Meet the Man Who Made Cowboys Love Rhinestones
By Hunter Oatman-Stanford
Though it might seem like country-western stars sprang from the womb wearing golden boots and rhinestone suits, it wasn’t always so. In fact, we owe such flashy styles to a Ukrainian-born Jew named Nudie Cohn, who was the first to mix Nashville and Hollywood, making it hip to be ostentatious.
While Cohn’s name might not be familiar, you’ve certainly seen his famous Nudie suits, ranging from Gram Parsons’ marijuana-leaf masterpiece to Elvis Presley’s outfit of glitzy gold lamé. Taking his cues from burlesque stage shows, Cohn’s business boomed in the flush years after World War II, when people weren’t afraid to flaunt their wealth. Superstars like Bob Dylan, Cher, David Byrne, John Wayne, and John Lennon all loved his wild outfits—the gaudier, the better (see slideshow).
Cohn’s oldest grandchild, Jamie Lee, was so profoundly influenced by her flamboyant grandfather that she changed her last name to Nudie and wrote his 2004 biogaphy Nudie the Rodeo Tailor. First working in Nudie’s store during her teens, Jamie Lee grew up in the business, and helped her grandmother manage his shop until its closure in 1994. Jamie Lee now holds the trademark for her grandfather’s defunct labels, and has plans for Nudie’s Rodeo Tailors to make a grand comeback.
The blue velvet suit jacket designed for Chris Hillman of the Flying Burrito Brothers.Images courtesy the Autry Library, Autry National Center; 2002.10.1.
As told by Jamie Lee, Nudie’s life story is as fabulous as his wildest outfits: Born Nutya Kotlyrenko in 1902, Nudie adopted his new moniker at age 11 when American immigration officials misunderstood his given name. The son of a boot maker, Nudie had apprenticed with tailors from a young age, and after moving to the U.S., he opened a boutique for burlesque dancers called Nudie’s for the Ladies. In 1940, Nudie and his wife Bobbie moved to Los Angeles, where they launched a line of western-wear, dubbed Nudie’s Rodeo Tailors, out of their garage.
By 1950, the couple had a permanent shop in North Hollywood, including a retail storefront along with their custom tailor business. Nudie’s employees eventually included renowned designers like Manuel Cuevas and Jaime Castaneda, both favorites of contemporary music stars. Jamie Lee explains that his repertoire also expanded to include customized boots, belts, saddles, and even cars.
Collectors Weekly: How did Nudie’s Rodeo Tailors first get started?
Jamie Lee: After my grandparents settled in Hollywood in 1940, they started working in their garage using a ping-pong table as their cutting board. They originally wanted to approach Roy Rogers and Dale Evans, but thought they needed a storefront first.
Instead, my grandfather approached Tex Williams, who actually lived in Newhall, California, near my grandparents. He told Tex that he’d like to make him some clothes, but he needed $150 for a sewing machine. Tex said, “Well, I’ve got a horse we could sell at auction,” and so they did, they sold the horse and bought a sewing machine.
My grandfather took an assistant with him to do all the measurements for Tex and his band, and somehow they got to drinking. Afterwards, my grandfather made the suits and took them back to Tex, but the pants were all arm’s length and the arms were leg’s length, so they didn’t quite work. Nudie had gotten the cloth on credit, so when he returned to the fabric store to get more fabric, the owner wouldn’t give him any. So he sat up on the counter and said, “I’m not leaving here until I get my fabric.” The guy finally gave in and my grandfather went back and fixed the suits. That night Tex and his band played at the Riverside Rancho, which sold out, and Tex made enough money to actually pay my grandfather, who then paid for the fabric.
The cover of a 1960s Nudie’s Rodeo Tailors catalog shows Nudie Cohn standing on the rear of his customized Pontiac Bonneville. Image courtesy the Autry Library, Autry National Center; 97.148.12.
Anyway, eventually my grandfather approached Roy, and he had already heard about Nudie. It was like a domino effect—everyone important started to hear about Nudie and so he started making clothes for them. So they were able to open Nudie’s Rodeo Tailors on Victory and Vineland in North Hollywood in 1950 and then in ’63 they moved to Lankershim Boulevard, where the store stayed until it closed in 1994.
