"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.
"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.
"Holy shit!" Craig said.
"Holy shit!" Jay said.
They bought more suits, added hats, chains and suspenders, printed more business cards and gained a credible street reputation. They had lots of fun and made a little money, but still they held on to their day jobs.
Then some white guys sauntered into the shop.
Members of the Cherry Poppin' Daddies, a punk, ska, swing-revival band from Oregon, had heard about Suavecito's through the grapevine. Craig, who didn't know the Cherry Poppin' Daddies from cherry Pop Tarts, sold them a few hats and a few chains and bought a few six packs to celebrate. The band invited Craig and Jay to their Denver show.
They never made it, but a lot of other people did. After the concert, the phone at Suavecito's started ringing. The band had plugged Craig during a radio interview and gave the store props on stage.
"It just exploded," Craig recalls.
During the next few years, Suavecito's rode the wave of the swing revival. Craig eventually quit his job, and the store moved to Santa Fe Drive. But as good as business was, Jay and Craig knew the swing fad would end, so they refocused on their Chicano base. They advertised with Lowrider magazine, developed a catalogue, created a customer database and dabbled in wholesale.
Suavecito's featured custom suits in every color in the Froot Loops bowl. It offered the classic four-button, notched-lapel, knee-length jackets with matching navel-high trousers. It offered a three-button, single-breasted, extra-baggy and dropped-belt-looped "Suit of Action." And they offered their masterpiece: the $299, solid black, satin-lapeled "Zoot Tux."
"Put our Zoot Tux against an Armani in a hip crowd, and we'll get more love every time," Craig says. "When our boys visited the Playboy mansion in Zoot Tuxes, they were handpicked to hang out with Hef and the bunnies after everyone else was sent home. We're the official clothiers of the Players Ball in Las Vegas, too. We get the love. Definitely."
But the love hasn't always come easy.
At times, Jay and Craig have struggled with cash flow, wholesaling and manufacturers. They saw their store in San Antonio flop. And they've borrowed money from their families.
"We've had any number of rather expensive lessons," Craig says.
Yet they've always bounced back. They owe that to their work ethic, sense of style, wifely support and knowledge of the market. And they're a good team. Jay is the silver-tongued idea man who handles temperamental celebrities; Craig is the organizer, the planner, the muscle and the guy who does the books.
"Plus, we're great bullshitters," Craig proclaims.
Translation: They're equally at ease with vaqueros from the border, vatos from the 'hood and MBAs from the 'burbs. They've partied with VIPs in Vegas, but they still drag lawn chairs outside the shop and shoot the breeze with anyone dropping by. "It's all about respect," Craig says. "People come in as customers, and they leave as family."
During the past few years, Jay and Craig have expanded that family into casual and business wear, as well as traditional formal apparel. They've even played around with logo design. But it's their new clothing line, Chingaso (Spanish slang for "fight"), that they hope will push them over the top. The gear is focused on the Latino boxing community, which Jay and Craig say is just as vibrant as the black hip-hop culture. And with an edgy array of shirts, caps, sunglasses, trunks and robes, they hope to tap it. Stevie Johnston and Fernando Vargas have already worn Chingaso prototypes.
"It's going to blow up big," Craig predicts.
But until it does, the two partners will continue to live the zoot-suit myth, chase the San Luis dream and inch their way up the elephant's tail.
"We may be two fleas, but these fleas have big peckers," Jay says. "When we're done, that elephant will know we were there."
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter