If you think bathing suits are just for the beach, allow Martha of Luv Martha custom bathing suits to show you how fabulous they can be elsewhere; around the campground, a gas station, or in the driver’s seat of a converted school bus. Bathing suits are her business, and she’ll sew them and wear them just about anywhere.
I met Martha in the dark in New Mexico. Both of us were eating dinner by the light of our headlamps on the first night of a “vanlife” event where hundreds of nomadic women had congregated for the weekend. It was too cold for a bathing suit, an evening wind crawling over the snow-capped Sangre de Cristo mountains that bordered the vast high desert on which we gathered. But when Martha told me she had a workshop for custom bathing suits in the back of the school bus she called home, I couldn’t wait to check it out come morning.
All kinds of vans and campers parked together for this event, hosted by Vanlife Diaries and She Explores. There were Sprinters and Vanagons and Subarus and Class A RVs. But Martha’s bright yellow school bus with orange and pink stripes stood out like a burst of confetti on the dry, cracked earth.
I had a chance to tour Martha’s bikini workshop and learn more about her life of full-time camping and working from the road.
Meet Martha: Custom Bathing Suit Designer and Full-Time School Bus Camper
The Dyrt: Which came first, “bus life” or the custom bathing suits?
Martha: Technically the bathing suits came first, but I have lived out of vehicles and on the road many times before starting the bikini business.
First out of financial need and general lack of purpose, I lived in a friend’s RV right out of college. Then I moved to Maui and lived out a jeep for four months while I searched for a job and housing. After I had moved back to California, I lived in an old Ford truck and then a Subaru while I left an abusive partner and rebuilt my life. This period is actually when the custom swimsuits began… the business started as a side hustle to get myself back on my feet after I left all my money and belongings with my abusive ex so I could safely escape.
Self-empowerment and self-sufficiency have always been at the core of Luv Martha. I eventually got a small cabin in the redwoods in the Santa Cruz Mountains that I used for both my housing and sewing space, but I realized within a year that I could not afford to rent in the bay area, let alone have anything extra for travel, so along came the van/ bus idea.
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How have the school bus and your bikini business worked together?
My bikinis are designed to be lived in: for hiking, swimming, dancing, surfing, hot springing, etc… so I think travel and adventure are essential to the business. Bus living provides that perfect vessel to constantly search for new swimming holes and new inspiration.
It can be tricky as the business grows and takes over more and more space in the bus (with fabric and sewing machines), but it is still working just fine. My personal belongings are now pretty minimal to make room for custom bathing suit business supplies, but I think bus or van life naturally reminds us how little we actually need to be happy and feel like we have enough.
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What made you choose a school bus over a van or an RV?
I often like to say that I chose a school bus because I wanted tons of windows and to be able to stand up inside since I spend so much time inside the bus sewing and cutting bikinis.
But honestly, the real reason was probably financial. I had already faced the reality that I couldn’t afford living in the Bay Area, which also meant that I had absolutely zero money saved. I ended up crowdfunding about $1,200 and spent weeks scouring craigslist for vans in the $1k-2k range. The options were pretty dismal until I had an epiphany and began searching school bus auctions. The prices were significantly lower than on Craigslist, and from then on out my heart was set on converting a school bus!
“I figured, it’s impossible to make a school bus blend in, so I might as well have fun with it.”
Tell us about your bus. Did you convert it yourself? What’s your favorite part?
Ohhh my bus. It is crazy cute. I’ve had people describe the outside as resembling a piñata, but I tend to refer to it as a sherbert sunset. The bus is mostly a chartreuse greenish yellow with orange, coral and brick red stripes down the sides. It is so far from the discreet Sprinter vans you see blending into their environment. But I figured, it’s impossible to make a school bus blend in, so I might as well have fun with it.
I did a lot of the conversion myself, or with the help of handy friends. I had very little building experience and an even smaller building budget when I began. It’s definitely an ongoing project, and I’ve had to be very creative to make it feel finished and comfortable. Some things I initially built have had to be replaced, and I’ve collected some beautiful additions and upgrades from friends over the years, but I love the variation: it is like a record of my learning process that maybe only I can appreciate.
