The NBA and its fans lost longtime sportscaster Craig Sager, last week when he passed away at the age of 65. And down on Calle Ocho, a one-of-a-kind fabric store lost one of its most loyal customers.
Sager was best known for his outlandish suits, ties and shoes, which earned him equal amounts of praise and scorn from the NBA community, where bland, understated suits are the norm.
Since 2009, he had been wearing a piece of Miami on most broadcasts.
Sager’s eye-popping getups were the handiwork of Rex Fabrics on Calle Ocho and 37th Avenue. The family-owned store opened about 30 years ago and continues to dazzle customers from around the world with exotic and luxury fabrics found nowhere else. Editor’s note: The location of the store has been corrected.
Rex, along with tailors in Houston, together made sure the sportscaster was always turning heads. After learning of Rex through a friend in the NBA, Sager became one of the store’s most discerning and reliable customers.
“He was a hunter,” store owner and president Ricardo Aldama says. “He had an eagle eye for exactly what he wanted.”
Sager would start with a pair of shoes (he had hundreds) or a belt he had in mind to wear. He would then turn to Rex to find a pattern that would match.
“Craig had a knack for choosing particular items — his ability to spot things was unmatched,” purchasing manager Pablo Zepeda says.
As Sager himself once said, “I don’t even look in the men’s section.” He found it too staid and traditional.
He would fly into Miami the night before a game just to pick up the suit for the broadcast, Aldama said.
A Wonka Factory in a strip mall
The Aldama family moved Rex to its current location, in a Little Havana strip mall, about 25 years ago. Ricardo, half Italian and half Cuban, has turned his facility into a Wonka Factory for fabric.
It is staffed by more than 40 employees, including a doorman resplendent in red velour and a small army of attentive, uniformed women dressed all in blue serving as sales reps ready to see to your every need.
Inside, row upon row of fabrics from all over the world, with designs impossible to imagine, line the store, giving you the feeling of swimming through a technicolor ocean of textiles. Unusual music, from 1950s Italian orchestral pop to country, floats through the store, transporting you beyond the Little Havana strip mall.
Rex suits have been worn by celebrities and dignitaries from all over the world, but especially from Latin America, including members of Cuban reggaeton juggernaut Gente de Zona and Juan Gabriel. Editor’s note: This sentence has been edited to correctly reflect where Gente de Zona is from.
But Sager stood out in innumerable ways. A native of Batavia, Illinois, Sager did not fit the typical globetrotting profile of many of Rex’s other customers. Aldama and Zepeda say he was down to earth and treated the store’s employees like family.
“He would walk and light the room up,” Zepeda said.
Aldama considered Sager a friend, one who would always ask about his son’s progress toward getting his medical degree.
And while many of Rex’s customers simply want the latest in haute-couture, Sager took advantage of the endless designs on offer, coming up with looks no one else would ever think of.
There was his recent Valentine’s Day All-Star Game suit with exotic floral patterns in the shape of hearts. There was another with an undersea pattern that looked like he’d been dredged from the ocean floor. And then there was that suit covered Swarovski crystals that weighed almost 40 pounds.
“His wife was concerned about that one,” Aldama said.
Rex’s prints allowed Sager to leave an indelible image on the court that the NBA community will never forget.
Tokens of Rex’s success can be found all over the world. In 2013, the store dressed Gabriela Isler on her way to becoming Miss Venezuela (one of the world’s most competitive “Miss” pageants). In 2015, JPMorgan Chase gave the store a loan so it could grow both physically and online and also made the store a featured borrower. In 2016 it was named an American Express “member favorite” for worldwide small business shopping.
Aldama acknowledges that Rex’s reputation may be bigger on the global fashion circuit than among local Miami fashionistas, who are more likely nowadays to look to Wynwood or South Beach for inspiration.
He doesn’t mind, he said: Anyone with an eye like Sager’s knows where to find them.