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Nina McLemore mixes business, philanthropy and fashion in Atlanta

Strange things happen when women wear clothing designed by Nina McLemore.

Passers-by may comment on how sharp and crisp they look. Friends lean in to touch the fabric. And in certain circles, colleagues might share a laugh when they recognize each other wearing a “Nina” (pronounced NINE-ah).

As compelling as the clothing is, the average shopper has probably never heard of the brand. Nina McLemore has staked her claim on some of the most powerful women in the world. Her client list includes Hillary Clinton, U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Federal Reserve Chairwoman Janet Yellen and U.S. Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan.

Metro area Nina devotees include Roz Alford, principal of ASAP Solutions Group LLC; Claire Arnold, CEO and founder of LeapFrog; Beverly Tatum, president of Spelman College; and Carol Tomé, CFO of Home Depot.

In July, McLemore opened a showroom in Buckhead, one of 14 boutiques located in cities where powerful women live or play. She hopes the expansion, which began in 2008 at the rate of two locations per year, will help introduce the brand to more women.

It is not by accident that women of a certain ilk wear Nina. In 2003, when she started the business through direct sales and a showroom in New York, McLemore had the goal of dressing the 15 percent of C-suite level women that the fashion world forgot.

“My friends were complaining. They were looking at fashion magazines and the portrayals were not positive. Those (women in magazines) were not the women I knew,” McLemore said during a recent visit to Atlanta.

At the time, McLemore had retired after several decades working in the fashion and financial industries. She had founded Liz Claiborne Accessories but grew wary when buyers seemed more focused on wholesale discounts than customer desires. After earning an MBA and founding a private equity firm, McLemore had enough. “I decided I didn’t need to work,” she said. Not working allowed her to slow down, meet her husband and breathe deeply. But soon she gave in to the siren call of fashion.

This time, she took a different route. She had always been surprised by the lack of women at higher levels. “If you have been in fashion for a while, it should be obvious that it is an advantage to be a woman in the industry. That’s not true,” McLemore said. “I developed a passion for the economic independence of women.”

Not only would her company provide women at the top with high-quality clothing, but through philanthropy and direct sales — which account for 45 percent of under $20 million in annual sales — she would empower other women.

Still active in a number of organizations, McLemore took her clothing on the road. At conferences for women leaders, she would show her collection and donate a portion of sales to designated groups.

At one such conference, about a decade ago, Roz Alford was introduced to the Nina brand. “I am 5 feet 10 inches and about 168 pounds with long legs. Nothing ever fits me,” said Alford, who founded the privately held ASAP Solutions Group LLC in 1989. McLemore took her measurements at the event, and about two weeks later, Alford received a blazer that fit perfectly. “Nina’s clothes are classic. I have things I bought 10 years ago that I still wear today,” she said.

The blazer is a signature Nina piece. With turned up collars, commanding colors and fabrications that compare to designer brands, they have won a following around the world for giving women a look of authority without a loss of femininity.

“They have an elegance but they don’t shriek power,” said Atlanta-based women’s leadership expert Connie Glaser. “Where is the middle ground where you feel comfortable? Nina McLemore is there.”

In addition to wearing well, McLemore’s designs — which include four-ply silk blouses, double face wool crepe suits and machine washable, no-wrinkle pants — travel well, are comfortable and pair nicely with other items, Glaser said.

McLemore, she said, is in tune with what matters to professional women, like adding pockets to jackets and pants and making sure the clothes can shift from day to evening. “You can wear a jacket with a pair of jeans or to a cocktail reception,” Glaser said.

Getting mileage out of these garments is a good thing, since Nina clothing is definitely an investment.

“It is not inexpensive,” said Alford, who wears her Nina clothing with St. John and other designer brands. “It is less than an Escada or Chanel, but probably as good.”

McLemore leveraged her fashion knowledge to source materials on par with high-end brands, but vowed to keep costs down by selling directly to customers. Her double face wool crepe, for example, comes from the same mill as Akris, but a jacket costs $850 to $975 compared to more than $3,000 for Akris.

She learned early that classic cuts, straight lines and a popped collar make everyone look taller and slimmer. Color can be tricky, but McLemore relies on what looks good on most people’s skin. Turquoise and jade, she said, are almost universally flattering and are frequently referenced in her collections. With prints, she likes a clean look with a touch of cultural history whether it be a Rembrandt painting or an ethnic vibe. And all clothing is available in sizes zero to 18 and petites.

McLemore said she designs, fits and wears every item in her collection. It makes sense then, that as much as customers love her clothing, Nina wearers also love seeing themselves in her.

“I wear the clothes,” said Alford, “but it is important that she also has the strong following because of her philanthropy — what she gives back to the community and what she gives back to women in general.”

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