Nancy Mar­tin

De­sign­ing woman

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - PROFILES - LARA JO HIGHTOWER

Nancy Mar­tin has al­ways had a bit of ad­ven­ture in her soul. When the owner and de­signer of Ben­tonville’s N.A. Mar­tin Shop + De­sign Stu­dio was a 17-year-old high school grad­u­ate liv­ing in


Ky., she hopped on a plane with a trunk full of her be­long­ings and flew to Nor­man, Okla., for col­lege.

“I was one of four kids,” says Mar­tin, who is tall, wil­lowy and strik­ing and looks ev­ery bit the part of the fash­ion de­signer. “When I got ready to go to col­lege, my brother was go­ing to the Uni­ver­sity of Vir­ginia, and my sis­ter was go­ing to Tu­lane, so I said, ‘I want to go some­where dif­fer­ent.’ I went all the way to OU in Nor­man.”

OK, but why Nor­man?

“I wanted to go out west, and I looked at Texas, and it was huge,” Mar­tin says, with a tone that seems to im­ply, Well, why not Nor­man? “So, I thought, Ok­la­homa looked good to me.”


Mar­tin’s par­ents seem to have en­cour­aged this spirit of ex­plo­ration and in­de­pen­dence. Mar­tin and her sib­lings at­tended sleep­over camp in North Carolina dur­ing their ado­les­cence, and all four chil­dren were ex­pected to have jobs while in high school.

“I didn’t know a soul,” she says of re­lo­cat­ing to Nor­man. “My par­ents put me on the air­plane [to Ok­la­homa], and I took a cab to col­lege. They kind of thought, ‘If you’re not old enough to be go­ing by your­self, maybe you shouldn’t be go­ing.’ We had our weekly phone call on Satur­days, be­cause it was cheaper, or we wrote let­ters.”

“My great-grand­fa­ther was a pretty tough Ger­man butcher who came to the United States and ended up in Shel­byville, Ky., [with] 12 kids,” says Mar­tin’s brother, Mark Abra­ham. “They were pretty tough guys and girls, and my dad used to say, ‘Nancy has a lot of

“Nancy is a per­son who fol­lows her pas­sion. She is de­ter­mined, fo­cused and whip-smart — qual­i­ties that make her ef­fec­tive in what­ever she pur­sues.” — Sandy Ed­wards

Abra­ham in her.’ She’s al­ways been very de­ter­mined and has a lot of back­bone.”

Nor­man was a good fit, and Mar­tin lived there for seven years, earn­ing both her un­der­grad­u­ate de­gree and a mas­ter’s in li­brary sci­ence. She also met her first hus­band, Joe Mar­tin. The two got mar­ried and even­tu­ally re­lo­cated to Fayetteville, where Joe Mar­tin had at­tended school. Nancy Mar­tin worked at the Uni­ver­sity of Arkansas as the re­cip­i­ent of a grant to as­sem­ble a video li­brary.

“When the grant ran out, I thought, ‘OK, I’ll get my law de­gree,’” she says with a smile — an­other ad­ven­ture. “I didn’t know any­thing about be­ing a lawyer. You know, some of th­ese peo­ple grow­ing up had a par­ent who was lawyer, but the only thing I had was per­sis­tence. If I started, I was go­ing to fin­ish.”

The real pull of a le­gal ca­reer, Mar­tin says, was that she would be her own boss.

“When I got out of school, I prac­ticed, as I called it, ‘Street Law’ — what­ever came off of the street.”

She and Joe had two chil­dren, one in 1982 and the other in 1984. When Joe be­came an avid com­pe­ti­tion cy­clist — he founded the Fayetteville Spring Clas­sic bike race, now the Joe Mar­tin Stage Race — the cou­ple joined forces to open up a bike shop in their garage, spe­cial­iz­ing in im­ported bi­cy­cle frames.

In 1987, Joe Mar­tin was di­ag­nosed with a rare form of leukemia. He passed away in 1989, when their chil­dren were only 2 and 4. The su­pe­rior ath­lete had fought a hard bat­tle.

“We moved to Hous­ton for a while, while he was get­ting chemo,” re­mem­bers Mar­tin. “And he had a bone mar­row trans­plant. He was a ma­jor cy­clist, so he was in in­cred­i­ble shape. The doc­tors said it was be­cause he had so much mus­cle mass, that’s why he lived for as long as he did.

