Phyllis Estrella turned to her husband Ray after seeing the play Zoot Suit at the Mark Taper Forum one night in 1978 with a new passion for the fashion. A young Edward James Olmos, donning a red dress shirt with flared collars covered by an oversized jacket, leaned back onstage as “El Pachuco” in the landmark Chicano production. Phyllis sought a zoot suit just like it for her brother. “We looked high and low, but could not find one anywhere,” Ray recalls.
Taking matters into their own hands, Ray and Phyllis decided to open a new store in Fullerton that same year, first selling wallet chains before finding the right tailor in Edmundo Galvan to bring the elusive zoot suit back to life (How elusive? Last year, LACMA disclosed it had searched more than a decade before acquiring perhaps the last zoot suit still in existence). They named their business “El Pachuco Zoot Suits” after the classic character in the Luis Valdez play. “It was fantastic!” says Ray of the play he and his wife saw six times during its initial run. “We found it interesting enough that my wife decided to build a business around it.”
With an opening night performance on Sunday, Zoot Suit is back at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles after first premiering 39 years ago. Academy Award-nominated actor Demian Bichir takes on the role of El Pachuco this time around. With decades of experience running a family business tailoring zoot suits, the Estrellas’ inspiration came full circle along with the play’s revival. When audiences now watch the saga based on the Sleepy Lagoon murder case and the LA Zoot Suit Riots that followed in 1943, actors in the play recreate history in wardrobe provided by their El Pachuco store.
“We’ve always maintained a relationship with the Valdez family,” says Ray. “We worked with Phil Esparza, Luis Valdez’s right-hand guy, who contacted us. They told us what they needed and the rest is history.” Ann Closs-Farley, Zoot Suit‘s costume designer, picked out fabrics and handed them over to El Pachuco who worked their magic in transforming them into silhouettes of traditional pachuco wear popular with rebellious Mexican-American youth in the 1940s.
“The suits from El Pachuco look amazing on stage,” says Closs-Farley, herself a Garden Grove native. Henry Reyna, the play’s main character, and his 38th Street Gang cohorts Smiley, Tommy, Joey and Bertha return in style thanks to the Fullerton shop. “When Matias Ponce, who plays Henry, put on his suit in the fitting, he understood himself as Henry. It was pretty magical.” Bill Raden, gabacho theater critic for LA Weekly, called the costume design “colorfully outlandish” in reflecting the spirit rather than the “strictly accurate” street wear of the times. But everyone knows that El Pachuco not only tailors the most firme zoot suits in town, but also the most authentic replicas of their 1940’s inspiration.
And as for being faithful to the history? Closs-Farley also got the opportunity to alter the length of Henry’s jacket, no small detail in the larger narrative of the Sleepy Lagoon trial and Zoot Suit Riots, where racist U.S. servicemen, la chota and other Anglo Angelenos beat down and stripped pachucos in the streets. Back in the days of World War II, the zoot suit’s lengthy coattails and other exaggerations became distorted as an unpatriotic affront to the fabric rationing of the times.
But Henry’s jacket isn’t the only noteworthy costume change. Bertha, played by Melinna Bobadilla, dons a zoot suit for the first time in the production’s history. “From the very beginning choreographer, Maria Torres and I challenged Luis Valdez by saying we want to put more girls in pants,” says Closs-Farley. “The pachucas were definitely wearing pants with suspenders and that’s how we wanted be able to portray Bertha, who’s definitely a character pushing the envelope of self-awareness. I knew she could rock a whole suit!”
El Pachuco Zoot Suits shares a booth with Luis Valdez’s legendary Teatro Campesino at the Taper. They are enjoying the play’s revival as much as the debut run decades ago. “There’s a lot of excitement around it,” says Ray. “It’s such an important part of our culture and history that a lot of people hold it near and dear to their heart.” The family business continues these days with the help of his son Ray and daughter-in-law Vanessa as it nears a milestone.
Next year will mark the 40th anniversary of Phyllis turning her love for Zoot Suit into an iconic blue building with pink trim along Harbor Boulevard. The Estrella family is planning on marking the occasion, but for now is focused on the play that sees them working every day but Monday through its current run. “We’ve never had a lack of interest,” says Ray. Loyal customers rent and buy zoot suits for events like proms and quinceaneras. “Zoot suits have never really gone away—the play just brings it more to the forefront. We love the culture or else we wouldn’t be doing what we do.”
Zoot Suit at the Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles, (213) 628-2772; centertheatregroup.org. 8 p.m. (Tu-Fri), 2:30 p.m. and 8 p.m. (Sat), 1 and 6:30 p.m. (Sun), through Mar. 26. $25-99. All ages.