Dressing Emmy-Winner Lena Waithe Inspired This Bespoke Designer to Launch a Womenswear Line

Jhoanna Alba has also been custom designing for Anna Wintour's BFF Russell Westbrook since his rookie year.
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Russell Westbrook in Alba at the 2017 NBA Awards in June. Photo: Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images for TNT

Russell Westbrook in Alba at the 2017 NBA Awards in June. Photo: Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images for TNT

While the name Jhoanna Alba — or her self-named custom design house, ALBA: Bespoke Clothing — might not immediately ring a bell, they're actually as well-known as Burberry or Tom Ford, if you're in the A-list pro-sports circle, at least. In business for over 20 years, Alba has created custom pieces for athletically talented — and fashion-recognized — football and basketball luminaries, including NBA All-Star (and Anna Wintour's BFF) Russell Westbrook, MVP and philanthropist Steph Curry and all around legend, Magic Johnson. (Seriously, just look at her Instagram to see some of the best-dressed and highest-scoring athletes in the biz.) And as of November, Alba is officially in the bespoke womenswear business.

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The designer and entrepreneur has actually been creating custom womenswear here and there since the mid-'90s, when she designed suiting for WNBA players like Lisa Leslie and Rebecca Lobo — plus, the athletes' wives, mothers and daughters have been requesting special pieces regularly since the start of her business. But due to the high demand for menswear, especially among high-profile male athletes (and continuous number of draft hopefuls), Alba ended up focusing on menswear. 

Alba's clientele also expanded to notables in entertainment, including Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson as a football player-turned-financial-manager on HBO's "Ballers" and writer, producer and actress Lena Waithe. The latter recently made history as the first African-American female to win an Outstanding Writing for a Comedy Series Emmy for her work on the very excellent "Thanksgiving" episode of Aziz Ansari's "Master of None." Oh, and Waithe accepted her award — with one of the most moving and inspiring acceptance speeches ever — wearing a custom-designed gold leaf-printed tuxedo by Alba.

Aziz Ansari and Lena Waithe, in Alba, at the 2017 Emmy Awards. Photo: Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images

Aziz Ansari and Lena Waithe, in Alba, at the 2017 Emmy Awards. Photo: Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images

See, Waithe's stylist Tiffany Hasbourne is also a costume designer on "Ballers," so she knew whom to call on the Thursday night before the Emmy Awards on Sunday. "That Friday morning Lena came in, she picked out what she wanted to wear and we had it delivered to her house on Saturday and she wore it on Sunday — and won the Emmy," said Alba, over the phone, while stuck in traffic on her way to Los Angeles Dodgers third baseman Justin Turner's home for a fitting. ("I'm doing his wedding," she explained.) 

Essentially, Waithe's fast-tracked — and very photographed — custom suiting offered audiences a timely sneak peek into Alba's upcoming diversified custom line. In the works for at least two years, the officially launched Alba: Bespoke Clothing womenswear collection keeps with the DNA of her successful menswear business. "It's really trying to incorporate the client: the look of your legacy, their culture, how they want their brand to be perceived," said Alba.

Taking her longtime male clientele as examples, Oklahoma Thunder point guard Westbrook, whom Alba has been dressing since his rookie year, opts for "minimalist" and "very classic" suiting aesthetic for noteworthy events, like his wedding and black-tie awards ceremonies. "But then you have clients that are a little more open to different things, like his old teammate, [now Indiana Pacers shooting guard] Victor Oladipo, he lets me create whatever I want. So, I'll design something really just outrageous and then he just rolls with it," she said. Another notable moment: In 2016, she collaborated with Steph Curry's stylist on a very chic blue velvet tux that the superstar point guard wore to accept his ESPY Award. 

Steph Curry, in an Alba custom tux, at the 2016 ESPY Awards. Photo: Kevin Winter/Getty Images

Steph Curry, in an Alba custom tux, at the 2016 ESPY Awards. Photo: Kevin Winter/Getty Images

To fully personalize suiting and other pieces for her clients, Alba will often visit their homes and analyze closet contents to "see what's missing and fill in the blanks." They'll have a dialogue back and forth to formulate the final collection, which will also often celebrate a client's heritage and culture. For instance, she collaborated with with Congolese-Spanish Toronto Raptors power forward Serge Ibaka on Avec Class x Alba, a line of African print-inspired shirts.

The fully customization process is the same for the Alba womenswear offerings, which start with "timeless and classic" silhouettes, including a blazer, pencil skirt, wide-leg trousers and high-waisted cigarette pants. The client then selects the fabrics that speak to them. Like Alba's menswear, the ordering process is straightforward with "wardrobe packages," which essentially comes out a bundle of versatile pieces, starting at three pieces for $5,000. 

"So, you're getting three suits for $5,000, but you're really getting eight to nine to 10 different combinations, once you mix and match the different pieces," she explained. The collection is tailor-made and fit for each person, and Alba is happy to make tweaks to certain details, per client preferences. "If there's are minor things they want to incorporate into their looks and we're able to facilitate then we're able to do that," said Alba, while recalling the time she added a detachable peplum on a tuxedo jacket for a client.

While Alba and her team did push Waithe's suit through production in a quick 48 hours, the usual turnaround time for a custom piece is about two weeks. Having the Alba: Bespoke Clothing showroom and production facility located across the street from each other in downtown Los Angeles keeps the design and delivery process accessible and nimble for demanding clientele. While Alba does incorporate fabric from around the world — for example, textiles from Italy or Ghana for a player collaboration — most of the sourcing is done in Los Angeles, supporting the local Garment District. The family-owned business employs six designers and design assistants, plus 45 tailors. 

Jhoanna Alba. Photo: Courtesy

Jhoanna Alba. Photo: Courtesy

"My mother runs everything because I'm usually out on the field. She runs production, accounting, the whole nine," said Alba, who earlier switched to the other line to answer a call from the big boss. ("It's my mom. She's blowing up my phone!") 

While taking orders for her new womenswear line, Alba is keeping busy for the holiday season, too: designing coordinating outfits for Los Angeles Lakers shooting guard Corey Brewer, his wife Monique and three-year-old son Sebastian (aw), as well as dressing Stevie Wonder for his annual Full of Toys Benefit Concert. Plus, considering that Waithe is debuting a new Chicago-set series, "The Chi" on Showtime and joining the cast of Netflix's "Dear White People," she'll need quite a few more options for the red carpet and all that.

"We'll be doing a lot of things with her in the future and we're working on that as we speak," hinted Alba. Stay tuned.

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