Zoot suits live on in thriving biz

Suavecito Apparel co-founder Craig Peña tells how his zoot-suit business got started - and where it draws the line. (Fluorescent yellow, yes; denim, no.)

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By Craig Peña, as told to Malika Zouhali-Worrall

zoot_alors.03.jpeg
Pena and Sales lead the pack in their $300 suits.
The zoot suit is back
Revived by the founders of Suavecito Apparel Co. in Denver, its popularity is fueling this small business to grow big.

(FORTUNE Small Business) -- I started sewing when I was 4 years old. I was using my mother's sewing machine when I turned 10, and in college I earned extra money by making and mending clothes. I would buy $5 suits from thrift stores, and then rip the seams apart and reconstruct the jackets and pants to fit me.

Zoot suits - which are an icon of Latino culture - were hard to find. In the Hispanic community our fathers, grandfathers, and uncles wore such ensembles; they're part of our identity. So a friend, Jay Salas, and I started making them in 1997.

We launched at a good time - in the middle of a swing-dance craze, and the Cherry Poppin' Daddies had just released their hit single, "Zoot Suit Riot." The band wore our suits and talked about us on the radio. Business boomed. We went from one or two e-mails a week to 40 a day. David Bowie walked into our store and bought a suit.

We knew the swing scene wouldn't last, so we extended our line to include business suits and tuxedos. Denver's mayor, John Hickenlooper, is a regular customer. We sell 750 to 1,000 suits a year, made in U.S. and foreign factories. Our 2007 revenues were about $300,000. (We also have a smaller stream of income from our other company, selling gear for martial arts enthusiasts.)

Our $300 zoot is our bestseller - with its high-waisted trousers and padded shoulders, it makes a fat guy appear thinner and a short guy seem taller. We can design zoots in almost any fabric or color, from pink to zebra print, but there are limits. For example, I'm philosophically against making a denim zoot. I won't let customers dress like idiots.

- Craig Peña is co-founder of Suavecito Apparel Co. in Denver  To top of page

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