Niche clothing proud all name-brand apparel made in USA

Niche, the locally based clothing brand with a retail store at Pearl, is unusual among American apparel companies in that all of its name-brand clothing is made in the U.S.

Nilgün and Ayse Derman, the mother-daughter team who run the company, have considered shifting production abroad several times over the years, but each time they decided that any cost savings wouldn’t be worth giving up control and flexibility. By keeping things close to home, they can decide quickly whether to make more of a product that’s selling well or less of one that isn’t.

“Not everything’s a winner, so we don’t have to make that, we don’t have to buy that,” Ayse said. “We make the winners, and we don’t have to worry about sitting on huge inventories.”

The brand is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year with a series of events this spring and summer, including sewing workshops, a fashion show and a sidewalk sale.

It has its roots in Nilgün Derman Artwear, a company selling one-of-a-kind, hand-painted clothing that Nilgün — who has a background in industrial design — formed in the 1980s after immigrating to the U.S. from Turkey.

Nilgün and Ayse founded Niche in 1997 in Castle Hills. It did not have a retail location until it moved into its current space at Pearl in 2014. A short walk across the river, the company has a warehouse and distribution office in an art deco-style building on Euclid Avenue. Nilgün typically oversees design, while Ayse focuses on the business side of the company.

The brand is sold in boutique shops in cities across the U.S. This summer, Nilgün and Ayse plan to begin selling men’s clothing in their store.

Ayse, left, and Nilgun Derman founded Niche in 1997, 17 years before opening its first retail location, which is at Pearl.

Ayse, left, and Nilgun Derman founded Niche in 1997, 17 years before opening its first retail location, which is at Pearl.

William Luther, Staff

They recently sat to discuss online retail, the importance of comfort in women’s clothing and their decision to stop selling their clothing in Dillard’s department stores. The following has been edited and condensed.

Q: Why did you decide to begin selling men’s clothes?

Ayse: We’ve tried it in little fits and starts before, but we never had enough space. So now there’s finally enough room, and there’s a need here for that. All the men that come in, we want to have stuff for them and for their wives to buy for them. There’s no place (at Pearl) except Dos Carolinas, which is very specifically guayaberas, doing men’s clothes.

Q: Nilgün, does your Turkish heritage influence your designs?

Nilgün: Somewhat, of course. But right now, the most important thing is that the clothing has to be comfortable for women, mature women. We get inspiration from everywhere: colors and nature and the fabric. Whatever we can find.

The Niche store at Pearl is not far from the company’s warehouse and distribution office, which is in an art deco-style building on Euclid Avenue.

The Niche store at Pearl is not far from the company’s warehouse and distribution office, which is in an art deco-style building on Euclid Avenue.

William Luther, Staff

Q: How did you get into fashion design?

Nilgün: I am an industrial designer. When I came to the U.S., I was working as a furniture designer in Turkey. After I came to the United States, for a while I was raising my kids. And they came to the elementary school age, and it was time for me to start working. I thought it will be best if I have my own business. At the time, I was probably a little bit naïve. I thought it will be easier if I start from my home. I know how to sew. I know absolutely how to design. It can be industrial design. It can be fashion design. It can be any kind of design.

Q: Women’s fashion isn’t known for prioritizing comfort, right?

Nilgün: Comfort is a very important thing for me, because I wear my clothing all the time. I kind of design for myself. If I’m comfortable, that means a lot of women are going to like what I am wearing. Comfortable and good-looking clothing. They have to not just be comfortable; they have to feel good when they wear it. They have to think it is something really special.

The Niche store at Pearl features jewelry in addition to clothing.

The Niche store at Pearl features jewelry in addition to clothing.

William Luther, Staff

Q: What about San Antonio? Does the local culture influence you?

Ayse: I would say the vibrancy of this area and the arts and the culture and the lifestyle here. When people wear our clothes, they always get compliments. You always look put together. But still, everyone will tell you it’s just comfortable to wear, it makes me feel good, and I think that’s very much a San Antonio thing. I think in other places — you know, like Italians like to wear tight waistbands of wool — the look is really important and comfort can be sacrificed for that. I don’t think San Antonio likes to sacrifice comfort. Also, it’s warm.

