on the stage from his knee slides in it.

The replica in the Nudie Collection is a faithful recreation from Nudie’s Rodeo Tailors made for Pat DiNizio of The Smithereens in the early-1990s. Elton John also wore a replica of this Nudie Suit in the late-1970s. It is Nudie’s most recognised creation, and continues to capture the imagination of pop culture aficionados of all ages.

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Words: Simon Harper

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