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As for the process, I ripped out all the bus seats and rubber floors and started with vinyl fake wood flooring and a fresh coat of minty blue paint over the scratched up brown walls and ceiling. My bus doesn’t have the beautiful custom cabinets and modular seating of so many gorgeous vans on social media, but I love how open and homey it feels. There’s a twin bed behind the driver’s seat that pulls out to a queen when needed, and also hides my plastic totes that hold all my clothes, shoes, and a massive bikini collection.
Next to the bed is the ‘kitchen’. It’s just one wooden cabinet with three doors and shelves inside where I keep all my food, dishes, and pots in pans in more plastic totes. And next to the kitchen cabinet is one more shelf on the back wall that hides my marine batteries and solar charge controller on the bottom, and also houses my refrigerator on top. Those three built-ins (bed, kitchen and solar cubby) were the main building projects, and I did them all with the help of a friend with tools.
They’re definitely not perfect, but they all serve their purpose, and maybe one day I will replace them with something nicer—but for now I am happy with them just as they are.
The whole opposite side of the bus (the ‘passenger’ side) is for the bikini business: my giant industrial sewing machine is bolted to the wall and sitting on a platform above the wheel well. There’s some storage underneath for a few other smaller machines, and the back corner has a vintage school locker (also bolted to the wall) that I use to store all my fabrics.
What’s a typical day look like in the life of a nomadic entrepreneur such as yourself?
My days vary wildly. My schedule typically changes seasonally, partially because bikini making has a busy and a slow season, but also because I don’t have air conditioning or 4wd in the bus. As I result, I tend to drive further distances in the fall and spring, and hang in and around California in the summer and winter to avoid harsh heat and too much snow. I hunker down and sew sunrise to sunset when needed.
So I’ll give a vague overview: after waking up I make coffee and if I have service/WiFi, I’ll work on my emails, new order requests and some administrative stuff for the business, or I’ll go buy coffee and use the WiFi there. Then I get set up in the bus and sew for hours. If I’m in a hot location and the bus is uncomfortably hot, I tend to break around noon or 1 and find somewhere to take my pup to hop in some water, then return to sewing in the late afternoon.
If I plan on driving through somewhere super hot I try to get on the road early in the morning and get to my destination before noon so I still have time for sewing work. And actually, even if it’s not roasting out, I still like to get to where I’m camping around 4pm— partially so I can avoid driving new dirt roads in the dark, but also so I have time to hike around a little, maybe catch the sunset and make some real dinner.
What is one thing you wish you’d known before moving into a school bus?
The thing I wish I had known was probably easily researched, I just didn’t research it! I think mostly I wish I had known how much time and money it really takes to drive across the country solo.
I have dreams of driving to the East Coast but between all my orders and the cost of fuel, I haven’t been in a position to make it that far in a timely manner. I’m hoping next fall to take a few months to drive to New Orleans and Florida for the winter, spending time visiting friends and exploring in Arizona and New Mexico and Austin as well. Realistically, if I plan to drive back to California before the summer heat hits Texas, a drive like that would take me from October to February at least.
I also could just not come back home (to California) next summer, but I think an important part of living on the road is really considering how many holidays, birthdays and weddings with family and friends I’m willing to miss. Before going into bus life I had already lived 4000 miles away on Maui so I feel like it’s important to me now to show up for my people as much as I can.
What’s your favorite part about living in a school bus?
Oh, tough question! I think I’d have to say being able to travel with my dog and my business is my favorite part of living in a school bus. As an entrepreneur, I’m never really “off work,” and I definitely don’t have vacation or sick time, but I’ve always felt the pull to wander and move around and travel as much as I possibly can. I really feel like I’ve found the perfect balance; I’ve landed in this miraculous place of being reliant on my art for my entire livelihood (which is scary) but also being completely autonomous.
How do you find places to park and stay while? Do you stay at campgrounds? National forests?
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I primarily stay on BLM land or with friends. I don’t like paying to camp or park unless I need to charge my house batteries. I like to be way out, away from the world when I am on the road, except when I am visiting friends.
I do guerrilla camp in cities sometimes, but usually only if I am there to visit someone. I try to say hello to their neighbors and make it somewhat clear who I am and who I am visiting, but I don’t sleep very well in very populated areas.
What’s your perfect campout look like? What food is on the campfire (or the stove in your bus?) what music is playing? What’s the scenery look like?
