It's impossible to talk about the "fabric" of San Francisco's North Beach without mentioning its beloved clothier Al Ribaya -- whose shop Al's Attire is the neighborhood's fashion hub, holding court on the corner of Vallejo and Grant.
For years, the shop has been a bustling fashion epicenter as Ribaya helps customers craft vintage style suits, wedding dresses and unique pieces to don for special events and parties. In other words -- the very events that ended abruptly when the pandemic locked down the economy.
With nightclubs closed, parties and weddings cancelled, the last thing anyone needed was a specially tailored three-piece suit, or a hand-made trench coat. And that was nearly the demise of Ribaya's business.
"I might as well have closed up because no one was on the street," Ribaya said recently in his shop, surrounded by his creations. "I never closed up, the difference is I was by myself."
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Ribaya's shop could've gone the way of other businesses shuttering permanently in the pandemic, if not for his dogged tenacity. He used the slow time to scrape-up piecemeal clothing and shoe repair work from the neighborhood or crafting new projects such as a line of colorful PPE masks and "Fight the Virus" jackets featuring images of superheroes imprinted on vintage fabric. The work was enough to keep the business going through the pandemic's darkest days.
"I consider myself very fortunate," Ribaya said, "because a lot of people in my industry are closed and a lot of them will never open back up again."
Entering the shop's half-door and engaging its jingly bell, is like stepping back into a long-ago era, with vintage-esque three-piece suits, women's long coats and custom shoes sitting everywhere -- Ribaya dashing to and from with a tape measure dangling from his neck and a pin-cushion lashed to his rolled-up sleeve. If the shop is a time capsule, then Ribaya is its time-jumping impresario.
But as the streets emptied and Ribaya sat alone in his shop -- remaining open throughout the pandemic through the essential uniform work he's done for police officers and firefighters -- the pain and isolation of his struggling business became the second worst part of the pandemic for him. The Filipino immigrant has four young children back in the Philippines, and with travel shut down, he wasn't able to visit them for a long, merciless year.
"It was very difficult," Ribaya recounted. "Even with the chat and talking to them every night, it’s just not the same thing."
Ribaya came to the U.S. with his family in the 1960s. He was still in high school when he got a job in a shoe repair shop, absorbing and falling in love with the craft of shoe making and repair. He opened his own shoe-making shop just after high school and called it Taming of the Shoe. The shoes became the gateway drug into vintage clothing and from there he opened a series of vintage clothing shops in San Francisco's iconic Haight-Ashbury neighborhood.
His entree into the world of tailoring came from the occasions when the fit of a piece of vintage clothing didn't match the proportions of its perspective buyer. So Ribaya began to make his own vintage clothing. His crafting caught the attention of theater companies, artists and musicians aspiring for a unique look.
After moving his business to North Beach, Al's Attire became the ultimate manifestation of all its owner's endeavors; where everything from shoes, to suits to bags to dresses to coats were hand crafted for clients through the prism of old-world style tailoring.
"It’s really the construction technique of the old days that really appeals to me," said Ribaya, whose clothing casts a serious gaze toward the early 1900s.
In his quest for authenticity, Ribaya even filled the shop with antique leather sewing machines, hat molds and other vintage tools others might hang on the wall for decoration. Only Ribaya put them to the work they were intended for.
His friend and frequent customer, North Beach artist Jeremy Fish believes Al's Attire has imprinted itself on San Francisco's fashion sense.
"In a city that’s famous for sweat suits and leisure wear," Fish said, "Al’s the last glimmering candle of hope to make people here just not look like schlubs."
Ribaya's unbridled enthusiasm for clothing has earned him legions of fans including longtime customer Carlos Santana, as well as members of the Golden State Warriors whose frames require a custom fit. The only boundary for Ribaya seems to be imagination.
"A lot of the most creative juices are from my clients and I feed off of that," Ribaya said.
Ribaya traces his tireless work ethic to his Filipino roots and the willingness of his former countrymen to leave everything behind in the Philippines to come to the U.S. for work, sending money back home to support children and families.
"One of their biggest, if not their biggest export, are the people and the families," Ribaya said of the Philippines. "You also have displaced broken families and that’s the sacrifice that the family makes."
Just before the Christmas holiday, Ribaya was finally able to travel to the Philippines to visit his children. The visit seemed to re-energize him and upon his return to the shop, he's watched business slowly increase as COVID-19 restrictions decline. The weddings and some parties are coming back online.
On a recent day, Ribaya was in his shop measuring a customer for a suit. As he stretched his tape across the man's torso, he surprised the customer by correctly guessing the man was a rower judging by the shape of his shoulders. And then as if doing his best impression of one of a carnival hucksters, noted to the customer's surprise that he also must've been injured at one point based upon the varied length of the man's arms. The man nodded in the affirmative with a laugh, marveling at Ribaya's sense of observation.
If there was a metaphor to be drawn from the encounter, it might be that Ribaya's carnival train has arrived through the clutches of a tornado, a little battered but mostly intact, and ready for the show to go on.