The Ukrainian-born American clothing designer and tailor Nudie Cohn (1902–1984) defined the look of country music for decades with his ornate and one-of-a-kind suits, festooned with rhinestones and flashy but personal designs that reflected the career or personality of the wearer. The suits sold by Nudie's Rodeo Tailors, Cohn's North Hollywood storefront, were instantly recognizable, and many musicians and lovers of country music and Western films simply called them “Nudie suits.”
Clothing designer Nudie Cohn served some of the biggest names in the entertainment business, including Elvis Presley, who wore a gold lamé “Nudie Suit” on the cover of his 1959 album 50,000,000 Elvis Fans Can't Be Wrong. When the hybrid genre of country-rock appeared in the late 1960s, Cohn successfully made the transition and outfitted the style's pioneering artist, Gram Parsons. His outfits remain collectors' items among artists in the country-influenced Americana genre. Cohn also applied his design ideas to custom automobiles, both for his personal use and for sale to established stars. Apparently the first designer to use rhinestones on a suit, Cohn created designs marked by wild originality and splashy excess. “My impression of an entertainer is, he should wear a flashy outfit to be fair to the public,” the tailor explained to Jerry Hopkins of Rolling Stone. “He shouldn't be wearing a sport coat like the people in the audience. The costume is the first impression and it should be flashy.”
Cohn was born Nuta (or Nutya) Kotlyarenko in Kiev, Ukraine, then part of the Russian Empire, on December 15, 1902. His father was a bootmaker who was said to have worked for the Russian tsar, and his mother raised geese. The family was also Jewish, and because Ukrainian Jews faced violent persecution at that time, Cohn's parents sent him and his older brother Julius to the United States, hoping that they would find a better life there. At the New York City immigration processing facility on Ellis Island, an officer misheard his Ukrainian name and wrote it down as Nudie Cohn, an error he saw no point in correcting. He grew up in the New York City borough of Brooklyn, where he attended Public School 156. In later years, he converted to Christianity but continued to affirm his Jewish background, sometimes wearing a necklace that contained a Jewish star and a Christian cross.
In 1934 Cohn returned with his family to New York City. He had already worked briefly doing tailoring, and he and his wife decided to open a store, Nudie's for the Ladies, near Times Square, hoping to cater to the large concentration of exotic dancers in the area. (Later, when he started Nudie's Rodeo Tailors, Cohn's custom label would show a partially nude cowgirl; a bolero top was added later.) For a time they did a brisk business in specialty costumes such as g-strings, but live burlesque shows were in decline by the 1930s.
After operating a dry-cleaning business with little success, Cohn and his wife decided to seek their fortune in Hollywood. Settling in the small community of Newhall (now part of Santa Clarita, California), located north of Los Angeles, he began designing custom designs on a pingpong table and sewing them in the family garage.
A talkative and outgoing man, Cohn had little trouble making friends among the aspiring actors and musicians who had also made their way west. At an opportune moment, he approached rising Western swing vocalist and bandleader Tex Williams (born Sollie Paul Williams) with a proposition: if Williams would loan Cohn $150 to buy a sewing machine, Cohn would outfit the singer's entire band. Williams agreed, selling a horse at auction to raise the money. After a disastrous first attempt on Cohn's part, Williams saw his investment pay off when his newly attired group sold out Riverside's popular Rancho club.
In 1947 Cohn opened his first Nudie's Rodeo Tailors shop at the corner of Victory and Vineland streets in North Hollywood. As word of his talent spread, he received orders from the reigning king and queen of cowboy films, Roy Rogers and Dale Evans, as well as from Western-style bandleader Donnell Clyde “Spade” Cooley. Cohn also made inroads into Nashville-style country music, crafting suits for Hank Williams, Sr., before Williams's death in 1951.
In the 1950s and 1960s, Cohn's business grew rapidly. Country singers such as Webb Pierce and Hank Snow—whether based in California or not—began to adopt the Nudie suit as standard attire, and A-list actors, including Ronald Reagan and John Wayne, purchased Cohn's suits for on-screen wear as well as for festive occasions. Among his most famous works of the 1950s was Presley's gold lamé suit, which bore a price tag of $10,000 (the materials for which cost only $50). While some of Cohn's suits cost in the thousands of dollars, ordinary customers at the shop, by contrast, could take home a simple Nudie suite for $95. At its peak, Nudie's Rodeo Tailors employed 17 pants makers, shirt makers, embroidery people, rhinestone studders, boot makers, and leathermen as well as a full retail staff. From its Victory and Vineland storefront, it moved to a larger location on Lankershim Boulevard in 1963.