“When my daugh­ter was grad­u­at­ing, all th­ese stu­dents had dif­fer­ent philoso­phies [on their year­book page], you know how they do. I will al­ways re­mem­ber one girl who said, ‘Don’t look back un­less you’re plan­ning on go­ing there.’ I thought that was so great. Ev­ery­one has so much in their lives. You don’t know what ev­ery­one is go­ing through. I think you have to say, ‘Yes, it’s un­for­tu­nate,’ but you have to find a way to live around it. I stayed very close to his fam­ily, and they were very sup­port­ive and very help­ful in rais­ing my chil­dren. That made a huge dif­fer­ence.”


Two years later, Mar­tin and her two young chil­dren moved back to Ok­la­homa, this time to Sal­li­saw. She had re­con­nected with an old fam­ily friend, a fra­ter­nity brother of her hus­band’s who had, him­self, lost his spouse. She was prac­tic­ing law and rais­ing her fam­ily in Ok­la­homa when, af­ter 15 years, this re­la­tion­ship, too, had a heart­break­ing end when her part­ner suf­fered a fa­tal heart at­tack.

“I didn’t move my kids,” says Mar­tin. “They had started in school there, and

I thought I would move some­where else, but I had to get them through school. I had al­ready started all over again. I had to take the bar again in Ok­la­homa. You’re a sin­gle par­ent. You’re just try­ing to get through the day and put food on the ta­ble.”

Though she thought she was just tread­ing wa­ter in Sal­li­saw at that point, fate had a dif­fer­ent idea: She met her cur­rent hus­band, Alan Lewis, while there.

“She has had some ma­jor set­backs, and her chil­dren have as well,” says her brother. “But she’s been able to move beyond them and find the grace in it. And the hope. And that’s ev­i­dent, be­cause she’s in a very strong re­la­tion­ship right now. It would be easy to un­der­stand if she didn’t want to go down that road any­more, but she’s a very pos­i­tive per­son in that way as well.”

“A mu­tual friend in­tro­duced us,” re­mem­bers Mar­tin. “We had five kids be­tween us, rang­ing in age from 12 to 16. We didn’t get mar­ried un­til they were pretty much all launched, in­stead of blend­ing that fam­ily into one house. We thought that might be smarter.”

The two mar­ried in 2005 and then moved to Ben­tonville, a de­ci­sion that Mar­tin calls “more lucky than smart,” be­cause the sleepy Ben­tonville of that era would soon give way to a cul­tural re­nais­sance of sorts when Crys­tal Bridges Mu­seum of Amer­i­can Art opened six years later — much to Mar­tin’s de­light.

“Nancy was one of the mu­seum’s first vol­un­teers,” says Crys­tal Bridges’ Deputy Di­rec­tor Sandy Ed­wards. “We had ac­quired sig­nif­i­cant book col­lec­tions that needed to be pro­cessed, and she vol­un­teered her time with those books in an iso­lated room at the Massey Build­ing. Her love of books com­bined with her de­gree in li­brary sci­ence was a great gift and a sig­nif­i­cant help in the mu­seum’s ear­li­est days.”

Mar­tin also started to ap­ply the wide swath of ex­pe­ri­ence in the le­gal field that she had ac­quired in Sal­li­saw.

“I [had done] mu­nic­i­pal law for a town in Ok­la­homa, I was a pub­lic de­fender, I did pro bono work, I worked for [the Sus­pected Child Abuse and Ne­glect or­ga­ni­za­tion]: You name it, and I did it,” she says. “Back then, you didn’t re­ally spe­cial­ize like you do to­day.”

Once in Ben­tonville, Mar­tin nar­rowed her le­gal fo­cus to fam­ily law and worked pri­mar­ily in the field of di­vorce, an area to which she would ded­i­cate her­self for the next 12 years.

“Fam­ily law is no pic­nic,” says Abra­ham. “That’s a tough game. You see a lot of things that are some­times hard to stom­ach, a lot of in­jus­tice, peo­ple han­dling things badly. You have to stand up for peo­ple against oth­ers who have a skewed idea of what’s right de­signs.” — Mark Abra­ham and wrong. And she was well-suited for that.”

