Phyllis Estrella, remembers hearing the word “Pachuco” for the first time when she was just five years old. It was during the 1940’s, and she recalls the word “Pachuco” being used with neither a negative nor positive connotation. It was in her predominantly white first grade class when she noticed that the Mexican-American boy who sat next to her was named “Chukie.” The name “Chukie” was outside of the norm, and as her curiosity had finally gotten the best of her, she summoned up the courage to ask him where his name came from. He told her that when he was born he had a head full of hair, so his mother said he looked like a “Pachuco.” Little did she know that this word would end up becoming a fixture within her life forever.
In the 1950’s when she became a teenager, rock and roll was born and the boys in the neighborhood started wearing baggy pants and calling themselves “Pachucos.” She remembers hearing the neighborhood teenagers using “Pachuco” slang. One example of this slang was the word “simón.” If you did not use slang when talking to the neighborhood teenagers, you were considered a “square.” She thought these self-named “Pachucos” were “cool.” She also recalls several songs referring to “Pachucos” being played constantly on the radio.
It was a Sunday afternoon in the summer of 1978, and Phyllis was driving down the street in Los Angeles when she saw a billboard advertising the play “Zoot Suit,” featuring the main character, “El Pachuco.” She couldn’t believe her eyes! She excitedly turned to her husband, Ray “Big Ray” Estrella, and said, “We have to go see that play!” She had never been to a play at all, much less a real Broadway play.
After patiently waiting for four long weeks, the day of the play was finally upon her. An excited Phyllis remembers driving up to the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles, and seeing the huge crowd of well-dressed Latinos. She remembers seeing the red carpet and her heart pounding from the vision. Once inside, she finally got into her seat, and the ’40’s music started playing. As the play began, “El Pachuco,” played by Edward James Olmos, walked out onto the stage and started talking in “Pachuco” slang. The suit, the slang, the attitude, the image, suddenly it all came together for Phyllis. This was the true essence of a real “Pachuco” in her mind, and Phyllis was impressed. She enjoyed the play thoroughly, but most of all, she was enamored with the actual Zoot Suit, the official dress code of the “Pachuco.”
Had it not been for the play “Zoot Suit,” Phyllis would have never seen a “Pachuco” wearing a Zoot Suit represented on stage. She was convinced that other people must share with her the same fascination about the Zoot Suit. She was so compelled by these suits that she felt this sudden urge to purchase a Zoot Suit. Phyllis realized that her husband wouldn’t wear it, he was much too conservative, and she knew she couldn’t wear it, so she immediately thought of her younger brother. Her younger brother loved to dance and she could picture him being the center of attention wearing a Zoot Suit.
Phyllis always considered herself to be a risk taker and she definitely loved a challenge. During this time in her life, she was self-employed as a jewelry storeowner, but willing to explore new ventures. Her father, Elbert Duran, was a World War II veteran with a Purple Heart who became a jeweler with his rehabilitation training. Phyllis and Elbert had been in the jewelry business for five years and were ready for a change. She was instantly attracted to the ideaof creating and selling Zoot Suits. She decided, along with the support of her husband, father and family, to take on this new venture, and was committed to making it a success. It was at this point that the journey began…
Phyllis decided to name the business, “El Pachuco Zoot Suits,” after the main character in the “Zoot Suit” play. She saw “El Pachuco” as a handsome, brave man, with extreme character that turned heads and was highly respected. According to Phyllis, “El Pachuco” was who you became when you put on the Zoot Suit.
Being that she was in the jewelry business at the time, a small section of the store was used for the new Zoot Suit venture. The first item for sale was a Zoot Suit chain. With the current family business being jewelry, creating the Zoot Suit chain was a natural first step. The store placed a small ad in a new magazine that called itself “Lowrider Magazine,” a new venture in its own right. Against Phyllis’ wishes, her husband added “Zoot Suits coming soon” to the print on the ad she purchased. Knowing how difficult the Zoot Suit was to locate, this only added pressure to the situation. The magazine ad produced a great response with many Zoot Suit chain orders; the only problem was that the people ordering the chain were asking where they could get the Zoot Suit to go with the chain!
The Search for the authentic “Zoot Suit”
The main thing on the agenda was to find an authentic Zoot Suit. Phyllis never thought it would be almost impossible to locate or purchase a one. She went shopping in downtown Los Angeles, and was unsuccessful. She then figured if she couldn’t buy one, she could have one tailor made. Phyllis was unsuccessful again. The tailors she spoke to could not understand why in the world she would want one of those suits. Many of the tailors didn’t even know what a Zoot Suit was! That did not stop her; she then moved her search to Orange County, and again, no success. By this point, she realized that a market had to exist, but a supplier did not. Finally, after about six months of searching and being criticized for wanting to start a Zoot Suit business, she found a tailor in Santa Ana that claimed to know how to make a Zoot Suit. That is where she met Edmundo Galvan, a Master Tailor from Chulula, MX that knew how to build the original Zoot Suit. Edmundo was working at a Sweat Shop in Santa Ana, so he was eager to get away from the harsh conditions and begin working for Phyllis. Big Ray found Edmundo an apartment and he started working for the Estrella family full time. Now that they had the main ingredient to build the Zoot Suit, they were now officially in the Zoot Suit business.
