When Manuel Martinez tailors an outfit, he wants it to represent the person wearing it.
But the story of his client Jorge Valdés is one of the most complicated, extraordinary tales he’s woven yet.
In the ’70s, Valdés was the U.S.-based leader of a Colombian drug cartel. Suddenly bringing in millions of dollars a month was quite a change for the then-20-something Valdés, a Cuban immigrant who’d been raised in poverty. But he was also living, as he says, “through hell and back.” He experienced unthinkable torture and ran in the same circles as killers and kidnappers.
Valdés was eventually imprisoned for 10 years. By the time he was released in the mid-’90s, he says he was a changed man. He’d found God and decided to earn a master’s and a Ph.D. studying theology. He wrote a book detailing how he’d turned his life around.
And this past fall, he told his story on an even larger stage: Netflix. Valdés starred in the documentary Cocaine Cowboys: The Kings of Miami.
After the show aired, it wasn’t just Valdés’ story that stunned social media. Valdés was fielding DMs about his navy suits and pink ties, too. One podcast called him “a sharp, sharp dresser.” Viewers wanted to know where he got his clothes.
So Valdés made an Instagram post introducing his followers to his longtime tailor: “It is easy to look good when your tailor, Manuel Martinez of Martinez Custom Clothier … dresses you,” he wrote.
A few weeks after the first episode aired, Valdés is back in Baton Rouge at Martinez’s flagship shop for more fittings with the tailor.
Martinez smiles as he recalls the Instagram post.
“The thing about Jorge,” he says, “is that he’s such a sharing man. He told the world who made his clothes. That was an incredible thing for us.”
Martinez met Valdés more than a decade ago at the Mardi Gras Ball in Washington, D.C. The two got to talking and discovered a shared love of clothing—and a mutual connection to Baton Rouge. Valdés did outreach for Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola, where he’d later build the Our Lady of Guadalupe Chapel, giving Catholic prisoners a place for prayer.
Valdés visited Martinez on his next trip to Louisiana. Over lunch at Mansurs on the Boulevard, Valdés told Martinez everything—first about the cartel and prison, and then about the life he made for himself after prison as a husband and a father.
“He shocked me with his story,” Martinez recalls. “But he seemed like a very genuine person. We became friends.”
Martinez has been making clothes for Valdés ever since.
Today, Valdés says he doesn’t make an appearance anywhere in the world without first asking Martinez what he should wear.
In the wake of the Netflix premiere, that has included sport coats and trousers in shades of salmon pink, ocean blue and sage green with windowpane and plaid patterns. Each piece was custom crafted in materials like wool, silk and linen. Valdés, who now lives in Florida, wore the outfits to various events in Miami.
“Jorge is very outgoing; he’s not timid. He’s got some flair; he’s not afraid of color or to be artsy with his clothes. So I put in all these ingredients when I’m making clothes for him,” Martinez says. “I’ve always told him: We need to make clothes that represent the man you are today. We need to send a message.”
It’s the same approach Martinez has taken for every client he’s had over the past 40 years. He’s dressed prime ministers, sons of presidents, governors and senators.
But whether he’s styling a health care CEO for a Zoom meeting or helping Valdés dress for Art Basel, Martinez tailors each look to the personality and lifestyle of the client.
“That’s the beauty of what I do: I create something that represents that individual,” he says.
And for Valdés, his wardrobe has been a crucial component of his new life.
“We’re not defined by our pasts. We can become different; we can reinvent ourselves,” Valdés says. “Manuel has helped me create my image. He knows that I am who I am. He’s not dressing me to be someone else.” martinezcustom.com
This article was originally published in the January 2022 issue of 225 magazine.