Meet the Indianapolis Designer Whose Shimmering Western Wear Has Won a Celebrity Following
With the launch of of Union Western Clothing, Jerry Lee Atwood turned a niche hobby into a business. His hand-embroidered, rhinestone-studded pieces garner an eight-month waiting list, and they're full of details that tell wearable stories about his clients—a star-studded roster that includes rapper Lil Nas X, DJ and producer Diplo, and NFL player Von Miller.
So, why Western suits?
JLA I was an art school dropout in the late 1990s, trying to find my voice as an artist. An acquaintance told me to check out a book he'd found on Western wear. Flipping through the pages brought back memories of going to Nashville with my parents when I was younger. My dad would always take us to Opryland and I'd watch Hee Haw at my grandma's house with my family on Sundays. There was a nostalgia factor, so I thought it would be fun to make a fancy Western shirt. I borrowed my roommate's sewing machine, bought a pattern and piping, and made a horrendous Western shirt—but there was something about the process that really intrigued me.
How did it go from pastime to job?
JLA The more I got into sewing, the more I realized I wanted to do this professionally. I got a job at the Indiana Repertory Theatre's costume shop and honed my skills. When my son was born, I was selling work outside the costume shop. It made sense financially for me to stay home with him and work on building my business.
What was your first big break?
JLA I made a suit in 2012 that was presented at an annual fundraiser for Second Helpings, an organization that provides free meals for underserved communities in Indianapolis. It received some local press. Around that time, I also designed a suit for country singer Nikki Lane when she appeared on Conan. My now business partner, Joe David Walters, is a Western wear collector who discovered my work. I made him a suit, and he suggested going into business together.
Now you have quite the celebrity following. How did that happen?
JLA Post Malone's stylist found me on Instagram in 2017. I had never heard of Post, but I sketched something up, and the stylist liked it. That's when things really took off. That same stylist was working on the "Old Town Road" video. We had been talking about doing something for Lil Nas X for a little while, but she called on Easter weekend and said she needed it in days. I called everyone I knew to help cut fringe and set rhinestones.
Has your success soaked in yet?
JLA I recently spoke on a panel about the history of Western wear at the Country Music Hall of Fame. The moderator pointed out that as of October 2021, the video for "Old Town Road" had been viewed 1.5 billion times, likely making my design the most viewed fancy Western suit in history. I had never really thought about it. Sitting there looking out into the audience, I couldn't help but get choked up.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.