By Joe Bonadio

In a city full of great neighborhoods, North Beach is generally acknowledged as one of San Francisco’s very best. Ask anyone why, and they’re as likely to speak of our wealth of Italian restaurants, music venues and drinking establishments as they are our rich history. And while our café culture is obviously a strong selling point, there’s a lot more going on in this little burg. One thing that’s consistently overlooked: in North Beach, we like to make things.

Just consider the bounty: the fresh baked goods flowing out of the half-dozen bakeries that scent our streets. The award-winning fudge being made at Z. Cioccolato, and the next-level gelato created just a few doors down at Lush. The pitch-perfect pasta and pizza being turned out by the metric ton at Tony’s Pizza Napoletana and Giovanni’s Italian Specialties. It’s an artisanal wealth of riches, and one of the secrets to our historic neighborhood’s lasting hold on the public imagination.

fashion at Al's Attire

A’s Attire offers a unique blend of modern fashion and vintage sensibilities. | Photo: Joe Bonadio

Thus it should come as no surprise that North Beach is also home to the Bay Area’s finest custom clothier and bootmaker: Al’s Attire. A San Francisco native, Al has been making cool clothes for cool people since the Reagan administration, and his jewel of a shop sits at the funky epicenter of North Beach, catty-corner to Caffe Trieste on Grant Avenue.

[easy-tweet tweet=”The client gets to choose all the materials: the buttons, the thread, the lining….it’s all fitted to you.” via=”no” usehashtags=”no”]

Anyone who reads the blog knows I’ve been writing about Al’s for a good while now. I love nice clothing but I’m a frugal shopper, so Al’s ability to repair and remake beloved items––in addition to creating new custom-fitted clothes, bags and shoes––endeared him to me long ago. There really is no place quite like Al’s Attire, and with all the changes in the retail landscape over the last few years, it still remains as relevant and fashionable as ever.

San Francisco fashion

Al’s Attire is the perfect place to find that unique, perfectly tailored item. | Photo: Joe Bonadio

Last week, I sat down with Al to talk about the business, San Francisco’s ongoing challenges, and his iconic Grant Avenue shop. Edited for length and clarity, our conversation is below.

Joe Bonadio: First off, thanks for taking the time, Al. 

Al Ribaya: Of course.

JB: Obviously we’ve seen a lot of changes in the retail environment, and it seems like the new story these days is really the old story: the vacancy crisis.

fashion at Al's Attire

Al’s Attire also designs some of the best-looking bags and purses you can find anywhere. | Photo: Joe Bonadio

AR: Right, and a lot of the issues with these new retailers were already obvious before the store closures. For example, Nordstrom: they never really had an answer to Amazon. Nordstrom’s business was based on customer service, and they never had a significant online presence. Then you get something like Covid, and they’re caught with their pants down.

After Covid, a lot of their staff didn’t want to come in anymore. I went in after Covid, and they didn’t have the proper inventory, nor could you find any help. So their biggest strength, which was customer service, was nowhere in sight. They’re blaming it on crime in their area, and that might be the reason and it might not, but there are other factors. And for a lot of these retailers, I think it comes down to a weak internet presence. 

JB: For someone like you, this presents an opportunity.

AR: Yes. A friend of mine reminded me of that early on: with these store closures in the Union Square area, there’s more business for us.

JB: Right. Where are you supposed to get a suit?

AR: Not only that, but I’m getting a certain group of clients that I haven’t seen before that used to shop downtown, and now they’re coming out to the neighborhoods. Not just North Beach, but other areas like the Valencia Corridor.

They’re coming over this way, now that there’s not much down in Union Square––but that’s for now. It’s actually a great opportunity for independents and small businesses to take advantage of all these empty storefronts. If I was in an expansion mode, this would be when I’d consider going into these key locations. 

However, it’s hard to find the proper staff. I’m having issues with that now. The work requires a certain skill set, and it takes a while to learn the sales process for head-to-toe design, which is what we do. 

fashion at Al's Attire

I love my new light blond corduroy jacket, which is fitted perfectly to my frame. | Photo: Joe Bonadio

JB: The things that you make are in direct competition with the big fashion houses: the Guccis and the Chanels of the world. People have a perceived value of these legacy brands, and as I’ve learned, a lot of these brands aren’t what they once were––they’re not doing things the way they used to. Can you elaborate on that?