Oh, I love this question! My perfect camp would be an empty pocket of the desert or forest, with a hot spring and a cold water swimming hole only a hike away. It would be a comfortable 80 degrees in the day and 70 at night. I’d be the only person there and the pup could run free. In this dream camp, there would also be cell phone service so I could work on my business stuff over my morning coffee without having to drive anywhere. I’d probably be listening to Otis Redding or Billie holiday while I putz around camp. While I worked, I’d be listening to podcasts or a really good audiobook. I’d cook a pie or tart in my bus oven from foraged blackberries, and (because I’d be only one there) I’d be ‘forced’ to eat only pie for days.
Who’s your canine co-pilot? How has your pup taken to life on the road?
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My pup is named Romi. She is a rowdy, playful German shepherd rescue, and I actually adopted her from the abusive ex I mentioned earlier. When I first got her, we were both traumatized and terrified, and I was worried I wouldn’t be able to handle her fear as well as mine. But in the end, she turned out to be the most amazing road companion.
She has been off and on on the road since we left that situation when she was less than a year old, so I think the road has become her safe space. She is super neurotic, anxious, and protective. But because we dont stay anywhere for very long, she doesn’t get a chance to start worrying and actually seems to enjoy herself more.
I was worried about her when I first took her away from her abusive past, but as I’m watching her frolic in the redwoods right now I realize she probably wouldn’t have flourished under regular housing circumstances or with someone who has a standard 9 to 5 job. She is with me almost 24/7, and she has been exposed to so many different people and animals and situations that I think it has really curbed her fearfulness. Plus it totally curbs my fears, knowing that I can park the bus with my whole life inside and run errands and nobody would break in with that big fluff inside!
“I’m left with this bus that tells the story of the talented people I know and the amazing places I’ve been…”
Any advice for fellow entrepreneurs who are interested in hitting the road, in a bus or something else?
Trade trade trade! And ask for help when you need it! I never would have made it this far, or have built such a beautiful home without the help of friends willing to work for trade, or loan me tools, or help me learn a new skill. Your community wants to see you thrive, so when you are in need, throw in out to them first— whether that’s via social media or over the phone or in person.
I’ve broken down with little funds for repairs and was rescued by a friend who got me up and running again in exchange for a pile of custom made bikinis! Last fall I parked in front of a friends work shop, sewing a canvas cabover tent for his truck while he built me a beautiful welded hanging bookshelf over my bed. And then I’m left with this bus that tells the story of the talented people I know and the amazing places I’ve been: from bus repairs and bookshelves to my wood fired ceramic dishes and my fine art prints on the bus walls—it’s like I’m constantly surrounded by the support of my community.
Everything about your unique lifestyle, your business, and your brand seems bold and unapologetically you. Which is pretty awesome. If you had to sum up the message you’re sharing through your work and social media, what would it be?
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“I have been told to cover up if I want to be respected, to never travel alone, to be polite in order to avoid conflict, to strive to be beautiful above all else. But I reject those ideas.”
I aim to live my life (through my brand, my business, my body, my bus lifestyle) in direct opposition to patriarchal pressures to be smaller, quieter, more delicate. I have been told to cover up if I want to be respected, to never travel alone, to be polite in order to avoid conflict, to strive to be beautiful above all else. But I reject those ideas— I reject diet culture, I reject a one-size-fits-all approach to fashion and health, I reject the idea that I need to be skinny/pretty/pleasing to be worthy.
And I believe that those societal pressures to control women’s bodies and behaviors are actually a form of violence: that convincing women to hate our own bodies lays the foundation for bigger violences against women like wage gaps, rape culture, and victim blaming. And so I try to reclaim space— by throwing a bikini on this soft, plus-sized body, traveling around in a sherbet-colored school bus, and taking pictures of my adventures in hopes that I am encouraging others to reclaim their bodies as well.
What’s next for you and Luv Martha?
Hmmm… You’d think I would know what’s next considering I’m in charge! Alas, it’s always a bit up in the air. I’ll probably wander the Sierras and the West Coast— Northern California, Oregon, and maybe Washington. For Luv Martha, I hope to continue participating in vanlife events and empowerment speaker series. Soon I will be releasing a newsletter through my website/email list packed with my feminist and body positive rants. I’ve been playing with the idea of starting a podcast or a zine with my amazing artist friends!
Where can people buy your custom bathing suits?