“Rodeo Tailor to the stars”
Nudie Cohn (December 15, 1902 – May 9, 1984) was a Ukraine-born American tailor who designed decorative rhinestone-covered suits, known popularly as "Nudie Suits", and other elaborate outfits for some of the most famous celebrities of his era. He also became famous for his outrageous customized automobiles. Cohn made his mark by adorning Western-cut suits with galaxies of rhinestones, forests of fringe and symphonies of sparkling oversize G clefs. He fitted Elvis in gold lamé; created a shocking ensemble for Gram Parsons, the proto-country rocker, embellished with pills and marijuana leaves; designed hundreds of shirts for the singing cowboy, Roy Rogers; and parked a star-studded 10-gallon hat on Elton John
Cohn was born Nuta Kotlyarenko in Kiev. To escape the pogroms of Czarist Russia his parents sent him at age 11, with his brother, Julius, to America. For a time he criss-crossed the country working as a shoeshine boy and later a boxer, and hung out, he later claimed, with the gangster Pretty Boy Floyd. While living in a boardinghouse in Minnesota he met Helen "Bobbie" Kruger, and married her in 1934. In the midst of the Great Depression the newlyweds moved to New York City and opened their first store, "Nudie's for the Ladies", specializing in custom-made undergarments for showgirls.
Relocating to California in the early 1940s, Nudie and Bobbie began designing and manufacturing clothing in their garage. In 1947 Cohn persuaded a young, struggling country singer named Tex Williams to buy him a sewing machine with the proceeds of an auctioned horse. In exchange, Cohn made clothing for Williams. As their creations gained a following, the Cohns opened "Nudie's of Hollywood" on the corner of Victory and Vineland in North Hollywood, dealing exclusively in western wear, a style very much in fashion at the time. Nudie's designs brought the already-flamboyant style to a new level of ostentation with the liberal use of rhinestones and themed images in chain stitch embroidery. One of his early designs, in 1962, for singer Porter Wagoner, was a peach-colored suit featuring rhinestones, a covered wagon on the back, and wagon wheels on the legs. He offered the suit to Wagoner for free, confident that the popular performer (like Tex Williams) would serve as a billboard for his clothing line. His confidence once again proved justified and the business grew rapidly. In 1963 the Cohns relocated to a larger North Hollywood facility, renamed "Nudie's Rodeo Tailors", on Lankershim Boulevard and became a staple of L.A. culture for years.
Many of Cohn's designs became signature looks for their owners. Among his most famous creations was Elvis Presley's $10,000 gold lamé suit worn by the singer on the cover of his 50,000,000 Elvis Fans Can't Be Wrong album. He designed the iconic costume worn by Robert Redford in the 1979 film Electric Horseman, which is now owned and exhibited by the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City. He created Hank Williams' white cowboy suit with musical notations on the sleeves, and Gram Parsons, notorious suit bearing a pot leaf, pill bottles, naked temptresses and a crucifix, seen on the cover of the Flying Burrito Bros’ 1969 album, The Gilded Palace of Sin. Many of the film costumes worn by Roy Rogers and Dale Evans were Nudie designs.
Nudie suits have been worn by just about everyone who is anyone in the world of Country/Rock music. Simply put, he made Country cool with his one-of-a-kind original creations that bedazzled a long list of diverse celebs– John Wayne, Gene Autry, George Jones, Elvis, Cher, John Lennon, Ronald Reagan, Elton John, Robert Mitchum, Pat Buttram, Tony Curtis, Michael Landon, Glenn Campbell, Hank Snow, Porter Wagoner, Hank Williams Sr., and numerous musical groups, notably America and Chicago. The members of ZZ Top sported "Nudie Suits" on the cover photo of their 1975 album Fandango!
In 2006 Porter Wagoner said he had accumulated 52 Nudie Suits, costing between $11,000 and $18,000 each, since receiving his first free outfit in 1962. The European entertainer Bobbejaan Schoepen was a client and personal friend; his collection of 35 complete stage outfits is the largest in Europe.
To own a Nudie is to own something special; collected by fashion and music hounds alike– Dwight Yoakam, Ben Harper, Lenny Kravitz, Perry Farrell, Jeff Tweedy, and other A-list Rockers of today keep the Nudie flame burning, and even inspired a few of them to create their own line of signature clothing.
Nudie strutted around town in his own outrageous suits and rhinestone-studded cowboy hats. His sartorial trademark was mismatched boots, which he wore, he said, to remember his humble beginnings in the 1930s when he could not afford a matching pair of shoes. He shamelessly promoted himself and his products throughout his career. According to his granddaughter, Jamie Lee Nudie (a self-promoter in her own right who changed her last name to her grandfather's first name), he would often pay for items with dollar bills sporting a sticker of his face covering George Washington's. "When you get sick of looking at me," he would say, "just rip [the sticker] off and spend it."