At one time, we had 17 people working for us at the tailor shop, and a full retail store as well. You had pants makers, shirt makers, embroidery people, rhinestone studders, boot makers, and leathermen who made boots and saddles, and they were all working on Nudie designs under his label. I worked in the store right out of high school, so I was there for 20-something years. I used to ride in the Hollywood Christmas parade with him in all these crazy cars he made, starting with the 1950 Hudson and then the Pontiac Bonnevilles. They all had saddles in them with silver dollars, and that was my seat. I was the first born, the first-born grandchild with a silver dollar in her mouth.
The interior of a custom 1964 Pontiac Bonneville convertible re-designed byNudie Cohn shows pistol door handles, a swath of silver dollars, and Jamie Lee’s special saddle seat.
Collectors Weekly: What was it like growing up around your grandparents’ store?
Jamie Lee: There was always a party going on. He had a kitchen in the back of the store with a bar, which I still have. A bottle of Jack Daniels would always be there. You could walk in the store one day, and you’d find Tex Williams, Roger Miller, Glen Campbell, Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, while all the regular customers are there just shopping retail. Larry Hagman and the whole crew of Dallas was there, Roger Miller, the Osmonds—I went to their house once to do a fitting—David Cassidy, Bobby Sherman, all of them, which was pretty cool to see as a teenager.
My grandfather also played the mandolin and recorded his album in a little apartment above the store, and all the musicians hanging out would have jam sessions where they’d walk around serenading the customers; the longer they serenaded them, the longer they shopped. It was a win-win situation. Now, I wish I had been older then—I was maybe 14 or 15 at the time. I was there but I didn’t value it as much. I was the one serving coffee to everybody.
Left, Nudie’s wife Bobbie Cohn fits Dale Evans for a custom outfit as Roy Rogers looks on. Right, a serious Jamie Lee gets a laugh out of her grandfather at the store.
Between my grandmother and my great-aunts, who would also rotate and work at the store, they kept a big log of who had called, who came in, what went on. It’s just amazing that they wrote everything down. I went into labor with my first daughter, who’s now 31, and my great-aunt wrote it all down. “Okay, Jamie came to work but went into labor and we had to wait to close the store.” Such detail, oh my God! We donated a lot of this stuff to the Autry museum, most of the client files and measurement cards.
One of our buildings on Lankershim we also rented to the North Hollywood Chamber of Commerce. The shop was the place to be; so many people would just come and hang out. It was a 6,600 square foot building, so you had a boot room, pants room, jeans and horse equipment, and then the tailor shop. It was just nonstop. The custom clothing was the bulk of the business, but it wasn’t every day that someone came in to buy a custom suit, so the retail part was important, too.
Left, a note relaying a message from Johnny Cash, and right, a sketch for the singer’s shirt design.Images courtesy the Autry Library, Autry National Center (MSA.30; Box 26; Johnny Cash folder 1).
Nudie wasn’t just the originator of the rhinestone suit: He was also named honorary sheriff of North Hollywood because he gave money to build boys’ homes and donated to the police departments for different activities, like the L.A. gang department. In fact, he would sometimes just go out on runs with the LAPD. If they got a call that he couldn’t go on while he was riding around in the back seat of the car, like a murder or something, they’d call him a cab.
At holiday time, my grandpa would go through the books, and if someone owed $100, he might mark it “Paid in Full” and send them a Christmas card that said their balance was zero. Or the newer rock groups that were up-and-coming might walk out the door and find a $20 bill in their pocket.
Collectors Weekly: Where did the distinctive cowgirl label come from?
Jamie Lee: The label is interesting. Since they began with Nudie’s for the Ladies, the cowgirl was originally nude on top—she did not have her bolero. Supposedly, my grandmother came out of the bedroom one night, and she only had on her boots, her hat, and her holster, and she said, “When do I get the rest of my outfit?”
Well, in ’63, the cowgirl got her bolero top, and some people say Dale Evans played a part in that because my grandfather was making her clothes and she was working with the Christian Ministries. Actually I think my grandmother said, “It’s about time we put some clothes on this cowgirl and make her up right.” Today, the suits without the bolero are often more valuable simply because they’re from the beginning, from before ’63.
