"It's better to be looked over than to be overlooked!" —Nudie Cohn
Once there was a little boy, a recent immigrant to America. He was so destitute he had no shoes and had to cover his feet in rags to run to school during the freezing Brooklyn winters. A concerned teacher gave him a pair of used, mismatched boots to wear. Decades later, the little boy had grown into a wildly successful and beloved entertainment industry legend. He made intricately embroidered outfits for Hank Williams, Roy Rogers and Gram Parsons. And he wore fabulous suits and hats of his own creation, and on his feet, richly embroidered mismatched cowboy boots — each of a different design — in honor of how far he had come.
Nuta Kotlyarenko was born in Kiev in 1902. The Kotlyarenko family was poor but stable; his father worked as a cobbler and his mother sold poultry. As a child, young Nuta began to apprentice as a tailor. “Although Nuta’s profession was thrust upon him,” his granddaughter Jamie Nudie writes in Nudie the Rodeo Tailor: The Life and Times of the Original Rhinestone Cowboy, “he enjoyed the look and feel of fabric and was fascinated with making beautiful three-dimensional garments with cuts and stitches from the flat yardage.”
Life in Kiev was hard. Nuta’s family were Russian Jews and persecuted because of their beliefs. They dreamed of escaping to America, where Nuta’s mother, Pearl, claimed that the streets were “paved with gold.” For extra money, Pearl ran the concession stand at the local movie theater on weekends. Nuta loved going to the theater and was especially captivated by the flickering American Westerns that occasionally appeared onscreen.
At the tender age of 11, Nuta and his teenage brother immigrated to America. During processing at Ellis Island, Nuta was renamed Nudie Cohn by an immigration agent. Over the next two decades, the newly christened Nudie would live a vagabond life. He boxed under the name “Battling Nudie,” worked as a film splicer and extra in Hollywood, opened a tailoring shop, and spent a spell in Leavenworth for unknowingly transporting drugs. Through it all, visions of movie cowboys still danced in his head, and he religiously watched Westerns featuring cowboy stars such as Tom Mix.
In 1932, he found himself in Mankato, Minnesota, staying at a small boardinghouse. He fell in love with the owner’s daughter, Helen Barbara Kruger, a blond bombshell with a personality as effervescent as his own. Nudie nicknamed her “Bobbie,” and the name stuck. They were married, and Bobbie joined Nudie on the road. It was the height of the Depression, and the couple had very little money and often hitchhiked. According to their granddaughter Jamie:
One day on a Midwestern highway, none other than Nudie’s idol, Tom Mix, whizzed by the young couple in his fancy convertible and oversized white Stetson. Bobbie recalls turning to Nudie and exclaiming, “Someday they are going to eat my dust!”
With Bobbie as his muse and business partner, Nudie eventually opened a shop in New York City called “Nudies for the Ladies.” The Cohns made custom costumes, including g-strings, for burlesque queens such as Lili St. Cyr. It was here that Nudie developed his love for rhinestones and deft craftsmanship. However, these years were rough on the Cohns. They lived in a rundown hotel filled with gamblers, and money was tight. And always, according to Bobbie, “He really had Western in his heart.”
After the birth of their daughter, Barbara, the Cohns finally decided to head West and make Nudie’s
dreams come true. In 2000, Bobbie told The New York Times Magazine: "In '39, we came to L.A. with our daughter, Barbara. We had a house on Woodson Avenue in North Hollywood, and we started on a Ping-Pong table. We made all0wool gabardine shirts with some embroidery, nothing fancy, and some pants, and sold them for $19 apiece."
Throughout the 1940s, the Cohns grew their Western-wear business. They worked out of their garage, with Bobbie hand-sewing along with Nudie. The fun-loving couple could often be found soaking up the atmosphere at country-Western honky-tonks like the legendary Palomino Club in the Valley. On one eventful evening, Bobbie came into the bedroom wearing nothing but boots, a cowboy hat and a holster. "When are you going to make the rest of the outfit?" she teased her husband. Inspired by his wife’s titillating entrance, Nudie designed the iconic “naked cowgirl” label, which could be found in Nudie clothing until 1963, when Nudie converted to Christianity.
By the late ‘40s, Nudie finally felt ready to approach the entertainment industry cowboys he had always idolized. He found country-Western singer Tex Williams mowing grass in his front yard and offered to make him a new costume. As Bobbie recounted it to The New York Times Magazine, the rest was history:
Tex Williams was the first band that helped us get into business. They needed a uniform for a new club, but they had no money, so Tex and Nudie cut a deal. Tex said, 'I have a quarter horse,' and they went down to the auction and sold the horse. They got $150 for it. Those uniforms were beautiful, and Tex started plugging Nudie over the radio. At the end of '49, we opened our first store, on Victory and Vineland. A lot of these musicians came back and forth to Los Angeles, and Nudie got the idea of putting rhinestones on the suits. And Lefty Frizzell was out here, and Nudie said to him, 'Do you have the guts to wear rhinestones?' Lefty said, 'Sure!' and after that, all we did was make his two initials with rhinestones. Lefty said, 'Nudie, anything you want to do — make it as gaudy as you like,' and so we did."