Nilgün: Most of our fabrics can be worn 12 months out of the year. This is very important. But don’t forget, we also sell in every other state. However, when we are buying some of the fabric, we think of San Antonio — the colors, the designs. But also I have to make some designs for everybody else too. We find the balance, somehow.

Q: What makes your clothing comfortable?

Nilgün: Well, I pretty much know … the woman’s body, how it forms over the years. That is very important. How it changes over the years. I know that very well — been there, done that. So I make my patterns according to the knowledge that I got over the years, and it makes it comfortable. Then I do the designs, thinking of the woman’s body. It is not just, it will look great on the hanger.

Ayse: We also pay attention to how the textiles themselves feel. It could look great, but if it’s scratchy, we don’t use it.

Nilgün: We use a lot of natural fiber, and most of the fabrics we use, they are washable. And it travels well. That is very important, again, for women. It has to pack well — don’t take a lot of space — and then be happy when you open your luggage.

Nilgun and Ayse Derman’s opened their Niche store at Pearl in 2014. It was the company’s first retail location.

Nilgun and Ayse Derman’s opened their Niche store at Pearl in 2014. It was the company’s first retail location.

William Luther, Staff

Q: Do you design all of Niche’s clothes, or do you have other employees working on the design?

Nilgün: I have a technical designer. I make my designs, and then I give that to the technical designer. They put it in a computer, and we have all different sizes, from extra small to plus sizes — which is very important right now. Not very many designers make plus sizes. We go to 3X. They can come order here — even if we don’t have it, we can make one item for them.

Ayse: That’s also a flexibility, that we manufacture in the U.S. In the ’70s, more than 50 percent of clothing was manufactured in the U.S. By the mid-2000s, it was less than 5 percent. So it’s an extreme change in that manufacturing process. There’s a few other companies in the country that still do it here. It gives us a lot of flexibility on inventory control, obviously, but also it lets us do very fast responses, and smaller cuts and smaller runs. The special kind of things — like, someone comes in and says, “Oh my gosh, I really, really want this shirt in an extra-small and pink, you only have blue.” We’re like, “We can do the pink one, no problem.”

Q: Have you considered making your clothes abroad?

Ayse: We have considered it several times over the course of the last 20 years, and we always decide not to for different reasons. One, there was a time where it was very, very beneficial cost-wise to make something in China. That cost differential is a lot less now. The shipping lead-time is a lot longer. Shipping rates — things cost me more than two-to-three times what they did pre-pandemic to ship now. Fabric or raw goods or buttons, or whatever it is. The lead times are so long, you have to project so much of what you think you’re going to sell so far in advance.

Q: You didn’t use to sell your clothes online, but now you do. Why did you make that change?

Ayse: That is a really interesting development. You know, we shut down the store on March 13, 2020. And by March 29, we had our online store up and going. Because not just us — every single one of our stores across the country closed as well. We have a wonderful in-house graphics person. We’d already been kind of kicking around our wholesale website, so we had done that part already. She just got on it, man.

Q: Why didn’t you have an online presence before?

Ayse: There was a philosophy that you don’t want to compete with your customers. For a long time, that was a thing. It’s not so much a thing now. We try not to have too much overlap with what we sell to our customers. We do special colors for the Pearl, or one-run-and-done so that we’re not really competing at the same time with the stores. I think it’s OK. Ten years ago, it was way more challenging for store owners to know that their customers could go and buy from you directly. I think there’s less of that now, because so many more people are just online shopping all the time.

Q: Is your clothing still sold in Dillard’s?

Ayse: Not since the pandemic.

Nilgün: As I get older, I am trying to set my time a little bit less and less, while she’s taking over a little bit more. Dillard’s is wonderful, but those kinds of corporations, they want almost every month new designs, and I found myself, it is too much time-consuming for me.

Ayse: You know, the pandemic changed a lot of things. It changed the way we want to work as well. We were just working so hard, so hard, all the time. Dillard’s is a wonderful company. They treated us very well, and we worked with them for a very long time. But that puts you into a place where the output is kind of outpacing the amount of creativity and joy that you want to put into it, if that makes sense. It takes a while to put a collection out, and then you get some time away, and some more inspiration to go for the next season’s collection. But with a business model where you have to deliver a fresh new collection every single month, it means you’re constantly turning through designs, and it becomes more of a routine and less of a creative, joyous expression of design.