Vintage Nudie Suits

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2015-06-26 10:33:48

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 was also known for his outrageous customized auto-mobiles.

Background

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.

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' infamous suit for the cover of the Flying Burrito Brothers' 1969 album The Gilded Palace of Sin, featuring pills, poppies, marijuana leaves, naked women, and a huge cross.

Many of the film costumes worn by Roy Rogers and Dale Evans were Nudie designs.

John Lennon was a customer, as were John Wayne, Gene Autry, George Jones, Cher, Ronald Reagan, Elton John, Robert Mitchum, Pat Buttram, Tony Curtis, Michael Landon, Glenn Campbell, Hank Snow, 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.

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."

Collecting information

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.

There are two varieties of the Cowgirl Label. In the first and earliest variety, from the store's inception, the cow girl who appears on the label is topless. This topless variety is a great deal more valuable than the subsequent "bolero" variety, in which the cowgirl is covered.

Custom suits once owned by country and western stars are naturally worth a great deal more than off the peg suits bought by someone's uncle.

The more heavily embellished, colourful, kitsch and covered in rhinestones, the better.

Generally, these suits were no well-worn, but saved for special events. The majority remain in good-excellent condition and the better the condition the bigger the price tag.

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 $16,250 at a Christie's auction.

Price guide

Dale Evans' Nudie shamrock dress suit sold for $1,200 at Burley Auction Group in April 2011.

Hank Thompson's custom suit by Nudie Cohn at Heritage Auctions for $4,750.

A Nudie rhinestone suit sold for $2,750 at Brian Lebel's Old West Auction on June 2004.

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