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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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From Pinto’s spring 2008 collection: A laser-cut leather halter wrap top lined with silk and Mercedes Italian cotton high-waisted pants

High in a Gold Coast high-rise, Pinto’s apartment is the embodiment of Zen. The living room is filled with lacquered Asian furniture, white orchids, and two lounging cats. Her iPod is hooked up to a stereo system playing soothing music. And Pinto is serving mint tea in Japanese porcelain cups sitting on saucers that look like leaves.

Even here, in the peaceful atmosphere she has created for herself (Pinto has never been married), work is not that far away. Sometimes she watches the reality television series Project Runway. Closer at hand, in the dining room, one wall holds books covering a range of interests: Givenchy, Schiaparelli, Charles Rennie Mackintosh, anatomy, fish. Cloth-covered pin boards that display more Ethiopian photographs and fabric swatches hang on another wall. Pinto travels to Paris twice a year for fabric shows; her designs for beaded work are constructed in India. “I am a nut for fabric,” she says, picking up swatches from her dining-room table and rubbing her fingers over the material. “You have to feel this. Isn’t it the softest, most enticing fabric you’ve ever felt?”

From Pinto for spring: a Rachel pinstriped cotton shirt with square-cut pieces layered to create a collar and a Komang laser-cut leather gored skirt lined with silk

This passion—her self-defined “hypercreativity matched by hyperorganization"—fuels her plans for the new store. “Now, with a store’s buyers picking out these pants, this coat, and certain material for dresses, my vision gets splintered,” says Pinto. “In my store, I can create an environment that presents the brand and the experience of shopping as I think it should be.” The architect for the store is Elissa Scrafano; Pinto’s brother Joe, a self-taught designer, is doing the façade; and the interior design will be by Scott Heuvelhorst. “It was an old deli,” Pinto says. “We are going to refurbish the staircase in bamboo flooring that will run up the back wall. Part of me loves richness and embellishment, but I also like clean, beautiful lines. For this space, we’re going with what I call ‘opulent minimalism.’ You know, steel and glass and comfortable, sizable dressing rooms.”

The bad times of a few years ago seem far behind her. Yet she hasn’t forgotten them. “It would be easy to get all caught up in thinking, Why this? Why that?” says Pinto. “But I try to look at what happened as lessons.”

So what has she learned?

“Not to take things for granted.” She pauses to think. “And to concentrate on what is important. Sometimes I have to rein myself in. For example, I love handbags. So I could get all caught up in making handbags. Or jewelry—I love jewelry, too. But I’m not going to do that now. It could be easy to get lost.” Sitting here, over her cup of tea, Pinto is clearly wearing her confidence. And she wears it well. “I don’t want to dilute myself and have everything be just OK. I don’t want to be too big and just passable. I have learned that I want to do what I’m doing and be fabulous.”


Photography: Erika Dufour


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