The appeal of Cohn's clothes was that they were wildly imaginative and were customized to fit the artists for whom they were designed. Longtime Grand Ole Opry headliner and television star Porter Wagoner took the stage in a peach-colored Nudie suit covered with wagon wheels, while the sleeves of Lefty Frizzell's suits bore the initials L.F. Frizell's suit was a gift by Cohn to the singer, and this decision paid off handsomely in terms of the additional business it brought to Cohn's shop.
The contrast between the rugged Western image evoked by country/western song lyrics and the jewel-encrusted suits also exerted a fascination on audiences. “Here is a guy who got macho cowboy types in the middle of the 20th century to dress in outrageous rhinestones and embroidery,” Cohn's granddaughter Jamie Nudie observed to John Robinson of the London Guardian. “It was crazy—absolutely beautiful, but nuts. We like to say Nudie was the King of Bling.” Some performers left instructions that they were to be buried in their Nudie suits.
In the late 1960s and 1970s, Cohn found a new market for his creations among rock musicians, especially those in the country-rock genre. A suit he made for country-rock singer Gram Parsons—described by Robinson in the Guardian as “the Sistine Chapel ceiling of cowboy attire”—featured pills, marijuana leaves, naked women, and a large cross across the back of the jacket. Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones, who befriended Parsons and made country-flavored recordings of his own, became a Cohn customer, buying two pairs of boots covered with rubies. So did Mike Nesmith of the pop band the Monkees. Later rock musicians such as Mike Mills of R.E.M. collected Nudie suits, and Wilco lead singer Jeff Tweedy appeared on stage in a suit designed by Manuel Cuevas, Cohn's lead tailor.
In addition to apparel, Cohn also decorated automobiles, both for himself and for show-business customers. His first car project was a 1950 Hudson that he adorned with horns, an idea he later repeated—to his granddaughter's consternation when he picked her up at school—with a 1975 Cadillac Eldorado the family dubbed the Horny Car. Cohn favored the Pontiac Bonneville because its tooled-leather interiors provided him with a large canvas on which to apply his images (which sometimes incorporated bullets and valuable coins. Pontiac dealer Art Miller gave Cohn a free Pontiac every year in exchange for the publicity that came his way, and Cohn gave away one customized Pontiac, decorated with a phalanx of antique Morgan silver dollars, to Roy Rogers.
Cohn died in Burbank, California, on May 9, 1984, and the eulogy at his funeral was given by Dale Evans. Nudie's Rodeo Tailors continued to operate under the ownership of Bobbie Cohn and of the couple's daughter, Barbara, who had married and then divorced Cuevas. Barbara died in 1989, and the store finally closed in 1994. The business ultimately fell into the hands of granddaughter Jamie Lee Nudie, who has adopted Cohn's first name as her surname and operates a website selling merchandise bearing her grandfather's designs. She has also written a biography of Cohn, Nudie the Rodeo Tailor: The Life and Times of the Original Rhinestone Cowboy.
Nudie, Jamie Lee, and Mary Lynn Cabral, Nudie the Rodeo Tailor: The Life and Times of the Original Rhinestone Cowboy, Gibbs Smith, 2004.
Guardian (London, England), February 28, 2004, John Robinson, “Naked Talent: Gram Parsons' Unique Suits Told the Story of His Life, His Music, and Even His Death,” p. 4.
New York Times, September 4, 2005, Chris Dixon, “A Rhinestone Cowboy Who Grabbed Cars by the Horns,” p. L1.
Rolling Stone, June 28, 1969, Jerry Hopkins, “Nudie: The World's Flashiest Country and Western Stylist.”
Collectors Weekly, http://www.collectorsweekly.com/articles/meet-the-man-who-made-cowboys-love-rhinestones (September 26, 2012), Hunter Oatman-Stanford, “Meet the Man Who Made Cowboys Love Rhinestones.”
Nudie's Rodeo Tailors, http://www.nudiesrodeotailor.com/ (August 4, 2017), “The History of Nudie's.”
Tablet Magazine, http://www.tabletmag.com/jewish-life-and-religion/101042/country-musics-sparkle-king (May 31, 2012), Jason Diamond, “Country Music's Sparkle King.”□