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Following Zoot : A Fullerton Shop Suits Up Customers Looking for a Larger-Than-Life Experience

November 08, 1994|JIM WASHBURN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

FULLERTON — At age 74, Elbert Duran is old enough to have been among the first generation of Latinos to sport the stylish zoot suits his daughter Phyllis Estrella now carries at her Harbor Boulevard shop, El Pachuco.

Duran helps his daughter ride herd over some 500 zoot suits there, and when people ask him if he was a zoot-suiter, "Of course I tell everybody 'yes,' he said. "But, oh, I couldn't afford one. Making $19 a week here in Fullerton picking oranges nine hours a day, including Saturdays? In those days my biggest concern was just trying to get a car."

Having just spent some 16 hours in one at a friend's wedding, I think he might as well have gone with the suit. The sharply creased baggy pegged pants, knee-length jacket with accentuated padded shoulders, ultra-shiny Stacy Adams shoes and dangling gold waist chain all conspired to give the impression of being in a sleek, solid automobile out on the dance floor. A zoot suit makes you feel special, somewhat larger than life, and even my squirrelly head popping out of the top of one couldn't entirely gainsay that impression.

Duran says he didn't even see a zoot suit in his Fullerton hometown until 1938 and was busy fighting World War II in Europe by the time they became infamous in Southern California in the early 1940s. His daughter had never even seen one until the family went to see the Luis Valdez play "Zoot Suit" in Hollywood in 1978.

The play and subsequent film dealt with two war-era events. The first was the 1942 "Sleepy Lagoon case" in which a group of zoot-suited Latino youths were falsely convicted of murder, in a racially divisive trial at which a Los Angeles sheriff's "expert" had testified that people of Mexican descent were biologically predisposed to "a desire to kill or at least draw blood." The convictions were later overturned on appeal.

The second event was the 1943 "Zoot Suit Riots," the name given to several days of club- and bottle-wielding off-duty military personnel conducting their own little war against young zoot-suiters on the streets of Los Angeles.

Duran recalled: "The Marines and the Navy guys used to get off the ships there in Long Beach and would come down to the barrios chasing girls. And the boys there didn't like that, so they had a conflict." After one sailor was beaten--rumors flew that he'd been blinded--some 1,000 troops took to the streets. Duran said, "The MPs and the police would look the other way, and those guys would do anything they wanted to."

As moved as Estrella was by the Valdez play dealing with those events, she was also captivated by the costuming, the zoot suit "drapes" effected by the young Latino men of the era.

"I just loved the fashion," she said.

At the time, she and her father were jewelers. Duran had learned the trade on the GI Bill, subsequent to taking nine pieces of shrapnel in one leg while in the paratroopers in the war.

After seeing the play, they decided to start marketing the dangling waist chains worn by zoot-suiters.

Estrella said: "We advertised in Lowrider magazine and got a great response, calls from all over the United States. We did really good selling the zoot suit chains, but people kept calling up saying, 'I'll take a zoot suit chain, but I'd sure love to have the suit to go with it.' So we thought maybe we had something here."

They were the only ones to think that, though.

"Everybody was negative about us doing it. They said, 'Do you really think you'll be able to pay your rent selling zoot suits?' But I thought so, because I figured if I loved the fashion, someone else must. Everybody thought I lost my marbles to do something like this," Estrella said.

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One initial hurdle was just finding a zoot suit they could copy. "We looked all over and couldn't find one. We finally went to a costume shop in Hollywood and found an old one there, brand new. It was a pink one, which I guess no zoot-suiter had wanted to buy," Estrella said.

They made a pattern from it and began making the suits. Business was initially slow, because until 1985 they only sold the suits rather than rented, but they eventually found it necessary to farm out work to other county tailors to meet their demand.

Estrella named her business El Pachuco, after the character played by Edward James Olmos in "Zoot Suit," a mythic embodiment of the tough, sharp, in-command pachuco image. For Latino youths growing up in a white culture that denied their existence, the look had obvious appeal. "El Pachuco is who you become when you put the zoot suit on. It is a handsome, brave man, someone with character, who turns a lot of heads," Estrella said.

According to Estrella's 20-year-old son Ray, the youngest of three generations of family working at El Pachuco, "You put it on and you're supposed to be someone who gets respect, like a dancer or a fighter, a zoot-suiter."

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