North Hollywood—When rock went country, a former G-string manufacturer with the unlikely name of Nudie joined Johnny Cash and Buck Owens on the "underground" personality list. Nudie (that's as much of a name as he'll admit to) is the world's flashiest C&W stylist.
In fact, one might describe this 66-year-old New York born custom tailor as the Rudi Gernreich of the "Grand Ole Opry" set. Gernreich introduced the topless bathing suit and Nudie somehow has managed to convince nearly 25 years of rough and rugged cowboy types they should buy blue boots studded with costume jewelry and suits of magenta elastique dripping with rhinestoned fringe. The difference is, Nudie's customers wear what they buy in public.
Not only does Nudie claim to dress 80 per cent of all movie and television western stars (from Hopalong Cassidy to Lorne Green), he also is reputed to control about three-quarters of the other tailor-made western clothing business in the U.S., outfitting Porter Wagoner, Jimmy Dean, Audie Murphy, Roy Rogers and perhaps a hundred other stars, as well as thousands of reg'lar folks. All of which helps Nudie stuff an estimated $500,000 a year into his sequined saddle bags. For his excellence at his art, Nudie was recently presented a special award by the Academy of Country and Western Music.
"My impression of an entertainer is, he should wear a flashy outfit to be fair to the public," Nudie says. "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."
Nudie says he developed this attitude when he was a youngster, shining shoes outside New York's Palace Theatre, the Carnegie Hall of the Vaudeville circuit.
"My costumes used to be called corny," Nudie says, adjusting a gold pinkie ring shaped like a saddle and studded with diamonds. "Now they call us mod. I don't care. Country music has took over rock and roll. Doesn't matter to me who buys clothes. Whatever does the best."
Nudie was referring to a recent increase in the number of long-haired musicians trooping into his suburban store — the Flying Burrito Brothers, Monkee Mike Nesmith and the Rolling Stones among them. And on the basis of what these musicians purchased, they are no less fascinated by Nudie's imagination than the big C&W names are: Rolling Stone Keith Richard bought two pair of ruby encrusted boots, for example, and all the Burritos have specially designed Nudie suits. (Gram Parsons' jacket is decorated with embroidered marijuana plants and acid caps.)
Custom outfits at Nudie's Rodeo Tailors begin at $95 (that'll get you a nice, but rather ordinary suit) and according to the boss-man, run all the way up to $15,000—although he says he has no teal idea what you might get for that. He says the highest price-tag on anything he's made was $10,000, for Elvis Presley's famous gold lame tuxedo.
Nudie also custom-tailors automobiles--a sideline almost as old as his costume trade and prompted by his customizing his own cars--and just as Nudie's clothing styles outdistance anything else sartorial, the cars makes nearly anything ever seen at a cutom car show pale and uncluttered by comparison. Currently he has two white Pontiac convertibles, each one splattered with $21,000 in leather and metal work.
The interior of each is lined with hand-tooled leather and encrusted with 540 silver dollars. There is a saddle between the bucket seats. The door handles, arm rests and shift stick are chromed six-shooters. (Pull the trigger and the car changes gears.) Rifles are mounted on the rear of the car, one on each fender, another on the trunk lid, and derringers work the emergency brake and directional lights. (There are 14 guns in all.) There's a horseshoe on the brake pedal. On the front bumper is a pair of giant horns from a sacrificial bull. And the white leather boot covering the top when it's down is a-scrawl with the signatures of some of Nudie's more famous customers.
Nudie says he has two of these cars in case one is in the garage (having the triggers checked?) when he gets one of his frequent calls to drive the car in a parade.
Today, Nudie is a showman, spectacular in appearance and success, but it wasn't always thus. Before discovering his true calling—turning grown men into neon peacocks—he failed at nearly everything he tried.
Nudie is a Brooklyn cowboy, a graduate of P.S. 156, and for a while, he says, after he'd abandoned his shoeshine racket at the corner of 47th and Broadway, he was "Battling Nudie," an unsuccessful boxer fighting for as little as a dollar a bout.
He then learned the rudiments of tailoring in a cousin's shop, he says, but didn't stick with it long enough to make a decent income, let alone a name for himself, and went to Hollywood to work as an extra in silent movies. When that earned him even less money and recognition, he worked his way back to New York, where he began to make "specialty costumes" (G-strings and pasties) for the burlesque queens. Burlesque died and so did Nudie.
After that he got married and opened a dry cleaning business. The marriage worked (he's now a grandfather), but as a businessman he crapped out again. So it was back to Los Angeles, where he borrowed $150 from cowboy singer Tex Williams to buy a sewing machine. With Williams' regular plugs on his country music radio show, this time Nudie boomed. He was on his way to his first ulcer and his first $100,000.
After that, Nudie helped set the styles in Western clothing—from the pinched jacket and jeans, to the "drape shape," to slim jims, to garnish-gaudy-and-gauche. Somehow, this Brooklyn-born, jolly-flashy, banty-sized dude had finally found his thing.
"Dear Friends," is the way he begins a letter in his mail order catalog. "I am Nudie, the Tailor, and my custom is fine clothing for countless Western stars, Sunday riders, dudes and honest-to-goodness wranglers, cowpokes and rodeo folks.
"I'd be real pleased to meet you and suit you, with the same personal attention I give every day to many wonderful people.
"It makes me real proud to have these folks come to my place qut here in San Fernando Valley for outfitting with distinctive creations, and once you have visited me or become acquainted with Nudie's through the mail, I'm sure you'll see why everyone always comes back.
"Every fan of Western horsemanship, whether interested professionally or for pleasure, always will find a warm Western welcome at Nudie's.
That's Nudie. (Sincerely.) His family works with him in the store; daughter works in accounting, son-in-law does most of the designing, wife waits on customers. On the walls is a vast collection of framed photographs showing Nudie smiling with his famous customers, and in a back room is Nudie's private collection — pictures of Marilyn Monroe with her snatch showing and Sophia Loren with her nipples showing and Joan Crawford with everything showing and a huge framed photograph of Lili St. Cyr (a friend from the old days) that has Lili's handwriting in one corner that says "To Nudie, If I ever wear clothes, they'll be yours. Always, Lili St. Cyr." Nudie is a life member of the Country Music Association and he walks with a rolling cowboy gait, grinning at you from behind tinted (green) shades and there's still some Brooklyn in his voice.
"You don't have to have cows to be a cowboy," he says.