FULLERTON, Calif. — In the teal-tiled lobby of El Pachuco Zoot Suits, actor and dancer Gilbert Salvidar steps out of a dressing room and takes a long look at himself, reflected in the wall of mirrors.
Black suspenders under a granite jacket framed a light gray shirt, buttoned to the top. Salvidar puffed out his chest under the zoot suit and flashed a grin.
He liked what he saw. “I feel more confident when I have this on.”
Downtown Fullerton is the site of the last remaining zoot suit store in the United States. For 45 years, El Pachuco Zoot Suits has suited and booted people in California and across the world in the niche 1940s-era suits. The family-run shop, located the Harbor Boulevard strip, has showcased Mexican American style and preserved the culture for decades.
Zoot suits are distinct, colorful three-piece suits comprised of wide-shouldered coats with wide winged lapels, paired with high-waisted, pleated, baggy kneed pants and narrow cuffed trousers.
In the summer of 1978 in Los Angeles, Phyllis Estrella felt compelled to watch “Zoot Suit” after spotting a billboard advertising the play. The Pachuco culture on display in the film inspired her.
“I had always heard about the zoot suits,” she said. “But then I saw the play and I wanted to keep the spirit alive.”
With the support of her husband, Jose Ramon Estrella, and her father, Bert Duran, Estrella hung the poster outside her storefront, outfitted the mannequins in colorful sport jackets and pants and opened shop. El Pachuco Zoot Suit was in business.
The riots began in response to predominantly white servicemen assaulting mainly Mexican-American youth who wore zoot suits — seen as a waste of fabric amid wartime rationing. The uprising resulted in widespread violence as discrimination against the Latino community boiled over.
Estrella believed associating the name of the character with her business could bring the term some dignity. It didn’t take off right away.
“In the 80s, a lot of kids would come in here to get zoot suits for prom and sometimes their parents would discourage them and say things like ‘pa que quieres esa cochinada’,” Estrella recalled. “Some schools wouldn’t even allow kids to wear zoot suits at prom.”
The family originally turned to ads in Lowrider Magazine, renting booths at car shows and showing up at swap meets in an attempt to reel in customers — largely Latinos living in Orange County and nearby communities.
In the 1990s, the resurgence of “Lindy Hop,” a genre of music popular during the swing era of the late 1930s and early 1940s, exposed other communities to zoot suits. Soon the store was seeing a more diverse clientele.
In the 2000s, social media platforms such as Myspace helped El Pachuco Zoot Suits go global. Their primary customers are in the U.S., but they have expanded into countries such as Japan, Sweden, France and the United Kingdom.
Part of what attracts clients to the shop, is its distinctive look. This includes Saldivar, who performed in the 2017 rendition of “Zoot Suit” in Los Angeles, rocking a custom fit from the Estrella family shop.
El Pachuco also offers its own line of shoes, chains, necklaces, tie clips, lapel chain pins, 1940s-style dress shirts, belly warmer ties and era-appropriate hats. Raymond Estrella, Phyllis Estrella’s son, said that they make roughly 12 suits a week.
Their suits have been in movies, plays and music videos.
Edward James Olmos, an American produce, director and actor best known for his roles in “Blade Runner” and “Miami Vice,” and starred in the 1981 film “Zoot Suit,” has been coming to the shop for decades. On a wall in the lobby, a black and white headshot of Olmos hangs in a frame with his autograph scrawled across the photo.
In recent years, Disney commissioned suits for “Flamin’ Hot,” a live-action movie that depicts the creation of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos. The suits weren’t featured in the film. The store’s suits have appeared, however, in Showtime’s Penny Dreadful: City of Angels, a television series which follows two detectives as they investigate a murder in Southern California.
Even with all the attention in recent years, the Estrellas haven’t forgotten their roots. Their suits are most commonly found on members of the lowrider community.
This year, Lowrider Magazine asked the family if they would like to host a September zoot suit contest at the Lowrider Super Show in Las Vegas.
Vanessa Estrella, who runs the store’s day-to-day operations and is Phyllis Estrella’s daughter-in-law, credits their customers for the store’s growth and for helping the family keep the Pachuco culture alive.
“Anybody who walks through that door deserves my respect,” Vanessa said. “Thousands of people from all over the world come for many different reasons and I love to hear their stories.”
Customers like Salvidar, who walked out with the monochromatic suit-and-suspenders combo — a much needed outfit for an upcoming trip to the east coast — tend to return again and again.
After paying at the register and chatting with Vanessa Estrella, Salvidar again flashed a grin. He’d be back, he said. Soon.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story incorrectly described the garment Gilbert Saldivar put on. They were suspenders. This article has also been corrected to accurately reflect that the “Flamin’ Hot” film did not use the suits the store created.
Anthony Bautista graduated from California State University in the spring, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in communications with a concentration in journalism. He is passionate about sports and freelances on the weekends as a sports reporter. Reach him at anthonybautista8125 [at] gmail [dot] com or on Twitter @byanthonyba.