By  on February 9, 2006

LOS ANGELES — He made Johnny Cash the "Man in Black," and put Elvis in gold lamé and many a crystal-covered jumpsuit.

Now Manuel, who made iconic and elaborate looks for country, Hollywood and rock royalty, and his son, Manuel Cuevas Jr., want to dress the rest of the world with a collection bound for retail that bows at the Bryant Park tents on Friday.

"I've been wanting to do this for a very long time," the younger Cuevas said during an interview, referring to creating a luxury brand based on more than five decades of design by his father, whose clientele has included Gene Autry and Dolly Parton, Bob Dylan and Elton John, k.d. lang and Keith Urban.

Manuel, 73, created the Lone Ranger's mask, dressed the characters in "Bonanza" and "Dallas," and designed Neil Young's wardrobe for the Jonathan Demme documentary "Heart of Gold," which opens this weekend.

With this new collection, stores from Dubai to Dallas will be able to offer $400 jeans, $800 silk shirts and a python topcoat for $10,000 — considerably less than what a custom version could run from the hands of Manuel and his team.

The cashmere and ready-to-wear will be produced in Italy, the leather goods in Mexico and the denim — cut from Japanese cloth — in California.

Although the family atelier relocated to Nashville in 1989, Manuel's roots are out West.

Born Manuel Arturo José Cuevas Martinez in Michoacán, Mexico, he was the fifth of 11 children, and learned at a young age how to wield a needle, tool leather and silver.

The senior Manuel opened in North Hollywood in the mid-Fifties after years working under two other tailors as famous as their Hollywood following: Sy Devore, who clothed the Rat Pack, and Western wear king Nudie Cohen.

Like his father, Cuevas, 33, spent his early years in the studio, where the famous paraded through. "I would go every day after school and sweep the floors, polish the silver and watch. I even started at the sewing machine at six, with the others looking over me."In April, both look forward to a homecoming of sorts, when Manuel opens Mexico City Fashion Week and they dine with Mexican President Vicente Fox.

In the meantime, father and son have been meeting with press and buyers this week in New York, while attending to round-the-clock fittings in a Seventh Avenue showroom that the younger Cuevas' business partner, Allen Tucker, opened last fall. Tucker and Cuevas created Manuel Exclusive Inc. last summer to launch the new collection. Although Manuel has no financial interest in the new venture, he has been by his son's side throughout.

The Dallas-based Tucker, the company's president and chief executive officer, is an industry veteran who moved to New York in the early Seventies and became president of Calvin Klein Men's Wear and later of his own manufacturing licensee, as well as a consultant to Anne Klein, Mexx and Reebok International.

Tucker and Cuevas met after Tucker's wife, Kelly Tucker, visited the Manuel atelier, with its museum, in Nashville last year.

With the aid of Challenger Capital Group, Tucker has sold a 75 percent share in the business to private investors.

Cuevas, who is designing the collection, owns 10 percent of the company. And, Tucker noted, much of the new team has a piece of the remaining shares. "This is a family effort," he said."

"Our intent is to get back to 50 percent," Tucker said. He estimated the brand could write $5 million in orders in the first year. Bloomingdale's, Selfridges, Tootsies and Marios are among the retailers who have written orders, Tucker said. And Collete in Paris is planning a window display of the U.S. "State" jackets, the 50 elaborately embellished boleros inspired by each state, which Manuel senior created over an 18-year period.

Four of those — symbolizing New York, California, Texas and Tennessee — will be featured at Friday's show. The complete line will be on view to the 250 guests invited to the postshow dinner.

Tucker believes Western wear is getting an extra boost in the marketplace, thanks to the films "Walk the Line" and "Brokeback Mountain." The Manuel team will host a lunch for Joaquin Phoenix, star of the Johnny Cash biopic, during Oscar weekend."I'm just extremely psyched about all this," Cuevas said. "When my dad and I take the bow, it will be like he's passing the torch."

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