WITH the commercials, halftime show and the game itself, Super Bowl LIV this Sunday will provide much to watch and talk about. But not to miss are the suits the players will be wearing off the field as professional sports games have unexpectedly become sources of fashion inspiration.
There’s one Filipina American designer behind most of this year’s sleek and tailored outfits: Jhoanna Alba.
She’s the chief visionaire of ALBA — taken after her last name but also meaning ‘A Light Beyond Appearance’ — a Los Angeles-based bespoke clothing company with over 1,200 high-profile athletic and entertainment clients from Magic Johnson to Terrell Owens.
The Super Bowl is the first of many major events for Alba’s company as it kicks off the next few months of annual professional sports milestones, such as NBA All-Star Weekend and MLB Spring Training.
On the first two days of this week, Alba and her team set up shop in Miami to take measurements for players on both the San Francisco 49ers and Kansas City Chiefs.
“They’ll come in through my store, we’ll take their measurements and then we’re turning around suits in 48 hours so they can wear them to the game,” Alba envisioned during a recent interview with the Asian Journal at her home in Calabasas, California.
Whether it’s basketball, football or baseball, players have taken the leagues’ dress codes as a way to develop their brand and be trendsetters.
“Every athlete is their own brand so it’s important for them to look the part and their image is key in that. The NFL and NBA enforced dress codes so they have to dress appropriately for every occasion,” she said.
It’s mid-morning during the interview, but already, Alba has been on the phone, beginning as early as 6 a.m. to speak to her East Coast clients. “My daughter counted how many people I talked to on one specific day and she counted over 100. So that’s pretty much my life,” Alba joked.
Accessibility and relationship building have been at the core of Alba’s business for the past 26 years as the go-to source for custom-made outfits.
Of her philosophy, she said, “I think that’s what made me successful in what I do because I don’t have a liaison, you can call me directly. I have assistants, executive assistants, and a team that help me. But at the same time, if you want to get ahold of me, there are ways. If I feel that it’s appropriate and beneficial, then I’ll call you back.”
Fashion meets sports
Alba, who migrated from the Philippines to Los Angeles with her family when she was six months old, credits having artistic influences early on. Around six years old, she started sketching illustrations and learned how to sew by hand from her mother. That later turned into making dresses for her dolls and then going to the Salvation Army to construct her own outfits.
“I remember sitting on the floor sewing by hand and watching sports at the same time. Now everything is full circle,” Alba recalled as weekends typically consisted of playing mahjong and watching a game on television with extended family.
At 16, she landed a job at Gary’s Tux Shop at the Northridge Fashion Center and continued to work there as she pursued a degree in child development at a nearby community college. After graduation, she worked as a preschool teacher but still maintained a schedule at the store on weekday afternoons and weekends.
It led to a ripple effect of moving to the store’s other locations in the Valley before she was promoted to the one in Beverly Hills, which was the highest volume tuxedo shop in the country in the early ‘90s as it catered to celebrity weddings and award shows.
Working on one occasion in 1995 changed the course of her career — the wedding of NFL quarterback Rodney Peete and his actress wife Holly as they rented tuxedos for the groomsmen. The designer who did Peete’s suit came back to the store months later and offered her a job to head his company’s division for custom women’s clothes, mostly for the wives and girlfriends of athletes.
“After a lot of prayers and thinking about my future, I was like, ‘Okay, I’m not married. I don’t have any kids. What do I have to lose?’” Alba said.
She found the shift to designing for women more challenging, as custom-made is a detailed process where the client can’t see what an outfit looks and fits like until the product is finished.
“As a designer, you’re trying to explain to your client what it’s going to look like and you’re showing them fabrics and designs,” she explained. “But at the end of the day, they don’t really know what it looks like, unlike when you’re out shopping and see something on the racks, you can just try it on and either buy it or don’t.”
She gave herself some time to see the job through until she ran into Magic Johnson at an event, with whom she had established a working relationship over the years as she helped finalize his outfits by matching ties with his suits.
“When we were at an event, [Magic] looked at me and said, ‘You don’t seem happy.’ I was surprised because I thought I was happy, but he saw deeper than that. So he said, ‘Come to my house tomorrow at 11 o’clock.”
Alba has shared this story many times before but still does so as it lays the foundation for how she started her own business at 22 years old. She embarrassingly narrated how she got lost on the way to Johnson’s Beverly Park home, despite frequent visits, and ended up arriving two hours later. (It’s important to note that this was before the luxury of GPS and owning a cellphone.)
“I get there, I’m nervous and he opens the door. I remember what he was wearing: a white t-shirt, black Adidas, sweatpants and white socks, his kind of everyday uniform. It’s so funny when he’s not wearing suits,” Alba said. “He says, ’Make me 10 suits.’ I agreed. Then he goes, ’I think you should start your own company.’”
After that meeting, she took the measurements and found a place in downtown that would fulfill the order for the custom suits. “I delivered all 10 suits and none of them fit,” she said, laughing.
“I use the motto still to this day. I make one suit first, I fit you in it and if there are any alterations, I adjust your pattern and then I make the rest. Now my clients have a database of everything that we’ve made them and all their patterns and whatnot. Magic has been so patient with me. It’s been 26 years and he’s still a client and so supportive,” Alba said.
In a 2018 video for Lebron James’ brand Uninterrupted, Johnson said that Alba earned his trust “by being the best out there in the business.”