AR: You hit the nail on the head: brands. Brands spend a lot of money on marketing, and leveraging their heritage lines. But most of these brands have also sourced out their production to different countries, and as a result they’ve cut back on certain manufacturing techniques. 

So the product isn’t as good––and they pour that money into marketing instead. That plays right into the online customer, who can’t touch and feel the product the way they can in a brick-and-mortar store.

I’ve always focused on hand-making, and there has been a huge resurgence toward that. It takes a little longer, and it’s not for everyone. And we don’t focus only on the product: part of the formula is embedding yourself in your community. And properly serving the community includes things like tailoring, shoe repair, and other things the big brands just can’t offer.

Al’s Attire is located just a stone’s throw from Broadway, Vesuvio and City Lights Bookstore. | Photo: Joe Bonadio

JB: There’s also a level of personalization you give your customers, something you can’t get with the bigger retailers, or online.

AR: Yes, the client gets to choose all the materials: the buttons, the thread, the lining, the way it’s all put together. Of course it’s all fitted to you, and it’s a process, and an investment of time. And it’s not coming in an Amazon box two days later. 

JB: That being said, you’re offering a product that you can’t get from an online retailer. Let’s talk about shoes. You told me about the importance of the ‘welt’ for quality shoemakers, and how they’ve changed their practices over the years.

AR: Well, there are different styles of shoemaking. When you make shoes, they are typically either stitched or cemented––glued down. But most of the fashion brands that you see don’t use those techniques anymore, because those methods are done by hand, and require skilled labor.

fashion icon Al Ribaya

Al Ribaya takes a minute to relax after a long day in the shop. | Photo: Joe Bonadio

The welt is part of that process, and it connects the upper part of the shoe to the sole. We hand-stitch the welt, where most of the shoes you see out there have a fake welt, which is just glued on. 

It’s also important because with that type of construction, you can resole and reheel when you have to, making the uppers sustainable over time. We can even take your favorite pair, and when we resole it, take it apart and put a proper welt into it. That’s if the upper is still intact. A good example is what we did with a couple of pairs of your shoes. 

JB: Especially that green pair. They were in pieces…

AR: Right! We do the same thing with coats and jackets. We just worked on two coats that were not leather, but the client really loved them. They were made with some sort of plastic––and they were also in pieces.

She bought them from a fashion brand, and you can see they’ve just fallen apart. We suggested that we remake one in calfskin leather, and the second one in lambskin leather. And we managed to salvage some of the pieces from the old coat, like the zippers: all of the zippers came from the old coat.

fashion at Al's Attire

It’s Never Too Late: the decimated jacket on the left, recreated in lambskin leather by Al’s Attire on the right. | Photo: Joe Bonadio

JB: Another thing I notice is that people think that custom clothing is much more expensive than what you might buy at a mainstream retailer. But when I buy a pair of shoes from you, they’re built to resole––and I’m basically getting a forever shoe.

AR: The price is always based on what you put into it. For example, one of our suits: you are able to choose the very best materials, and the design and fitting process is unique to each client. There is probably an additional 18-20 hours of handwork in many of the jackets that we do.

JB: I’ve learned that. I have boots that I got from you seven or eight years ago, and when there’s a problem I bring them in, and when I get them back they look practically new. The soles are new, and everything is fixed. Whereas if I buy a pair of shoes at Macy’s or another department store, after eighteen months I’ll probably be chucking them in the trash.

AR: Unfortunately, it’s true––and you’ve seen the difference in fit. Nothing fits you like something that is made just for you.

JB: That’s for sure. Al, it has been a pleasure talking with you.

AR: Thanks for coming by.


Al’s Attire is open seven days from Noon until 6:00 PM, and until 7:00 PM on Thursday, Friday and Saturday.

Al’s Attire
1300 Grant Avenue
San Francisco, CA 94133
(415) 693-9900