Dressing to Thrill

She’s Michelle Obama’s favorite designer, and Oprah wears her gowns. Her soft, sexy, elegant clothes have placed her atop Chicago’s fashion A-list. And now, with a new boutique, Maria Pinto completes a remarkable comeback

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Michelle Obama, in Men’s Vogue, September-October 2006, wearing Pinto’s Simona burnt-out-organza skirt

At the opening of the restaurant Sepia in 2007: Pinto in her Trisna French lace dress and Michelle in Pinto’s Sudara silk-taffeta dress

The experience of today is the fall 2008 collection, which will have about 60 pieces, some available in two or three fabrics. Pinto takes her inspiration where she finds it, and pinned to a wall by the cutting tables are the muses for her current vision: color photographs of nomadic tribes in Ethiopia. “Aren’t these great photos?” says Pinto. “Look at how they drape animal skins over their bodies, how they use these organic forms, like shells, as embellishment.” At first glance, nomadic tribes of Ethiopia may seem like a long reach for the fabulously chic women of Chicago and New York, but Pinto makes it work. “Of course, I’m interpreting it,” she says, showing off fabric samples of black-on-black Japanese wool, silver and gray hand-beaded chiffon from India, dark-brown leather lined with crinoline.

Then Pinto begins picking up samples from the fall 2007 collection: corded silk skirts with tiny bands of horsehair sewn into the hems so they float away from the body; cashmere and alpaca coats lined with charmeuse; and, instead of tribal shells, custom-blackened silver beads for embellishment. These designs can be mixed with pieces from her 2008 fall collection, which was inspired by the work of the sculptor Richard Serra: blouses overlaid with raw-edged chiffon squares, dresses of tulle with copper finishing, jackets with ruched sleeves, satin dresses with racy asymmetrical cutouts in back. “Whatever disposable income we can put toward clothing,” Pinto says, “I think we should get the best we can.”

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Pinto was born in Chicago, near Chinatown. Her father worked for the city’s department of streets and sanitation, and her mother was a caterer. The youngest of seven children, Pinto got her first sewing machine at the age of 13. “I didn’t have any intense or special exposure to fashion,” she says. “But I was always interested in the construction of clothes. She made her own high-school prom dress: a Halston pattern with a fitted bodice and a full skirt.

In the early 1980s, Pinto’s family opened an upscale Italian restaurant at Erie and Wells streets called Sogni Dorati (translation: Golden Dreams). She felt committed to the business—her brother Silvio was the head chef, and the restaurant garnered rave reviews (it closed in 1987 when her brother became ill). But when she was 30, she decided to attend the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and major in fine art with a focus in fashion. There she continued to develop what would become her signature style: body-conscious construction with high-quality fabrics and intensive detailing.

After graduation, Pinto moved to New York City and started working for the fashion icon Geoffrey Beene, in his Fifth Avenue shop, where she handled some of his high-profile clients, and in the design room, where she studied Beene’s style of construction. He had a medical background, and his construction was closely connected to the body’s musculature, following the line of an arm or the curve of a hip. In 1991, Pinto moved back to Chicago and started sewing. Her first projects were luxe evening wraps and scarves. She sold them by calling on stores; her first order came from Joan Weinstein, then the owner of Ultimo, the Oak Street boutique. Other city and suburban stores followed. Pinto also got orders from Barneys and Bergdorf Goodman in New York. Her accessories remained one of the top sellers in Bergdorf’s catalogs until she closed her business in 2002.

After almost two years of designing accessories, Pinto began to branch out, making jackets and outfits to match her wraps. Along the way, she translated what she had learned from Beene into flattering, entrance-worthy clothes based on draping, bias cuts, and seaming. “There are so many little tricks of cut,” she says. “It may not be a big thing, but it can make all the difference in the world in terms of having a dress look OK but not really work, and having a dress fit perfectly.”

 The business started flowing, too. Pinto established a customer base among executives and socialites—people who attend at least several black-tie events a season. Her luxurious gowns of panne velvet and double-shot taffeta, her crystal-studded stoles, and her black beaded lace skirts proved irresistible to the chic set, and by 1996 Pinto had a South Michigan Avenue production center. Her collections included both couture and ready-to-wear; in the spring of 2000, she introduced a more informal Pinto Studio line. She and her two assistants made monthly trips to New York to sell her designs.

Then, at the end of 2001, there was trouble. Because of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, retailers canceled pending orders and new orders slowed dramatically. At the same time, Pinto discovered that a long-term employee had embezzled hundreds of thousands of dollars. (That person served a two-year prison term.) “I kept thinking, How could I have missed this?” Pinto says. “She seemed like a lovely lady who came to work every day. I knew I had to regroup.” In January 2002, Pinto closed her 11-year-old business. The letter she sent to retail customers at the time said that she had no choice due to “a series of setbacks . . . including embezzlement by a trusted employee and a contracting economy.”

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