Nudie’s Rodeo Tailors original label featured a topless cowgirl, seen at left, and was updated with a fringed bolero in 1963.
Collectors Weekly: Why was Nudie drawn to country-western culture?
Jamie Lee: When he first moved to New York with his brother, Nudie would roam the streets and end up in movie theaters; he just loved Western films. Then, when my grandparents hitchhiked across the country, the movie star Tom Mix passed by them on the highway in his big white Cadillac and white cowboy hat. Before they even realized it was him, my grandmother said, “One day he’ll eat my dust!” because the dust was flying in her face. Years later, the last car my grandfather customized was a Cadillac Eldorado.
Collectors Weekly: Who were some of Nudie’s most interesting customers?
Jamie Lee: Well, for example, Susie Slaughter was an oil heiress who would put on Nudie suit parties in Houston, Texas, and Susie would pay my grandfather to make suits for her guests. One year, she had the Hager Twins, and another, she had Roy Clark. She would always tell my grandfather to invite somebody, so one year he took John Wayne. At one point, Susie Slaughter wrote him a check for $66,000 for six suits.
And that was not just a one-time gig, she would do this regularly, and he would fly out and take another star with him to her Nudie suit parties. Susie had the biggest crush on my grandfather, but my grandmother didn’t care because she was still getting her mink coats every year.
Nudie made a lot of themed suits: Country singer Porter Wagoner’s is the best example; Nudie used a lot of wagon wheels on his suits. Sometimes the clients would tell him what they wanted and then he would go off on that and make it his own. Gram Parsons’ marijuana suit is another great example.
Porter Wagoner in his signature wagon wheel themed Nudie suit.
I think Gram just came in the store one day, since it was the thing to do, to go to Nudie’s. If you wanted prestige, that was where you’re going to go, so these young kids would just stumble in there. Nudie took Gram under his wing, bailed him out of jail on several occasions, and did the same for the whole band. He made all their suits.
Gram looked up to him like a father figure. Raeanne Rubenstein did all these great photographs of the two of them in the store together and with my grandfather’s car. Since Gram was on the religious side, his custom suit had a big cross on the back, and at that time there was all this marijuana-smoking and pill-popping so my grandfather included those things, too.
Gram Parsons in his custom Nudie suit, featuring marijuana leaves, pills, and poppy flowers, in addition to a giant red cross on the back.
Sometimes I would go with him to Clarence White’s house, of the Byrds, and hang out with the kids in the backyard. Even Phil Kaufman—who, when Gram died at 26, stole his body to fulfill Gram’s final wishes—would come over and hang out. Phil was funny, he would pull up on his motorcycle with his huge Great Dane riding in the sidecar.
Nudie also had a collection of photographs that hung in his private room, where he would go and take naps in the back of the store. Famous women like Marilyn Monroe, Jayne Mansfield, and Lili St. Cyr had given him all these nude photographs. Lili gave him this one photograph of herself sitting in a bubble bath that she autographed, and it reads, “To Nudie: If I ever wear clothes they’ll be yours.”
Collectors Weekly: When did the store actually close?
Jamie Lee: The store closed in 1994; the end of an era. My grandmother donated the sign, which went to Nashville in the Country Music Hall of Fame, and the bucking broncos from the top of the store got sold to a place in Melrose called “Off the Wall” and ended up in a preacher’s backyard.
At the time, my grandmother was trying to sell things off: We had a 6,600 square foot building full of stuff, and we couldn’t keep everything, but of course I wanted to. There were 5,500 photographs, many with celebrities, that hung the walls of the store, and she wanted to sell all these photos. Someone would come in the back door and ask how much she wanted for the collection, and I would raise the price or say it was pending sale. Finally, I told her, “I’ve got a plan!” just so she would let me box them up and keep them. My grandmother also left me Nudie’s last Cadillac when she passed away in 2006, and it’s currently on loan at the Lone Pine Film History Museum with some suits and one of the small Nudie signs from the parking lot.
Then, a few years ago, I got an email from a man in Canada who had purchased the estate of Bill Herron after he passed away. Bill Herron had bought two cars from my grandfather—he was in oil and responsible for making all the white hats for the Calgary stampede.