Nudie’s fantastic fringe-and-rhinestone cowboy creations became a sensation among country-Western stars, including legends like Hank Williams. He secured Roy Rogers, his biggest client (and one of his best friends), for life when Rogers requested an outfit so blingy that kids in the balcony of Madison Square Garden could clearly see him on his horse, Trigger. Nudie obliged with a glittering suit and was soon making all the bold outfits that Roy and his wife, Dale Evans, wore in their Hollywood Westerns (Roy was eventually buried in his favorite Nudie suit). "My impression of an entertainer is, he should wear a flashy outfit to be fair to the public," Nudie told Rolling Stone in 1969. "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."
In 1957, Nudie designed one of his most famous creations of all time for Elvis Presley, client of his great friend Colonel Tom Parker. This gold lamé suit, which was so heavy Elvis rarely wore the whole thing, was said to have cost $10,000 and was featured on the cover of the album 50,000,000 Elvis Fans Can't be Wrong.
With business booming, the Cohns moved to 5101 Lankershim Blvd. in North Hollywood in the early 1960s. Nudie Rodeo Tailors, with its model horses and broncos flanking its Western-town interior, quickly became a Valley institution. It also became a pilgrimage spot for rock & rollers and counterculture icons, who were drawn to Nudie’s kitschy glitz and glamor. The Rolling Stones, John Lennon, The Monkees, Willie Nelson, Dolly Parton, Linda Ronstadt, Cher and Robert Plant all became clients. Nudie created Gram Parsons’ legendary weed-and-pills suit, and designed Robert Redford’s light-up suit for the film The Electric Horseman. So hip had Nudie become that he was even featured on the cover of Rolling Stone in 1969:
Not only does Nudie claim to dress 80 percent 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.
To Nudie, a customer was a customer, be they a staid singing cowboy or a dangerous rock & roll sex pistol. As he told Rolling Stone:
"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."
While many entertainers initially came just for the street cred of possessing one of Nudie’s iconic designs, many kept coming back because of the store’s warm and inviting atmosphere. “I worked in the store alongside of my grandparents and mom,” Jamie Nudie told me via email. “We were a very close family. I was the kid serving the coffee to the clients that came in for custom suits.” At their height, the Cohns employed 17 people: making boots, embroidering suits with intricate designs, cutting cloth. Nudie would often make his famous lima bean soup in the back, while little Jamie would be chatting with stars like Glen Campbell (whose anthem “Rhinestone Cowboy” is said to be based on Nudie) out in the front.
“When you came into Nudie's on Lankershim Boulevard in North Hollywood, it was like walking into a museum,” Jamie says. “Thousands of pictures on the walls of every client my grandfather made clothes for. Going into the tailor-shop part of the 6,000-square-foot building was awesome! The smell of leather boots being made, the cut cloth on the cutting table and scraps on the floor with rhinestones was so much fun. I would take the scraps and add rhinestones to it just for fun!”
An avid mandolin player, Nudie would often have impromptu in-store jam sessions with stars including Marty Robbins, Tex Williams, Glen Campbell and Roy Rogers. He was kind to younger, wayward clients, including Gram Parsons. "Gram and my grandfather were buddies — he bailed him out [of jail] a few times," Jamie remembers. "He took him under his wing as his son. And Gram looked up to him as his father figure." When in town, client Johnny Cash would often come by to discuss a shared love of leather tooling. Another frequent visitor was movie star Tony Curtis, another poor Jewish kid who had reinvented himself in whitewashed Hollywood. He recalled hanging with Nudie in a New York Times Magazine profile:
Nudie liked that I was out of New York. He was out of the Ukraine, and we were both Jewish. I think I was the only Jewish kid in the movies he knew, or the only one who was honest about it. [laughs] In those days, everyone changed their names. One day we were sitting in the store — we used to speak in Yiddish sometimes — and in comes this big guy in Western wear, loping along, and Nudie went, 'Hey, Roger,' and then, as Roger passed us, he'd go, 'Real name's Irving."'
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Nudie also became famous for his custom-designed GM cars, which he called “Nudie Mobiles.” He decorated saddles for his beloved horses (he was an avid rider) and made hats for clients including the entire cast of The Andy Griffith Show. A natural extrovert, he could be found at many charitable events, backyard barbecues and civic engagements, often in his favorite suit, embroidered with an eagle in honor of his adopted American homeland. Eccentric and caring to the last, he would often drive to impoverished neighborhoods, handing out dollars bills with his face plastered on them. "When you get sick of looking at me," Nudie would say, "just rip it off and spend it."
Nudie Cohn died in 1984. Ten years later his family closed the store in North Hollywood. But his legacy and legend live on. Nudie’s ethos — "real men wear rhinestones” — can be seen in the onstage fashion choices of almost every entertainment icon today. Recently, singer Jenny Lewis had a costume custom-made in the Nudie style. Nudie originals are now collector’s items worth thousands of dollars, and his creations are displayed in many museums, including the Autry and Valley Relics. But perhaps Nudie’s most fantastic client was himself. Fun, flashy and fearless — a true rhinestone cowboy.