“From the very beginning, she was a businesswoman and I was so impressed with her knowledge of what would look good on me and what wouldn’t,” he added.
That meeting with Johnson was a “learning curve,” she said, given that it was her first shot in this solo venture. But it would be the model for streamlining the process for future clients, who eventually followed through referrals.
“Once you get one player, you get a handful of players on their team. The players then get traded to other teams so they introduce you. It’s like a domino effect,” she explained. “That’s how I built my business — word of mouth, just being honest and building relationships.”
It means ‘A Light Beyond Appearance’ and we’re creating the look of your legacy. I’m doing this for my family,” Alba said of her business name.
Her early clients included NFL players Robert Griffith and Terrell Owens and they continue to be close friends, with Griffith as her daughter’s godfather and Owens gifting her framed memorabilia when he was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2018.
When asked to sift through years of amusing stories and recount at least one, Alba talked about how she and her assistant met baseball player Barry Bonds — who was with the San Francisco Giants at the time — at a hotel lobby in LA while they were scouting potential clients.
“We get his measurements and he orders six outfits, which we delivered the next week in San Diego. I remember him saying, ‘I just felt sorry for you gals, like I didn’t really think that you could conduct business but I see that you do.’ He ended up ordering 26 outfits and had us fly to Oakland where he was playing and introduced us to his wife, who he ended up buying 26 outfits for also. She got clothes for their daughter too and they did this whole family portrait shoot. He was a good client for a few years.”
Though she has been an entrepreneur for nearly three decades, ALBA is her third business and will be celebrating its seventh year. It’s taken her this long to name a venture after herself out of humility but reframed it as leaving a legacy for her family.
“I never wanted it to be about me. So when Magic was like, ‘It has to be your name this time and you have to build your enterprise and all that.’ If it’s going to be called Alba, it needs to mean something. It means ‘A Light Beyond Appearance’ and we’re creating the look of your legacy. I’m doing this for my family,” she said.
Family is ingrained in the business as her 75-year-old mother Adel San Juan handles the company’s finances and oversees the production house across the street from Alba’s showroom in Downtown LA. Her teenage daughter Ashley comes along to fittings and events, though Alba does not try to sway her in any career direction.
“My mom is the first person to get there and the last person to leave. She walks a mile after she gets off the train and she walks a mile to work — rain or shine. That’s the Filipina work ethic,” Alba remarked about San Juan.
Though it may be easier to buy designer brands off the rack, ALBA as a line seeks to create timeless looks that include the client in the design process.
“I have a notepad right next to my bed and I will wake up in the middle of the night and think of a design and then sketch it and then incorporate that somehow in one of my client’s wardrobes,” Alba said. “I’m not a fan of the word trend because I just feel like it’s about who you are, you create your own trend.”
A scroll through the company’s Instagram page (@albalegacy) shows that she and her team have created looks for Steph Curry, Lamar Odom, Klay Thompson and Russell Westbrook, to name a few. On the entertainment side, ALBA’s work includes Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson’s wardrobe for HBO’s “Ballers”; a suit for Keanu Reeves during the “John Wick 3” press tour; a pink tweed blazer and skirt for Tyra Banks in “Life Size 2”; pastel-colored suits for hip hop trio Migos’ appearance at the 2019 BET Awards; and a gold leaf-printed tuxedo for Lena Waithe to wear when she won an Emmy in 2017.
Even with the long roster of high-profile names and stories over the years, Alba does not name drop or boast about who she has worked with.
“My family, my daughter, how I grew up and where I came from continue to ground me. Every other year, we go to the Philippines, like we’re going this year. At the end of the day, I just wanted to provide for my family and it doesn’t matter who I’m working with. They’re people too,” she said.
In addition to getting the Super Bowl looks ready for players by Friday, Alba is mounting other activations in Miami this week, such as a ‘women in sports’ panel, a fashion show and a ‘Legends and Legacy’ discussion with her Hall of Fame clients.
“I’m not a fan of the word trend because I just feel like it’s about who you are, you create your own trend,” Alba said.
Then it’s off to Chicago for NBA All-Star Weekend the third weekend in February, followed by Major League Baseball training in Arizona and Florida; the NFL and NBA draft; ESPN’s ESPY Awards; and creating looks for various players throughout their respective sports’ season.
“Business comes in seasons. Everyone expects us at these events so it’s kind of our reunion and they order their clothes for the season. We just touch base with them throughout the season and if they need anything throughout [the] off-season, they give us a call and so we’re able to maintain relationships that way,” she said.
One important tip she shares is sifting through her phone contacts and having personal check-ins with past and current clients, something as simple as a ‘How are you?’ or ‘How’s your family?’ That’s how she’s been able to provide a level of attentiveness that makes each person feel like they’re her only client.
The bespoke clothing business is her “bread and butter,” but Alba started two other side ventures: Mi Armore, a line of fashion arm warmers, and another called V.I.E.W. (short for Visionaries Inspiring & Empowering Women), a platform for female professionals to connect, find mentors and have an accountability group.
She’s quick to chart her journey and share career advice, but the answer to ‘How did you do it?’ boils down to “faith over fear.”
“When I was the most stressed out in my life, I was the most unproductive. So I feel like stress is a distraction to take you off track. If you ever feel stress or anxiety, you have to find your balance to find that peace. With peace comes clarity and then with clarity is execution,” Alba said.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this article implied that NBA player Steph Curry was a regular client of Alba’s. Her company made him one suit. We apologize for the error.