From a distance, the world of high fashion seems an insular realm separate from reality. It appears an esoteric bubble, often associated with pretentious overtones — a universe inhabited by inflated personalities and embellished veneers floating within a sea of fabrics.
But a visit to Main Street’s Ayla & Co. eschews any preconceived notions of fashion’s surreal associations. In the spirit of Ann Arbor’s inviting allure, the boutique sustains a genuine, unique vibe that the Ayla herself established in 1980.
The dynamic Ayla emigrated from Turkey with a pioneering vision to introduce fashion to Ann Arbor. She created her eponymous retailer as a space for Tree Town’s fashionably inclined women to shop, sip fresh-brewed coffee or tea and intermingle among exquisite textiles.
“She was a wonderful woman with incredible style and an incredible vision,” current co-owner Narmeen Gaeta said. “She was kind of fearless and always ready to try something new.”
Ayla transmitted that captivating bravado into her inventory’s signature aesthetic — clean and classic, yet distinctive — one Gaeta defines as good design and high style, but not a slave to fashion.
Unfortunately, Ayla succumbed to breast cancer just four years into her small-business venture. Luckily, she left the store in good hands with her husband, a former shoemaker, and Gaeta, a prior sales associate during her time at the University. Gaeta’s sister, Nadia Sesi joined her on the retail team until the duo decided to oversee operations as co-owners and buyers. The sisters opened as “Ayla & Company” in 1989, rebranding from the former storefront of “Ayla.” Gaeta and Sesi continue to preserve Ayla’s magnetic essence, but have refashioned as necessary through the years.
“We kept the spirit of it, but over the years we’ve elevated the quality as the customer base grows older,” Gaeta said. “We’ve taken the seedling of the idea and made it grow and blossom. We’ve put our own stamp on it.”
With longevity to boot, the sister act has proved successful in Ann Arbor’s ever-changing retail scene. The secret seems to be an emphasis on building genuine rapport with their clientele and resisting commercialization. Though the owners stray from the promotional virtues of social media, the shop promotes a real, live space for likeminded connectedness. A visit to Ayla & Co. feels more like a personal shopping appointment than a rote retail experience of scripted customer service. Regular shoppers gossip while poring over their specific style selections per recommendation of either Gaeta or Sesi, with one of the two always working the floor.
“We’re service intensive here,” Gaeta said. “The customer base likes to see us here, and they trust our opinions. We’re definitely active owners.”
Their collection encompasses lifestyle pieces of eveningwear and work wear, a majority of which are European-designed. The most popular sellers range from the contemporary designs of Cacharel, to the colorful, whimsical Italian line Maliparmi; Michigan-designed b.may handbags have been a customer-coveted item, along with an accessory assortment of ornate statement jewelry, scarves, shoes and various handbags. Though they don’t carry big-name designer labels such as Lanvin or Chloé; quality remains a top priority for Gaeta and Sesi.
“Every season we try to bring in new designers,” Gaeta said. “The hallmark of our store is that we showcase lesser known designers that are really, really good. The look and the style sensibility is similar.”
Keeping up with the fashion industry’s rapidity, Gaeta and Sesi curate prospective seasonal collections approximately six months in advance. Just last week Gaeta met with countless retailers in New York to assemble the store’s spring selection.
“We go and buy the clothing and visit showrooms,” Gaeta said. “We do attend some trade shows because that’s where a lot of new designers get their name out.”
It’s clear to see Ayla’s mentality resonates with the sisters, as they always make a point to seek out up-and-coming designers in efforts to continually present a fresh sartorial assortment.
“You kind of have to risk a little bit and try something new,” Gaeta said. “That’s how you have to be in fashion. It’s very easy to stay on a certain track and never deviate. Sometimes you have to try something new because you never know when it will be well-received.”
It’s a fearless philosophy that’s panned out well for the duo. With distinguishable sophistication in design, Ayla & Co.’s collections are multi-generational — Gaeta even admitted to selling the ombré shift dress seen in this issue to both teenage and senior patrons. Though far from dated, the standout of Ann Arbor’s retail landscape endures as a destination of accessible high fashion.