Walking down a Los Angeles street or at an Ozomatli concert, you might spot someone wearing a T-shirt with the picture of Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata or a "Brown Pride" graphic.
"It's urban wear with a cultural twist to it," explains Anthony Cruz-Gonzalez, founder of Montebello's Trueroots Streetwear & Clothing Co.
The 27-year-old, who works out of his Montebello home, is one of a handful of small L.A.-area designers carving a niche in the Latino market and aiming to push their logos into mainstream streetwear.
Cruz-Gonzalez's designs, as well as those of other Latino designers, have taken their inspiration mainly from the political events of the 1990s, such as those stemming from California initiatives on immigration and affirmative action.
The designs are an extension of earlier Chicano influence on streetwear: graffiti-style lettering and urban drawings that have become popular outside the Latino community.
With the growing popularity of streetwear in fashion, these designers hope to cash in by using cultural designs as a gateway to a more diverse inventory of clothing and wider range of shoppers.
"It has become real obvious that kids don't buy plain T-shirts," says Dan Gonzales, co-founder of Chico-based Aztlan Graphics, the West Coast company with the biggest sales--$4 million last year. "It stands to reason that a Latin label could work."
During the last few years, several Latino designers from around the country--such as Michigan's Robert Montalvo, designer of the Raza T-shirt line--have emerged to address Latino's cultural demands in urban wear and streetwear.
At least one, New Jersey's Willie "Escobar" Montanez, with his Esco Atletico line of major league baseball jerseys, has expanded into the mainstream market.
The mostly small Latino companies on the West Coast are hoping their logos will be the ones to catch on with Latinos nationwide, who now make up about 11% of the U.S. population. Latinos have an estimated spending power of $370 billion, which is expected to rise to $940 billion by 2010, according to market research companies.
A key to expansion for the Latino designers in California is to broaden the appeal of their line beyond T-shirts and accessories with cultural designs. Some are beginning to offer an array of streetwear clothes like baseball and football jerseys that simply display their own company logos.
"We have come to the point where we are going from a small company to a medium company and we are making some decisions about how big we want to become," Aztlan's Gonzales says.
Gonzales, 36, says his company sold about $200,000 its first year in 1993 and grew by about 300% its first three years. Its clients include big retailers such as Miller's Outpost and independent stores all over the country.
Although the company has begun pushing its Aztlan company logo and the number 01--symbolic of Aztlan, or Mexican culture being first in California--onto sportswear like football jerseys, 70% of its products are still Latino-oriented urban and culturally based T-shirts, pants and accessories.
Cruz-Gonzalez, of Trueroots, started selling his Mexican-pride designs in 1994 at the height of California's Proposition 187 controversy while he was a college student in the San Fernando Valley. Soon he was selling the clothes at campus rallies all over California.
His best year was 1997 when his sales totaled $75,000, to mostly small specialty stores such as Sounds of Music in East L.A. and Low Rider Style in New York.
Now, he is reaching out to new customers by offering a greater variety of styles.
His new catalog, out next month, will include 48 styles of boys' shirts, 12 styles of girls' shirts and five styles of pants. Except for the Trueroots logo, the clothes are designed similarly to the loose style of much of today's streetwear.
"The market is now a wide-open, versatile market, which we never would have had if we would not have started culturally based," Cruz-Gonzalez says of the popularity of his original products with Latinos.
The older Chicano low-rider and graffiti designs also are finding a market outside the Latino community.
"I can't say how much of our market is Latino," says Bobby Ruiz, co-founder of San Diego-based Tribal Street Wear Inc., started in 1990 and now a $2-million company whose products today go well beyond his early low-rider styles.
Now, the company's clothes with the Tribal logo are worn by everyone from musicians like Limp Bizkit to skaters.
The Latino designs have become popular even in other countries--Germany and Japan among them--where the interest in Latino culture has paved the way for California designers to sell streetwear.
"They have their own low-rider magazine and their car shows are bigger than the shows here," Cruz-Gonzalez says of Japan, where he has sold his Trueroots Culturewear and Trueroots Streetwear lines.
One reason West Coast streetwear designers have been slower than their East Coast counterparts in mainstreaming their products is that they have been less successful in getting professional athletes or entertainers to wear their clothing--like some East Coast Latino and black companies such as Fubu, says Aztlan's Gonzales.
His company, however, designed Carlos Santana's tour shirt last year--the lion's head from his first album and the Aztec calendar included in the art.
"Right now it's a big seller for us," Gonzales says.
Jose Cardenas can be reached at email@example.com.