The Artist behind El Pachuco
El Pachuco needed something to indentify itself to the world of Pachucos. Phyllis went on the hunt again trying to find someone that could draw a Pachuco so she could use it as a logo for the store. With no luck in finding an artist that could draw what she wanted, fate brought in a young man by the name of Julian Mendoza, who had walked into the store to purchase a Zoot Suit. Julian became a returning customer and was in the store a few times before he showed Phyllis his artwork. Phyllis was floored by Julian’s drawings. One day, Phyllis asked him how he was able to draw the Pachuco scenes so well. Julian answered, “I think it’s because I live the Pachuco lifestyle and dress like this all the time, so it just comes natural to me.” After a few months, Phyllis purchased one of his originals for $400 and started using it in her advertizing campaign. Now, the El Pachuco logo is known worldwide, and is even used in the lining of the Zoot Suits, as well as the tags.
The First Ten Years
During the first ten years of the business, the clientele was mainly Latino. The Estrella Family also sold the suits at the swap meet and rented booths at car shows to promote the business. They had now expanded their inventory to include Zoot Suit accessories such as hats, shoes, and suspenders. The store had an extremely positive response from the Latino community. They were happy to see that some of their fashion “culture” and “history” was now readily available to them. The business not only sold the Zoot Suits, they rented them as well. Most of the Zoot Suit rentals were used for weddings and Quincenearas during that time.
They did attempt to franchise their business during that period, and while they had many inquiries over the phone and in-person, they decided against the idea. Their main concern was that they did not want this type of “element” in their shop, and many of the people interested in franchising the store did not seem to have the respect for the image that Phyllis did. They simply did not want their store and brand to be a part of anything that would further the negative connotation that came along with the Zoot Suit. They were wary of the public who claimed that Zoot Suits were associated with gangbangers and troublemakers.
In 1984, the jewelry part of the business was phased out since their Zoot Suit clientele was growing at a steady rate. Even though it remained mainly Latino, the business was making progress. That same year, they purchased a commercial building and occupied one half of the premises, while leasing out the other half to a restaurant. They now employed three tailors who worked out of their homes and provided them with high quality, custom-made Zoot Suits. The cost was $500, and they were the only business in the United States that had them available.
The Second Ten Years (1988-1998)
The second ten years became quite the turning point for El Pachuco Zoot Suits. Their clientele was now one third Anglo and two-thirds Latino. They continued to advertise in Lowrider Magazine, which had become very successful during those years. Lindy Hop and Swing dancing became quite popular during this time, which exposed the Anglo community to the Zoot Suits. Before they knew it, they had clients coming in from as far away as Switzerland, Australia, and the United Kingdom.
In 1992 the section of their commercial building they occupied was no longer able to accommodate the growing business and inventory. At that time, they decided take the chance to occupy the entire building. It was a risk, but it was much needed and they felt confidentenough to take the chance. El Pachuco clientele was expanding, and as years passed, it seemed as though the degree of negativity that the Zoot Suit once carried was slowly fading away. They had a full time crew of employees, which included Phyllis, her father Elbert, her son Ray, and tailors who worked off-site.
In the late 1990’s, they became a fashion trend for high school proms. El Pachuco rented suits out to high schools in all fifty states. The overwhelming response was so awesome that the store received numerous thank you letters and photos of the stylish teenagers. When the kids would call to place their Zoot Suit order, they would all express the fact that they wanted to “stand out” at their prom, they didn’t want to wear an average tuxedo and look like the rest of the guys.
Ironically, in the late 1990’s, tuxedo shops started carrying suits with longer than usual coats and called them a “Zoot Tux.” Also during this period, several men’s clothing stores started carrying Zoot Suits. Again, they were just plain suits with long coats and a chain. They started to get requests from men’s clothing stores to carry the Zoot Suit. Just ten years before that, the Zoot Suit wasn’t wanted anywhere, and suddenly it was quite the fashion statement. There have also been many stores that claim to have authentic Zoot Suits, but to this day, El Pachuco remains the only makers of the original, authentic Zoot Suit.
1998 – Present
El Pachuco Zoot Suits have been in business for over 32 year now, and there is no slowing them down. They still attend Lowrider Shows in full force. With the change of times and styles, the Estrella Family has extended into different branches of clothing lines, including Chicana Wear, which was started by Phyllis’ oldest daughter Lynda Estrella. Along with her daughter in law Vanessa Estrella, Lynda’s company also created a line that caters to women called “La Pachuca,” back in 2006. When the business opened in 1978, no school or educational institution would have any part of wearing a Zoot Suit. During the suit’s heyday, it was even viewed as unpatriotic to waste so much fabric in times of war. The Zoot Suit dynasty is alive and well these days, despite these challenges, and you can see the influence on a worldwide level, especially within the Lowrider Community. To all our readers out there who are looking for the real El Pachuco Zoot Suit, make sure you visit Phyllis and her Family and tell them that Lowrider sent you!