“It worked for me,” says Mar­tin, who ad­mits that she was so care­fully fo­cused on her job that she kept four sep­a­rate cal­en­dars to make sure she didn’t miss a dead­line, fil­ing or court date. “I took it very se­ri­ously. Ev­ery per­son that hired me got ev­ery ounce of blood out of me for ev­ery case. I felt like I had a lot to of­fer peo­ple as far as how to live as a sin­gle par­ent, and the things that come along as a re­sult of that.”

Mar­tin says her own fam­ily’s tight bonds — her par­ents were mar­ried for 63 years — helped guide her through what could be a emo­tion­ally drain­ing job.

“My dad was a World War II veteran, and the ad­vice he gave me in life, I think, is the sin­gle most im­por­tant thing that helped me prac­tice law,” says Mar­tin. The mem­ory makes her emo­tional. “Dad was very wise. For his gen­er­a­tion, most men were stoic and didn’t share their feel­ings, but he was very ac­ces­si­ble for all of us. I didn’t go a day with­out us­ing his ad­vice in my head for how to live life and what was im­por­tant to try and guide peo­ple. How to tell peo­ple, ‘Look, this hap­pened to you, and it’s not good, and you have chil­dren, and they’re the most im­por­tant peo­ple in your life.’ I would tell peo­ple, ‘If there’s any chance that you can make it, you’ve got to do ev­ery­thing you can to hold it to­gether, but if you can’t, you can still par­ent, you can still love them, and it’s good to show them that in­stead of mov­ing into the de­struc­tive phase.’ Peo­ple would say, ‘I want to stay to­gether for the kids,’ but I would say, ‘That’s de­struc­tive.’ If the re­la­tion­ship is de­struc­tive, kids are smart, they’re sponges, they can sense it.”


While Mar­tin ded­i­cated ev­ery ounce of fo­cus to her le­gal ca­reer, a nag­ging de­sire was still some­where in the back of her mind. In 2000, she had started a mail or­der cat­a­logue busi­ness that she op­er­ated out of her home in Ok­la­homa, while still prac­tic­ing law part time. Her cat­a­log of­fer­ings were care­fully cu­rated

items — a cash­mere sweater, a par­tic­u­larly good in­su­lated cof­fee mug, a cus­tom-built bi­cy­cle frame — that she had per­son­ally cho­sen as ex­em­plary pur­chases.

“I called it ‘one great thing’,” she re­calls. “But prac­tic­ing law was more lu­cra­tive, so I had to say, ‘OK, I’m giv­ing it up.’ But when I turned 60, I said, ‘I’m go­ing to give it a whirl again. I’m go­ing to try some­thing else.’”

The “some­thing else” turned out to be a par­tic­u­larly well-de­signed pen­cil skirt: Ta­pered to just be­low the knee, her de­sign flat­tered nearly ev­ery body type and was ex­ceed­ingly com­fort­able de­spite its dressy ap­pear­ance.

“I think Amer­i­can women wear their clothes too big. They want to cover ev­ery­thing up, but if you wear some­thing that’s tai­lored, it’s much more flat­ter­ing — no mat­ter what size you are.”

“Nancy has al­ways had a nice sense of style — a sim­ple but cer­tain el­e­gance to the way she dressed,” says Abra­ham. “She’s spent a lot of time in very small en­vi­ron­ments, cul­tur­ally, but she has al­ways tran­scended that. She’s trav­eled, she’s al­ways up to speed on what’s in fash­ion. Her in­stinct has al­ways been to ex­pand [beyond her ge­og­ra­phy] or delve into an area of fash­ion in a very egal­i­tar­ian way.”

Mar­tin had hoped to take her de­sign to a lo­cal man­u­fac­turer, but when she was un­able to find a com­pany that was able to ful­fill her needs, she headed to the fash­ion cap­i­tal of the world — New York City.

“I read that you have to lis­ten to ev­ery­body, ev­ery­one has some­thing to say, ev­ery­one has good ad­vice,” she says of the de­ci­sion to jump into the de­sign world with both feet. “It’s so dif­fer­ent from law. Peo­ple are not in a hurry. There aren’t the same dead­lines. You learn that ebb and flow.

“The peo­ple I’ve met [in New York City] have been so fan­tas­tic. They work with me re­motely, and I’ve be­come very good friends with them.”

