Former Couture Exec Stages Benefit to Help Rural Neighbors
By Jen Nathan Orris
Portrait by Max Cooper
Martha Abraham was always at the pinnacle of fashion during the 1970s and ’80s. On any given day, she could be seen in kelly-green pants, weighty shoulder pads, and an ankle-length leather coat that billowed behind her as she strode through Manhattan, Paris, or Tokyo. Abraham was a design and merchandising executive for high-end department stores including I. Magnin and Marshall Field’s in an era when designers were rock stars and a skilled buyer could make or break a brand.
Before this Southern-born fashion executive moved to Mars Hill in 2003, she spent decades tracking trends around the world. She flew to Italy to find the finest knits and jetted to Korea to discover elegant silk. Now she spends her days in jeans as she cares for the 92-acre Madison County property, Ponder Cove, that she shares with her husband, woodworker Gary Rawlins. (For a decade, they ran WNC’s first dog-friendly bed-and-breakfast on their land.)
“Fashion is my passion,” says Abraham. She remembers sifting through fabric and pattern books with her seamstress mother, touching the cloth and gravitating to color. In the early ’70s, Abraham moved from her childhood home of Memphis to San Francisco, with little more than an 8-inch TV and a suitcase. She went on to scout styles in London, Paris, Florence, and Milan, where she discovered the hottest clothes and elevated the designers who created them.
This winter, you’ll find Abraham far from the runway. She’s cozied up in her Mars Hill home, unearthing treasures from her international adventures. Abraham is digging through her closets, searching for crystal from Ireland, plates from Italy, and original sweaters from the MARTHA ABRAHAM clothing line she created in 1992.
“It’s not just a spring cleaning — I’m seriously purging,” Abraham says. She acknowledges that she doesn’t need as many designer clothes in her current setting, and has decided to let go of many of the items she accumulated during her days as a fashion jetsetter. Abraham is even giving up her glamorous white high heels from Frederick’s of Hollywood (yes, her career includes a stint as VP of the famed lingerie company).
Her season of letting go came after she took a hard look at the struggles of some of her Madison County neighbors and realized that her bounty could help sustain them through the winter. She says living in an economically diverse area makes her appreciate how much she has in her world. “I needed to give it to people who needed it,” she says.
This month, Abraham is spearheading A Fanciful Flea, a splashy show of diversity featuring live music; a curated craft show of Madison County artisans (starring pottery by resident Alex Matisse, great-grandson of Henri); and food vendors. A high-end swap meet will include clothes, accessories, and furniture for sale. The proceeds go to Neighbors in Need, a local nonprofit that offers support to low-income residents — especially during the winter months when heating assistance is in great demand.
Abraham is the self-proclaimed “instigator” of Madison Has HEArT, a newly created group of volunteers putting together A Fanciful Flea and providing opportunities for Madison County neighbors to connect and help one another. “There are a lot of us here,” says Abraham. The area, she says, has become a beacon for adventurous people looking to express themselves in a diverse community. (Downtown Marshall, where the event takes place, was the setting for the atmospheric 2003 movie All the Real Girls, starring Zooey Deschanel.)
Now that Abraham has traded in her couture clothing for more practical duds, she brings her sensibilities to an area that pulses with vitality — both new and old. She may not be wearing designer heels these days, but her boots have found a home in the mountains.