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Nudie's rides again: Rodeo tailor to reopen with a caffeinated twist

by Chris Greenspon | Off-Ramp®

Nudie Cohn posing in front of one of his custom Nudie Mobiles, a Pontiac Bonneville convertible made for Hank Williams Jr. Courtesy Jamie Lee Nudie

In the '50s and '60s, the status symbol of country and western music success wasn't an award, it was a Nudie Suit. These flamboyant, rhinestone-encrusted outfits were made by a Ukrainian immigrant named Nudie Cohn. Cohn died in 1984, but his granddaughter is planning to reopen the family business — with a twist — in Old Town Newhall this October.

Nudie Cohn was born in 1902 in Kiev, Ukraine (then Russia). According to his granddaughter, Jamie Lee Nudie, "He was called Nudie, because he emigrated here from Russia at the age of 11. When he got to Ellis Island, the immigration officer asked him his name — his name was Nuta Kotlyarenko. The immigration officer wrote down 'Nudie,' and it stuck." Jamie Nudie took her grandfather's American first name. 

Cohn and his brother had fled anti-Semitic pogroms in Russia. Cohn struggled in New York until well into adulthood. He shined shoes as a child and as a young man made money as boxer. He developed a talent for tailoring, and after marrying his wife Barbara "Bobbie" Kruger in 1934, they set up a lingerie shop in Brooklyn called Nudie's For The Ladies.

Bobbie and Nudie Cohn resettled in Los Angeles in the mid-1940s and there, on the fringes of Hollywood, they found a rising star in need of a competitive edge. Lefty Frizzell was an Arkansas-based, traveling country singer who was popular in honky-tonks across the South. Cohn had been putting rhinestones on G-strings for burlesque queens, and he thought the gems might be able to make a singer stand out on stage as well. Jamie says Cohn made Frizzell an offer: He'd put rhinestones on one of Frizzell's suits if Frizzell had "the guts to wear it."

Lefty Frizzell "You're Humbuggin' Me"

More singing cowboys followed suit — Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, Tex Williams (a close friend of Cohn) and Hank Williams Sr. These performers brought Cohn's rhinestones and burgeoning embroidery talent to film, television and the stage of the Grand Ole Opry.

(Porter Wagoner in his wagon wheel suit. Courtesy Jamie Lee Nudie)

Cohn's clientele expanded in the '50s and '60s with Elvis Presley, Porter Wagoner, Buck Owens and many other top country and rock 'n' roll stars donning the signature chain-stitched designs Cohn cranked out of a new location on Lankershim Boulevard in North Hollywood. Birds of every genus were drawn in incredible colors, and though western themes predominated, some suits depicted pharaohs and UFOs (in Keith Richards' case).

(Keith Richards' UFO suit. Courtesy Jamie Lee Nudie)

Arguably the most infamous Nudie Suit is the Flying Burrito Brothers' Gram Parsons' "marijuana jacket."

"The original is in the Country Music Hall of Fame," says Jamie Nudie — but the giant pills, poppy flowers, marijuana leaves and nude women make replicas of the suit a popular request for current Nudie's seamstress Mary Lynn Cabrall.

(Nudie Cohn, L, and Gram Parsons, R, wearing a suit decorated with poppy flowers, marijuana leaves and pills on the arms. Courtesy Jamie Lee Nudie)

Jamie Nudie remembers her grandfather's style and generosity. Cohn gave away silver dollars on Halloween, but he also "gave to boys' homes, built playgrounds, and was very active with the LAPD," remembers Nudie. "He came from poverty... He just wanted to see people sparkle."

Nudie Cohn never wanted his granddaughter to learn how to sew, but they were very close, says Jamie Nudie. She was "the kid serving up the coffee" in Nudie's Rodeo Tailors, which she remembers as a "gathering place" where anyone, star or not, could come in, relax, enjoy a little bit of soup and shoot the breeze.

This is what she misses. Fortunately, Cohn and his wife Bobbie did teach their granddaughter how to run a business, and this October, Jamie Lee Nudie is opening Nudie's Custom Java in Old Town Newhall as a historic place where people can see Nudie Suits, buy Nudie Suits — and enjoy a custom coffee.

(Nudie Suits at Valley Relics Museum. Credit: Dominic Reyes)

In the meantime, Nudie Suits, photos of Nudie and his famous friends, and two Nudie Mobiles are on display at Valley Relics Museum in Chatsworth.

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