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.’”
“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