For five years, Mar­tin de­signed by ap­point­ment, show­ing her line via a few pop-up shops in Ben­tonville.

“I mor­phed into de­sign­ing dresses and some other things, and then in my mind, last sum­mer, I thought, ‘I’m go­ing to do this full time.’” She started tak­ing fewer cases and cel­e­brated the last day of her le­gal ca­reer six weeks ago. July 1 marked her first day as full-time de­signer and shop­keeper in her chic, stream­lined store right off the Ben­tonville square.

As with her mail or­der cat­a­logue busi­ness, the items in­side are care­fully cu­rated and sleekly stylish. Her trade­mark pen­cil skirts and beau­ti­ful, sleeve­less black dresses with jew­el­toned lin­ings that give the tra­di­tional “lit­tle black dress” look a hint of unique piz­zazz fill the racks, along with a few other care­fully se­lected items from other de­sign­ers. Hand­made bags, jew­elry and quirky house­wares round out the se­lec­tion. It’s an in­ti­mate space, and some shop­pers who are used to the over­whelm­ing choices of­fered in a mall or on­line might find the shop­ping ex­pe­ri­ence here alien, but Mar­tin thinks that’s part of the at­trac­tion, as well.

“There’s so much out there in the world, and ev­ery­thing is at our dis­posal with our com­put­ers or phones,” says Mar­tin. “But I’m a tac­tile per­son, and I feel like there are a lot of us out there. I’m not say­ing I don’t or­der things on­line, but I like to try things on. I like the ex­pe­ri­ence of it. I think I’ve got some­thing that’s off­beat and un­usual. And it’s hand­made. The qual­ity is very good.”

She is a pro­po­nent of the phi­los­o­phy that says our clos­ets should have a lim­ited num­ber of well-cho­sen, well-con­structed clothes that can be con­fig­ured in sev­eral dif­fer­ent ways, cre­at­ing many out­fits with few pieces. Some­times called a “cap­sule wardrobe,” the prac­tice is all the rage on Pin­ter­est right now.

“When I grew up, we didn’t have all of this stuff,” she says. “We didn’t have 14,000 pairs of shoes. We just sort of lived in our clos­ets. And I think that’s what peo­ple are striv­ing to get back to. My store sort of rep­re­sents the ba­sics, the things that you can put on all the time that you know you look good in. And it’s

so much bet­ter, eco­log­i­cally, be­cause so much of it is go­ing to the land­fills. The less we put in the land­fill, the bet­ter. Noth­ing in your closet is go­ing to last for­ever, but the longer you can wear some­thing, the smaller the car­bon foot­print.”

And the in­ti­mate shop­ping ex­pe­ri­ence in­cludes cus­tom fit cloth­ing and a con­sul­ta­tion with the de­signer her­self — a woman who hap­pens to know a thing or two about style.

“I feel like my goal is to help peo­ple un­der­stand how to get dressed,” says Mar­tin. “I think that dress is very im­por­tant, psy­cho­log­i­cally. I mean, if you look good, and you feel good, your day is go­ing to be great. I don’t know a woman that that’s not true for.”

Now that she’s run­ning the store full time, she’s got some ideas per­co­lat­ing for store events that she might be an­nounc­ing soon. But beyond that, she says she just wants to do this one thing well.

“I want to be fo­cused on this,” she says. “I worked hard as a lawyer, and I’m will­ing to work hard on this. It’s been such a good ex­pe­ri­ence so far, one I would never have had in life if I hadn’t tried this. That’s why I say change is so good. You’re broad­en­ing your en­vi­ron­ments, you’re learn­ing so much new. It’s all about the ride and what you’re go­ing to say at the end of the day.”

In the end, says Mar­tin, it’s all about per­spec­tive.

“I feel like I have sort of been through some of the worst mo­ments in the world, and I used to al­ways tell my kids, ‘You know a bad day, so when you get a good one, you’d bet­ter cel­e­brate.’”

NWA Demo­crat-Gazette/BEN GOFF

NWA Demo­crat-Gazette/BEN GOFF

“She’s cho­sen to cre­ate fash­ion that is very much some­thing that is not only for mod­els in Mi­lan. A stylish prag­ma­tism is rep­re­sented in her

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