Given that he would almost single-handedly dictate how the West was worn (albeit a very glamorous — some would say kitsch — remix of the West), Nudie Cohn could not have had a less-Western background if he tried.
He was born Nuta Kotlyarenko, in Kiev, Ukraine, in 1902. In 1913, his parents dispatched him and his brother Julius to the U.S., escaping the pogroms rampant in Russia. Nuta took himself across America, supporting himself by boxing and shining shoes.
“Nudie’s for the Ladies”
In 1934 he wed for the first time, and he and his wife Helen opened a store in New York City — “Nudie’s for the Ladies” — selling handmade showgirl underwear. The pair then relocated to the Sunshine State, expanded their clothing range, and opened “Nudie’s for Hollywood” — and made the decision to go all-in on Western wear.
And Nudie did not hold back. If there was room for an extra rhinestone, an extra rhinestone would be found. The clothing equivalent of a neon arrow, Nudie gave suits for free to performers Tex Williams and Porter Wagoner, who wore them on stage — and thus inflamed demand.
By 1963, the business had grown to such a point that Nudie needed a larger premises, and the store became “Nudie’s Rodeo Tailors.”
Individual Nudie suits have become iconic in their own right, none more so than the gold lamé suit that Elvis wore on the cover of the 50,000,000 Elvis Fans Can’t Be Wrong album. The suit cost a cool $2,500 — in the 1950s.
Nudie also clothed Hank Williams, John Lennon, and notably, Gram Parsons. Going beyond the typical tropes of cactus, horseshoe, and lasso, Parsons’ suit was embroidered with marijuana leaves, pills, opium poppies, and unclothed women.
Nudie himself died in 1984. The shop soldiered on for another decade under the eye of his then-wife Bobbie before finally riding off into the sunset in 1994. Today, if you’re looking for an original Nudie suit, be prepared to part with at least $25k — or save yourself some money and visit the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City, where his suits are exhibited behind glass.