NEW YORK — Martha Inc., the retail fixture famous for nurturing such designers as Pauline Trigère, Valentino and Bill Blass before they became fashion celebrities, has gone out of business after a 70-year run.
“We made them stars,” said Lynn Phillips Manulis, owner of Martha Inc. and daughter of founder Martha Phillips.
The family-run chain at one time had $40 million in sales, and six locations, including on Park Avenue, in Trump Tower, Bal Harbour and Palm Beach. The stores long thrived off theatrical trunk shows marked by appearances by the designers. “Nobody was doing personal appearances, but we decided we wanted the public to meet the designers,” Manulis said. “These were not just trunk shows. People like Galanos and Zandra Rhodes came in person.”
The Martha stores were more like salons: elegant, high-service settings where wealthy women came in, by appointment of course, for fittings, for tea, to see the latest designer import, and were always greeted by the founder herself — “Miss Martha,” as her employees addressed her. She started the business on Madison Avenue in New York in 1934 during the Depression by borrowing $5,000 from her father. She eventually moved it to Park Avenue and 58th Street, which closed in 1993. Martha Phillips died in 1996 at age 98.
In recent years, traffic and sales dwindled. The business momentum slowed as emerging fashion stars were hard to come by. One by one, Manulis had the difficult task of shutting down her stores, though never with the sense of giving up entirely — until last week. The last standing Martha store, at 150 Worth Avenue in Palm Beach, closed Wednesday.
“I really enjoyed what I did,” Manulis said on Friday. “I really wanted Martha to go on to celebrate 100 years. We tried, but in this economy you’ve got to own a bank. There’s been such a lack of foot-traffic. People were just holding off. The problem is there is really nothing that captures the real imagination of the public. We’ve got to find newness in fashion, something that makes a statement and can be more or less universal.
“What’s missing is all the glamour,” added Manulis, who plans to retire and stay in Palm Beach. “People are looking for glamour, in a different way from the past. There has to be something that completely captures their imagination. Someone has to come along and do what Yves Saint Laurent did — take the world by storm.”
In their heyday, the Martha stores did exactly that.