Opening its doors for business in 1978, El Pachuco Zoot Suits, located at 801 South Harbor Boulevard, has always been a family business. Phyllis Estrella, who was born, raised, and married in Fullerton, remembers starting the store 43 years ago. After seeing a production of Luis Valdez’s play, Zoot Suit, Phyllis wanted to recreate the atmosphere. She loved what she saw. She knew her husband Ray wouldn’t wear such a suit and she couldn’t picture herself wearing one, so she immediately thought of her brother. She wanted to buy one for her brother because she could imagine him being the center of attention. However, finding a suit was challenging. This struggle inspired Phyllis to open El Pachuco Zoot Suits, a business named after the main character in the play. To her, El Pachuco was who you became when you put on the zoot suit. Phyllis recalls the term Pachuco always being used negatively. She thought that if she used Pachuco in her business name, she could give the term some “dignity.” Today, the store is still in the family, and is now run by her daughter-in-law Vanessa Estrella, who has kept the store running strong even during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I was always interested in the zoot suit. I had heard talk about the suit, but I had never seen one,” Phyllis Estrella said. “One day, my husband and I were driving down a street in Los Angeles…We were in our ’59 Chevy. We went by and we saw this billboard that said, ‘Zoot Suit coming to town.’ I was so excited! I said, ‘I finally get to see a zoot suit!’ So, we immediately bought tickets because I had never been to a live play, ever. This was the first time I had seen a zoot suit; first time I had seen an all Chicano cast on the stage.”
Phyllis just couldn’t get enough of the zoot suit. She loved it so much that she wanted to be involved with it somehow. “I’m not a dancer, so I can’t dance in a zoot suit on stage. I’m not a musician. What am I going to do to have this atmosphere around me? So, I came home and I thought, ‘I want to make a zoot suit. I want to buy one for my brother.’ I went to Los Angeles and Orange County, to tailors and stores, made phone calls, even went to Mexico. Everybody said, ‘A zoot suit? Those aren’t around anymore. What do you want that for?’ Then they tried to switch me to something else, and I said, ‘No, no. I know what I want. I want a zoot suit, just like the one I saw in the play Zoot Suit, the one Eddie Olmos wore.’”
She thought that if this product wasn’t available, there had to be a demand for it because she was sure she wasn’t the only one interested. Phyllis talked to her dad about starting a zoot suit business. “He was really the instigator on everything,” she said. “If I had an idea, he would either agree with me or not. I had his okay, so we got started. That was 43 years ago. Now, here we are today on Harbor Boulevard in Fullerton. Now I sell suits all over the United States and even to other countries.”
At the beginning, not only did they have a challenge selling the suits, but they also had a challenge educating people about what a zoot suit was. “One of the things that we as El Pachuco did was we used to go to high schools, Phyllis said. That was an educational process so we could tell the world about the zoot suit. We have tried to change the image. We always present it in a positive manner. Getting into a zoot suit was not easy, and I like that about it.”
According to Phyllis, there are some basic things that a zoot suit needs. It has to have a wide lapel. It has to have baggy pants. It has to have broad shoulders. She recalls that at the beginning, they didn’t know where to start. Her family did a lot of research at the library, and ended up at a costume shop in Hollywood where her husband, Ray, rented a pink zoot suit. Between the rental, the research and finding a tailor with some experience making the suits, they were in business. They first started making the pants, and then gradually were able to perfect the pattern and start selling the whole zoot suit.
Once they began creating zoot suits, they needed accessories to go along with the outfits. Phyllis remembers that they had to have an artist draw up a hat with certain specifications, and that was not easy. However, once they had that, they were able to send the drawings to several hat companies to see who could make it for them. After El Pachuco made the hat, they made gold chains to go with it, and then wide ties. Special two-toned shoes came next. “If you put all those things together, you’ve got a good looking Pachuco,” Phyllis said. At the time, her family also used to work long hours. “My dad and I would be here all day, early until late, hoping somebody would come in, and they did. They’d come in, and we’d meet them. They would travel from far to come and see us.”
The Estrella family business has supplied so many tailor-made zoot suits for customers in the television and movie industries that they have lost count. Vanessa, who has been working with her mother in-law for the last 20 years, remembers when they got an order to make zoot suits for the show Penny Dreadful: City of Angels. “Just recently, we made over one hundred suits for Showtime,” Vanessa said. “That was just two years ago, before COVID. I work closely with a lot of productions. For Penny Dreadful: City of Angels, we did over a hundred suits. Most of them were custom, and so they sent us pictures and measurements.”
El Pachuco works very closely with the designing departments, and they’ve made suits for shows including The Masked Singer and So You Think You Can Dance. “We do a lot for movies, specific custom ones. I believe there’s a movie coming out on Cheetos, and I don’t think it’s out yet, but we just made one for them,” Vanessa said. “Believe it or not, they send me their own fabric. So, for this fabric, we had to use upholstery fabric to make the suit because they wanted a specific look. We’ve done work for shows that aren’t even out anymore, like That 70s Show. Productions know that we specialize in zoot suit, and it’s such a specialty, such a niche, that a lot of people just come directly to us and we customize. We do a lot for TV and movies.”
Vanessa explained that El Pachuco ships worldwide. Customers call her if they need something. At the store, her company packs it up, and they ship it out to their customers. She said, “The majority of the time, we do this for a lot of different artists as well, she said. “A lot of the singers you see out there that sing Doo-wop and oldies, we dress them. We’ve done it for back-up singers and back-up dancers, like at the MTV Video Awards for Christina Aguilera. She was singing, and all her back-up dancers had on our zoot suits. We do our fair share. We stay busy.” Some of the store’s busiest times of the year include Halloween and prom season.
COVID has affected El Pachuco Zoot Suits quite a bit. At the moment, they only do curbside pick-ups and online orders. In fact, as I was doing my interview with Vanessa and Phyllis, a car pulled up. Vanessa explained that her customer had scheduled an appointment beforehand. They texted her, and she had a bag ready. They just drove up, rolled down their window and she gave them the bag. They were ready to go because everything was paid for ahead of time online.
When Phyllis went to see the play Zoot Suit all those years ago, it was fashion, it was theater, and it was history. She didn’t even know that the story had happened [Zoot Suit Riots, 1943], and she didn’t know the history of the zoot suit, so she’s very thankful that Luis Valdez wrote this play. “What does a zoot suit mean to me? It means everything,” Phyllis said. “It’s our social life here and our work. We’ve made so many friends from everywhere—local, across the country, and around the world. I have a lot more friends now because of the zoot suit.” Vanessa added that Phyllis has taught her everything she knows. She proudly said, “I am blessed to be able to work in our family business.”
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