Zoot Me Up!

Joe Coleman, tailor to Houston's zoot suit culture, knows one thing for certain: Sometimes, clothes do make the man.

In the Colemans' eyes, there's nothing superficial about that kind of pride. From among the laminated photographs of styling zoot suiters, the Colemans like to take out an old picture of themselves. Circa 1972, it reveals the normally modest Virginia in a plunging-neck, showstopping, leopard-print minidress accented by thigh-high lace-up platform shoes. Beside her is Joe, flexing his athlete's frame in a canary-yellow hot pants suit with sliced-open sleeves that show off his biceps. Virginia made the hot pants outfit for her husband's birthday. Then they wore her creations to the Muhammad Ali-Jimmy Ellis fight at the Astrodome, which was holding a best-dressed contest for its 40,000 attendees.

Guess who won? It was more than 22 years ago, but the photo still dazzles, as does the memory of Joe Coleman leading the other contestants in a grand procession right through the Astrodome to the boxing ring. It's an impressive image, and the Colemans clearly love it. It's the kind of triumph -- of self-expression, of recognition, of at once belonging and gloriously standing out -- that can nourish your soul through a lot of mundane disappointments.

So it's little surprise that the Colemans know what it takes to stitch up an awesome zoot suit.

Posterity is an obsession for Joe Coleman. When he talks about lecturing the kids who enter his shop, he adds that what he tells them, he wants them to tell to their grandkids. Such an obsession fits well with his clients' reverence for their own pasts. For the hip-hop kids who come into Coleman's, the emblems of identity that surround them are magnetic: not just the suits, but the T-shirts emblazoned with "Aztlan" or "Mexico" logos. For the older customers, the men who came of age in the '70s and '80s, Coleman's is where they can reproduce the clothes they once idolized while watching their fathers.

"I used to come here when I was a young kid," says 28-year-old Joseph de la Fuente, an Airborne Express driver who stops into Coleman's shop for a breath of nostalgia. "I used to come in here for the hats. I had a chain, the whole works. Coleman's has been a tradition among the [pachuco] scene -- which is all about low riders, girls, dancing and late nights. And it's about staying clean, having pressed pants, clean clothes. Our dads are the same way."

Marriage, work and 1990s child-rearing have since blurred de la Fuente's neat edges; faint love handles curve the lines of his blue work shirt, and it's harder to keep the classic three-shirt-folds-in-back, two-folds-in-front zoot look intact when you're driving across town making deliveries.

"Back in those days, you wouldn't let your girlfriend or your mother iron your pants for you," de la Fuente notes. "Me and my friends, we would get together and iron for about two hours. We'd all come out clean, hang on the corner. We'd have nothing to do, but we'd be clean. Then we'd say -- let's go hang out at Coleman's."

For client Ricardo Tijerina, the Coleman's look is a still-living icon. Tijerina met Coleman just last year. Lots of Tijerina's friend have zoot suits; Tijerina had three, plus five pairs of Stacy Adams shoes, until he sold them after hitting hard times a few years back. Now Tijerina's buying another suit from Coleman on layaway, one made in a discreet, dove gray plaid. And the best thing about it is that his father, grandfather and great grandfather dressed exactly the same way.

"My dad was a pachuco -- what they call a cool cat," says Tijerina. "He had the Stacy Adams shoes, the low rider haircut, and the walk. The older he gets, the grouchier he gets, but he still combs back with Three Flowers and stuff. I'm 32, and I hope I never get over it.

"I remember my great grandpa wearing those Stacy Adams shoes and those cocky pants," he adds, making the sort of connection that Virginia and Joe Coleman live for and design suits for. How long did Tijerina's grandfather maintain his zoot suit affiliation? "Until," Tijerina says, "the day he died.

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