Nudie Cohn the larger-than-life 5-foot-7 Russian Rhinestone Cowboy is arguably the most influential and innovative fashion designer and tailor to ever bless the world of Country music. He is also, equally famous for his garishly-decorated automobiles putting his Midas Touch on everything around him– especially his customized fleet of Nudie-fied GM cruisers that he used to promote his LA based Nudies Rodeo Tailors shop on Lankershim Blvd. Manuel Cuevas, Cohn's onetime partner, former son-in-law and current Nashville country clothier, recalled that Nudie was approached in the late 1950's by Art Miller, a flamboyant car dealer and horseman. Miller, it seemed, was looking for a flashy car to promote his dealership.
Bonnevilles were the car of choice, Mr. Cuevas said, partly because they were among the longest cars on the road. "We took the seats out and did the upholstery in tooled leather," he said. "We put guns and bullets and silver dollars all over it."Mr. Cuevas recalled that guns were cheap and easy to buy in Los Angeles. The Winchesters, Colts and derringers were sent to be plugged and silver-plated. When returned, the guns were holstered or became gearshifts and door handles. Silver dollars were strategically added.
Mostly white Pontiac Bonneville convertibles, with silver-dollar-studded dashboards, pistol door handles and gearshifts, extended rear bumpers, and enormous longhorn steer horn hood ornaments, they were nicknamed "Nudie Mobiles", and the nine surviving cars have become valued collector's items. Between 1950 and 1975 he customized 18 vehicles. Of the original 18 cars, the whereabouts of only 9 are known today. One of which, the 1975 Cadillac Eldorado rests in the Lone Pine Film History Museum.
His six-shooter door handles would raise eyebrows at Homeland Security. (Don't even mention the rifles affixed to the trunk and fenders.) Steer horns on the hood would hardly meet pedestrian-safety standards. Hand-tooled leather saddles, placed between the front seats for young cowpokes, wouldn't pass muster as child-safe seating. Rare silver dollars, adorning nearly every surface of the interior, would surely prove too tempting for passers-by.
A Bonneville convertible designed for country singer Webb Pierce is on display at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in Nashville, Tennessee. A Pontiac Grand Ville convertible customized by Nudie can be seen at the end of the 1988 Buck Owens/Dwight Yoakam music video, "The Streets of Bakersfield." That same car—which Owens's manager claims was originally built for Elvis Presley now hangs over the bar inside Buck Owens's Crystal Palace in Bakersfield, California. Two cars ended up in Belgium at Bobbejaanland, a Western-theme amusement park founded by Bobbejaan Schoepen, a Belgian entertainer with a passion for country music.
In the early 1960s, for promotional purposes, Cohn began receiving a free Pontiac every year. Typically, he’d drive the cars for a while and then sell them or give them away. While Mr. Cuevas said he recalled a few going out the door at prices up to $35,000, Nudie gave his ’63 Bonneville (adorned with more than 100 valuable coins, including Morgan silver dollars) to his friend Roy Rogers.
Cheryl Rogers remembers the car well noting how “Dad’ had to cut out the front wall of his Apple Valley home to accommodate the cars length. When driven, the challenge was to keeping souvenir hunters from prying off coins.
But when Cohn started creating his cars in the 1950's - his bang-bang Western excess may have laid the foundation for today's bling-bling sensibilities - they were cultural counterpoints at a time of conformity. It is hard to look back today and not see Cohn's style - his cars were an adjunct to a successful Western-fashion business that catered to attention-starved celebrities - as a precursor to the wild personalization of cars on the streets now. Without a Nudie, could there be Jesse James's "Monster Garage" or Xzibit's "Pimp My Ride"?
Death and Legacy
Though he died in 1984 at the age of 81, Nudie continues to exert a powerful influence on pop fashion and is an icon to the alternative-country movement. Numerous celebrities and long-time customers attended his funeral. The eulogy was delivered by Dale Evans. Nudie's Rodeo Tailors remained open for an additional ten years under the ownership of Nudie's widow Bobbie and granddaughter Jamie, and closed in 1994.
Cohn's creations, particularly those with celebrity provenance, remain popular with Country/Western and show business collectors, and continue to command high prices when they come on the market. In December 2009, for example, a white Nudie stage shirt owned by Roy Rogers, decorated with blue tassels and red musical notes, sold for $6,250 at a Christie's auction.