SAN ANTONIO — The makeshift shrine of roses, snapshots and handwritten notes to slain singing idol Selena were taken down long ago from the windows of the boutique bearing her name. On this sunny Sunday afternoon in October, as young Latinos from throughout south Texas stroll around nearby Brackenridge Park, the grief inside the boutique has been replaced by a bustling commerce.
At the center of the bustle is Suzette Quintanilla-Arriaga, 31, Selena's older sister and drummer in her band, and now, even after Selena's death, her business partner in a line of apparel designed for young women on a limited budget. The boutique, one of two Selena opened in Texas before her 1995 death at age 23, at the hands of fan club president Yolanda Saldivar, features styles for school, work and parties.
But now fans of Selena's clothing can find the line much closer to home as Sears and JCPenney stores across the country, including most of Southern California, pick up the label. Selena fulfilled one dream in the music world when she crossed over from Spanish-language Tejano to the larger market of mainstream pop. Now, another dream is on the brink of coming true, although too late for her to enjoy it. This time, she's conquering the mass-market garment industry, with the two retail giants locked in battle over marketing strategies. The prize for this year alone is an estimated retail revenue pool of $10 million.
Down the road, the Selena line could be the breakthrough that the garment industry, always on the lookout for the next hot thing, needs to attract the market of roughly 31 million Latino consumers.
Sandra Salcedo, who designs the Selena line in consultation with Quintanilla-Arriaga, is a designer for Jerell Inc. of Dallas, the Southwest's largest sportswear and dress manufacturer. She has her own lines but spends most of her time now on the Selena collections.
"The clothes aren't as far out as the Spice Girls, but we're not clueless, either," Salcedo said. "The whole look of the Selena line is hip and trendy, but it's still a feminine look. It says, 'We're hip, we're educated, but what's wrong with looking pretty on the way to college?' I can look feminine and still be a powerful businesswoman."
The collection for spring 1999 works on several fronts. There's the "Mad Max" look, as Salcedo calls it, "a Body Glove-deep sea diver look with a lot of black to show off your muscles." There's a "lingerie-inspired" collection that features "layers of sheers over different colors that create an iridescence." And "retro" is present, of course--bright colors with black capri pants and tube tops. Salcedo calls it a mix of flower power and "a new version of the Patty Duke look."
Pricing is an important selling point. Items are all less than $50; most are less than $25. Many are easy-care polyester or blends, with a sheer look that reflects Selena's image without attempting to re-create the flashy glamour and sexiness of her concert clothing.
"These are the young women Selena wanted to design clothes for," Quintanilla-Arriaga said. "We've worked to keep the price low, because these girls like to wear something for a couple of months and then be able to afford to buy something new."
If the Selena line succeeds as expected, it could promote Latino designers and play more to Latina customers, although Tom Lavy, vice president of Jerell Inc., says the clothing is selling well in all markets.
"Our sales are exceeding our projections," Lavy said.
At first blush, the Selena name, combined with Salcedo's stylings, seems to have magic. In just six months, the Selena junior line has gone from a test run of 50 Sears stores to about 300 Sears and JCPenney stores across the country, as well as smaller retailers nationwide and the Dorian department store chain in Mexico.
Sears was first out of the gate with the junior line last spring. Impressed with sales, it expanded the junior line to 168 stores nationally. JCPenney jumped on board in late summer but is running hard to catch up, especially since the Dallas-based retailer believes it is more attuned to the Latina consumer than its rival. JCPenney will soon carry the junior line in 144 stores.
But amid the success, Quintanilla-Arriaga reflects on the days when she and her younger sister talked as girls do about boys and the future and designing clothes.
"I miss my sister--every day, every second," she said during a break at the Selena boutique. "This would not exist except for Selena. We're like a team, and she's like the quarterback overseeing things. She would be freaking out! Her clothes are all over the U.S. To me, that success sends a positive message: Believe in yourself. Selena did. It's been three years and six months since we lost her, but how positive and powerful she still is."