Life’s curveball leads an athlete to fashion.
Typically, a promising young college pitcher would be lucky to get a phone call from the L.A. Dodgers. Not so for Derek Barham ’08.
“Son, you’ve torn everything in your elbow,” said the team’s doctor, who had reviewed Barham’s MRI scans shortly after a shutout game he pitched in front of major league scouts. “You seem like a smart kid,” the doctor continued. “You’ve got a good head on your shoulders, and a good degree. If you were my son, I’d tell you to find a new career.”
The words echoed in his head as Barham headed home to his mother’s clothing store in Fresno, California. He helped her close up but stayed behind at the shop, processing a life outside the major leagues. He had his economics degree, of course, and some prospects in the financial industry. He also had the family business, though it was struggling through the Great Recession of 2009. But maybe, Barham thought, he could use what he learned at UC San Diego to save it.
“I’ve always been a grinder,” Barham says of his work ethic. In school, the Marshall College grad approached economic theory, math classes, and Dimensions of Culture with the same discipline as he did baseball practice. Such tenacity held as an entrepreneur: Barham renamed the shop Mia Bella and shifted its focus from retail to custom dressmaking—something less vulnerable to the rise of online shopping. “I studied dresses like textbooks,” he says. “My dad would be watching ESPN and I’d be studying bridal magazines, trying to figure out the difference between fit-and-flares and ball gowns.” He apprenticed with seamstresses too, learning how to sew and taking garments apart to learn how they were created.
“Being a student and playing a sport is like having two full time jobs,” Barham says. “I disciplined myself and brought that mentality to owning a business.”
He learned how to sketch and design (before, he says, he could only draw a line in the dirt of a baseball field). His new education clicked when he saw geometric paintings by designer Tadashi Shoji on a tour of his L.A. factory. “He had been a mathematician and artist,” says Barham. “I realized that designing for fit was just a geometry problem. I knew that I could solve that—I did it in school every day.”
Over the years afterward, Barham and his wife, Daryl, devoted themselves to the business, eventually expanding back down to the San Diego area. They have since worked with international designers and stylists for Warner Bros. and Mariah Carey, and have an eye out for more locations and integrating into department stores. During the pandemic, he and his team have been manufacturing masks to help as well.
All the while, Barham keeps up with his former teammates and the current UC San Diego baseball team, just as his competitive spirit keeps him analyzing and staying on top of industry trends.
“Success in fashion—it’s just like chasing a national championship for sports,” Barham describes. “You go day by day, you don’t look too far ahead in the future or dwell on the loss you had yesterday. You just keep striving for your best and do better and better until you get there.”