August 21 2014

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the simple life, part 2: martin returns


East Villagers live among ghosts. Ghosts of immigrants, ghosts of Beat poets, ghosts of punks. Some of the haunting is recent: Local girls strolling down Sixth Street, for example, may find it impossible not spare a thought for Martin as they pass the storefront off the Bowery that used to house the boutique. For five years, Anne Johnston Albert’s shop was a must-stop for Lower East Side ladies in search of basic pieces cut with that hard-to-define downtown panache; then, in 2005, Martin the shop disappeared, taking with it the Martin line of clothes. The mourning for the seemingly defunct label has turned out to be premature, however. In late August, Martin resurfaced—on the Web. According to Albert, her online store, has customers beating down the virtual doors, desperate to once again get their hands on her razor-sharp jeans and jackets and perfectly slouchy tops. “What’s amazing is that it’s really just been word-of-mouth,” says Albert, who now lives with her husband and two children in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. “It’s nice to feel like I’ve been missed.” (And how.) Here, Albert talks to about why, even if you take the girl out of the East Village, you haven’t taken the East Village out of her style.

Your store was such a cornerstone of the East Village scene—I think, at some point, every girl I knew who lived in the neighborhood had at least one or two Martin pieces. Why did you close?
There were a few reasons. Number one, I moved— my husband and I were just looking for a weekend place, but then when we found our house in Great Barrington, it occurred to us, why not just live here? We can take the train down whenever we want. So that was the big reason. And then, the other big reason is that rents have gotten crazy. You just can’t have a mom ‘n’ pop business in New York anymore. And that’s really a shame, because it’s those idiosyncratic places that make the city interesting.

You had such a following, though—was there ever the idea to stay by growing? Like, start to distribute to other stores, and so on?

That was an idea I played with, but I never got big enough to, like, go to trade shows with my T-shirts in 50 different colors, or whatever. And anyway, a huge part of the appeal of having the store was that it was intimate—I mean, we wrote our orders out by hand, you know? No computer. And I liked getting to know the people who came in again and again.

Online retail must be a very different experience, then.
Yes and no. I still design the same way I always have and I do have a lot of old customers coming back. But what’s interesting is that I’m also reaching all these new people from, like, Montana and California, who never would have known about Martin before and who don’t come to the brand with any preconceptions about it being some East Village thing. Some of these women write in and ask if I can make the clothes in larger sizes—which I now see I ought to do#8212;and I have to imagine, even if for some reason they’d stumbled onto Martin when it was on Sixth Street, they’d have been too intimidated to come inside. Or turned off by the vibe. I can see them saying, “not for me.”

You say your approach to the design of the clothes hasn’t really changed, but do you think it’s possible that living in Great Barrington has given you a kind of subconscious access to the way non-New Yorkers dress?
Non-New Yorkers definitely have a very different approach to clothes. I remember when I was living in the city, always having that sense that when you leave the house, you have to expect to be seen. Not seen by anyone you know, necessarily, but you’d be entering the street theater and so there would be an obligation to, I don’t want to say look done, because that’s not it, but look like you’ve got something going on. Maybe at this point my style is more suited to people outside New York—the city has gotten, like, aggressively hip. I walk around the East Village now and I see all these people wearing clothes from those big companies that have figured out how to market the whole sensibility, and it’s the women who look more pared-down who strike me as fresh.

Speaking of pared-down—the Martin collection on the Web site is quite limited. Are you planning to add more clothes?

Add, no, but I’ll change what’s for sale. I genuinely believe in having a small wardrobe. You know, a few pieces you can rely on, and here and there you switch things up. I’m going to keep some of the seasonless pieces up, maybe change the colors, and then beyond that I’ll just be adding things and taking them down as appropriate—warmer clothes for winter, a swimsuit circa resort. I love a good edit. Frankly, I barely go shopping anymore.

You took three years off from designing. Martin was missed—but did you miss Martin?
I did. It was nice—a real break—but I’m happy to be back, not least because I have a great excuse to come down here all the time. I’m producing all the clothes in the Garment Center, or at least I will be as long as the Garment Center is around. I like to soak up the city when I visit. I mean, Great Barrington is a lovely town—really lovely, cultured, with a summer symphony and a sushi place and all this other stuff the expat New Yorkers who live there need. But there’s not that energy. It’s nice to get back to the old stomping grounds and remind myself that, as much as everything else may be changing, that New York energy stays the same.