Zoot Allure

A couple of beers and an eye for style bring a zoot suit riot to Santa Fe Drive.

 "It was the secret fantasy of every vato living in or out of the pachucada to put on the zoot suit and play the myth." -- Edward James Olmos, as El Pachuco in the 1981 film Zoot Suit.

From the moment they sold their first pinstripes, ankle chokers and pachuco chains, Craig Peña and Jay Salas were little Napoleons. But it was Craig's dad who put their quest for global domination in perspective: "You guys are like a couple of fleas crawling up the tail of an elephant with rape on their minds."

That's a compliment for these social workers turned entrepreneurs.

Smooth operators: Jay Salas (left) and Craig Peña 
model their wares.
Smooth operators: Jay Salas (left) and Craig Peña model their wares.

"We do everything balls-out," Craig says. "We do it big, and we fuck up big. One day we will conquer the world."

Craig is a stocky, gregarious, 38-year-old "chick magnet" with a manicured goatee. Jay is a lean, gregarious 31-year-old "chick magnet" with a manicured beard. Together they are the Batman and Robin of Suavecito's at 725 Santa Fe Drive, purveyors of zoot suits. They have clothed everyone from Garth Brooks to "Sugar" Shane Mosley to D-Money to Los Chicos del Barrio, attracted customers from as far away as Tokyo and sold more than a million dollars' worth of merchandise.

Like many grand plans of conquest, theirs began over beers.

When Jay's girlfriend became pregnant in the summer of 1997, he turned to Craig, who was already married with kids, for some advice. The two friends and colleagues -- Craig was manager of social services for Servicios de la Raza and Jay oversaw the youth program -- discussed the finer points of What to Expect When You're Expecting, and eventually, their talk turned toward hopes and dreams.

Both men had always wanted to retire in the San Luis Valley and fish their golden years away. Both had always wanted a bankroll large enough to finance their children's college educations. And both knew their social-worker salaries would never get them there. So they tossed around some ideas until Jay hit on one that would make them some money and help the Latino community: zoot suits.

From the time he was a rowdy little vato bouncing around Denver, New Mexico and Texas, Jay had always been drawn to the extra-baggy, extra-pleated and extra-flashy ensembles preferred by the Chicano community for several generations. Jay's grandfathers wore them. His uncles wore them. His lowriding friends wore them. "It's something every Chicano has thought about wearing at one time," he says. "It's the ultimate in style, attitude and pride."

No one is exactly sure how the style started, but most scholars think it blossomed during the late-'30s jazz culture, when "zoot" was a slang word for "extravagant." By the early '40s, dandies from Harlem to Hollywood had donned "killer-diller coats with a drape shape, real pleats and shoulders padded like a lunatic's cell." Cab Calloway. Cesar Chavez. A pimp who would become Malcolm X. Zoot suits were everywhere, including in the headlines.

During World War II, fabric was rationed, so zoot suits -- which required more material than traditional garments -- were considered excessive and even unpatriotic. And since they were worn predominantly by urban blacks and, later, Latinos, cultural animosity festered. In the summer of 1943, tensions exploded when white sailors and other servicemen attacked Latinos in the streets of Los Angles with belt-wrapped fists and clubs during what came to be called the "Zoot Suit Riots."

Jay knew a little of the history, but mostly he coveted the Edward James Olmos mystique.

Craig did, too. As a kid in east Denver, he was raised on Chicano history and culture by activist parents who practically administered pop quizzes.

"When I got married," Craig said, "there was no doubt I'd wear a zoot suit."

The only problem was, they couldn't find decent zoots anywhere. Whenever they wanted to strut their stuff, they had to borrow pocket-watch chains from older relatives and scour vintage-clothing stores.

Finally, in 1997, a seamstress friend of Jay's found him a '30s-version zoot suit from a New York manufacturer. Wherever he wore that black-pinstriped ensemble, from Latino sorority dinners with his girlfriend to lowrider shows with his homies, the compliments followed. Smelling an opportunity, Jay printed business cards and rented the suit off his back. But he didn't have the merchandise -- or the money -- to meet the demand.

So during that pep talk on fatherhood, the two decided to expand his venture.

Craig told his wife, "Trust me," then refinanced their home, rented a shoebox of a store at 40th Avenue and Tejon Street, and posted a sign for Suavecito's, which is his partner's nickname and the Spanish word for "smooth." Then he convinced the manufacturer of Jay's pinstripe to ship 28 more suits to Denver -- by exchanging a menudo recipe and a few Tejano tapes with the company's secretary. The partners also negotiated a fifty-pair deal with the renowned Stacy Adams shoe company. Inventory complete, they printed more business cards and plopped them down by the dozens at venues like the original Chubby's landmark Mexican restaurant.

Then they waited.

Orders trickled in slowly until Craig and a computer buddy cracked opened a few beers and designed a Web site in 1998. Within a day, 64 e-mails appeared.

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