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VOL. 35 | NO. 18 | Friday, May 6, 2011

Legendary designer Manuel branches out with daughter’s help

Adjusting strategies boosts two businesses

By Hollie Deese

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You don’t have to be a fan of fashion to know Manuel. If you’ve seen those iconic suits on the cover of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band or Johnny Cash dressed in, well, black, then you already know who he is.

A staple of Nashville’s music and celebrity culture for decades, Manuel Cuevas may be known for certain iconic, embellished looks. But as recognizable as his clothes are, and the people who wear them – Kid Rick, Jack White, Little Jimmy Dickens, Bob Dylan – that doesn’t mean his business isn’t feeling the crunch of the economy like everybody else.

People driving down Broadway in Midtown lately may have noticed the building housing his longtime boutique is for sale. But the listing is just one in many recent moves to make the couture brand more accessible to consumers, which in turn will hopefully infuse some new dollars into the line.

“We have been here for 22 years so we don’t really want to go anywhere, but we will,” says Jesse-Justin Cuevas, Manuel’s daughter and manager of the boutique. She moved here from New York last October to help make the business more profitable.

“For now we are still here and we’ll see what happens,” she says. “We have looked at a few locations that are still in the Midtown/Downtown area that are really nice and aesthetically match what we are doing. And I found a few places that are well matched in terms of accessibility to the public but are still exclusive.” An important consideration when you are dealing with celebrities who prefer to slip in the back.

Facebook and Twitter followers may have also noticed inventory being posted that is more in line with their pocketbooks, including clutches, scarves and wallets – another move Jesse-Justin helped initiate.

“I think I am an agent of change within this company,” she says. “I am only two decades old pretty much, but I am interested in making this company not only financially accessible to everyone, but I think Manuel’s consumers have really changed. There is a younger market out there willing to spend money and willing to spend it on quality items but might not have $3,000 in their pocket to buy a jacket.”

And the next logical step is carrying items from another designer to supplement sales. But it couldn’t be just anything considering he had never sold another’s work next to his own.

“We would never carry anything that we weren’t incredibly excited about and feel like the artist took the same amount of time and precision to create whatever it is they create,” she says. “Manuel does everything by hand and is very meticulous. Every single part of the process is done by hand. We definitely wouldn’t carry anything if the process wasn’t similar.”

On May 18, the store will be introducing Hair Fancies and Epic Embellishments by Shawn-Michelle LeFleur. The feathered and jeweled flowers can be clipped in the hair, on clothes or bags and are all handmade by LeFleur out of her Kingston Springs home.

Creating jewelry since she was a child in Malibu with her mom, the partnership came about when Manny Cuevas, Manuel’s son and designer of Wear It Out Manuel, went to one of her trunk shows. She told him how she had met his dad in the 90s, and he had told her to call him. Manny encouraged her to actually make that call and she did.

“I had no expectations,” Le Fleur says. “I just wanted his opinion about what I was doing and the quality.”

He liked what he saw and she is now hard at work creating inventory for the big launch.

“It is pretty amazing that the very first boutique I am selling my stuff in is Manuel,” she adds. “I’m so humbled and honored and really looking forward to seeing where that goes.”

She also is in the midst of revamping her website, complete with video, high fashion shots of the products and a shopping cart so people can buy online. But she hasn’t given up her online sales job just yet.

“I need these to start selling before I can do that,” she says. “I am transitioning, but am doing it the smart way. This has always been my No. 1 job. Anything else I have had to do to pay the mortgage is not my passion.”

As for Manuel Couture, more changes are on the horizon this summer, including introducing broader range of Manuel items for sale in the boutique, both in price and style.

“Accessibility has been my keyword coming into this company,” Jesse-Justin says. “Not just accessible on the price tag but also accessible in terms of a wardrobe.

“We are going to work on branding in general, taking the image and moving it away from specifically western. Manuel is more than a western designer. He is an artist. And yes he has worked in the entertainment world for a very longtime and some of that has been specifically in country music. And when you see the CMAs you might see it more as having a western connotation.

“But we dress Jack White, we dress Bob Dylan, we dress Kid Rock. And those aren’t western.”

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