When you think fashion, alpaca fleece probably doesn't come to mind.
It does for Julia Nish.
The Modesto native and clothing designer recently presented her first collection at a Los Angeles fashion show -- all made of alpaca fiber.
Nish, 34, visited alpaca farms to collect the fleece, had it made into yarn, then hand-died and knitted each of the 29 pieces in her line herself.
These aren't your grandmother's sweaters. Nish's collection includes everything from menswear to women's leggings to a Japanese-inspired, bat-sleeved robe.
"It's so comfortable," she said. "It's like putting on a blanket, but it's sophisticated looking."
You wouldn't expect anything less from Nish. Daughter of Steve and Kathy Nish, and the granddaughter of former Bee managing editor Ray Nish, she grew up in Modesto. As a teen, she collected copies of Vogue and Vanity Fair magazines. She would scour thrift shops on Berkeley's Telegraph Avenue for vintage sweaters and dresses with her friends.
"Then I'd alter the dresses, but I never thought of being a designer," she said.
Instead, she pictured herself going into science, perhaps marine biology. She studied at Modesto Junior College after graduating from Beyer High in 1994. She went on to lifeguard in Yosemite, take jewelry-making classes in Santa Cruz and even spent two summers canning fish in Alaska.
"My parents loved that I was happy," she said. "But they kept saying, 'How are you going to be able to afford a house?' "
Then, in 2006, while helping friends at their clothing company in Long Beach, she learned about the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising in Los Angeles. A friend attended the college for aspiring designers and convinced Julia to check it out.
After a tour of the campus, she knew the school was for her.
"I was like, 'Yes. This is what I want to do,' " she said.
Nish enrolled in the school's knitwear program, where she was one of four students in her graduating class. Interestingly, her great-grandmother once ran a knitwear shop in Turlock.
After graduating with her associate's degree in 2008, Nish landed a full scholarship for an advanced design program at the school. She needed to come up with a collection of clothing and wanted to use alpaca fiber, which she had worked with in school.
"It was so luxurious and soft," she said. "The natural shades were so beautiful."
Nish contacted the Alpaca Owners and Breeders Association to find alpaca farms willing to donate fleece. Then she took off on a road trip to five farms in California and Oregon.
Alpaca owners gave her more fleece than she could fit in her Honda Civic. They were excited, she said, to bring attention to their product by having it used to create clothes for a fashion show. Alpaca fiber is mostly used by crafters to knit hats, gloves, sweaters and the like.
Nish was one of 10 advanced students and the only knitwear designer selected to present her clothes in the show, the FIDM LA Fashion Gala, in March. About 10 people, including models and school instructors, ordered her clothes that night. More orders have been placed since.
Nish's fashions range in price from $400 to $1,500. Each takes three days to two weeks to make, depending on the complexity of the piece.
Nish recently landed a job with a fashion design company and is moving from Los Angeles to San Luis Obispo, where she will work with one of the company's clients, a firm interested in producing clothes for rock climbing, which is one of Nish's passions.
She'll continue to work on her alpaca designs, though, and hopes to launch a Web site to help sell them soon.
Eventually, Nish plans to travel to Peru, the native home of alpacas, which are kept in herds that graze in the Andes. That's about as far from high fashion as you can get.
"I'm not interested in fantasy, weird fashion clothing," Nish said. "I wanted to do something really comfortable."