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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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Her clothes are like wearing air—air that flatters your figure and wraps you in the glamorous luxury of silver-shot tulle, python-printed lace, or acid-washed shantung. Her Italian leathers and Japanese wools are so soft and pliable that they could be used for baby bunting. The sumptuous, sensual moment when grace and function stylishly merge—that is Maria Pinto’s métier. No wonder that her studio and workspace on North Elston Avenue are filled with breezy energy and light.

In spite of her rarefied fabrics and sophisticated designs, Pinto, 51, one of the city’s foremost women’s fashion designers, is down-to-earth friendly. She wears a gray cashmere sweater, a black skirt of her own design—with her trademark intricate workmanship creating an effortless silhouette—and knee-high boots with low chunky heels that still add a boost to her petite stature. Her constant best accessories: her shoulder-length raven-colored hair and an engaging smile.

Sasha, Malia, and Michelle Obama in coats by Pinto when Barack announced for the presidency last year

“There is a client here right now,” she says sotto voce as she leads the way past floor-to-loft-ceiling white drapes that mark off her showroom and fitting area from the design, cutting, and sewing space. The curtains billow slightly as Pinto passes by, but the guest remains anonymous. She could be one of Chicago’s high-profile CEOs or socialites who have been wearing Pinto’s creations since she started designing accessories for evening in 1991. (Like many of her clients, Pinto serves on nonprofit boards and committees, those of the Joffrey Ballet and the Art Institute of Chicago.)

Or it could be Michelle Obama, the wife of the junior senator from Illinois and Democratic presidential candidate. She was referred to Pinto by another client in 2004, a few months before her husband was sworn in as a senator. When Vanity Fair anointed Michelle one of the ten best-dressed women of 2007, she in turn named Pinto as her designer of choice. She has been photographed for the pages of Vogue and WWD wearing Pinto’s designs. “Every designer wants to dress a celebrity,” says Pinto, who quickly admits that the connection has pulled her clothes into the spotlight. “But I’m proud that she is such a person of substance and accomplishment.” In February 2007, when Barack Obama announced his presidential campaign standing outside in the subfreezing temperatures of Springfield, his wife and their two daughters wore coats designed by Pinto—captured in a front-page photo in the Chicago Sun-Times. Michelle Obama also wore a Pinto jacket—with wide lapels and a nipped-in waist—when she and her husband appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show. Even Winfrey herself recently hit the red carpet, for the première of a Denzel Washington movie, wearing a Pinto-designed long cognac-colored leather skirt.

The time is right for Pinto—an incredible rebound from a difficult decline. In 2002, she closed her business following the embezzlement of hundreds of thousands of dollars by a long-term employee. The post-terrorist economic downturn was another factor. Pinto’s designs previously had been carried by Neiman Marcus, Bergdorf Goodman, and upscale boutiques.

A short time later, after laparoscopic surgery, Pinto developed peritonitis. She was hospitalized for more than three weeks and then bedridden in her Gold Coast apartment for six months. “It was the worst time I could have ever imagined,” Pinto says. “But I knew I was coming back. I knew it the day I closed my doors.”


Oprah Winfrey in Pinto’s Letta lamb leather skirt at a 2007 premiere

While recovering, Pinto took painting, computer, and business classes to help her bounce back. And thanks to a group of investors and a business plan as meticulously detailed as one of her cocktail dresses, she relaunched her label in 2004. But she scaled down this time, reducing her overhead as well as the number of employees (from 30 to 18) and the venues where her designs can be purchased. (In Chicago, her accessories are now carried by Saks Fifth Avenue and Barneys, and her ready-to-wear line is sold exclusively at her Elston workspace; in New York, her collection is available at the ultrasophisticated Takashimaya.) She kept her signature concentration on eveningwear while expanding her daytime line to include lacquered linen jackets, pinstriped pants, asymmetrical blouses, and metallic-sheen trench coats.

Her designs range from $350 for a simple shell to $5,000 for gowns; her typical customers range in age from 35 to 60 and in size from 2 to 16. “I’m not about one body type,” Pinto says. “And I love creating those make-an-entrance evening dresses. But we all have daytime lives. Women need clothes that work but also look wonderful.” Pinto also made a concerted effort to rein in her drive to do it all. (She says that green tea, yoga, and a great acupuncturist have helped.)

By scaling back her business, Pinto has rebounded in a big way. Currently, her company is experiencing an annual revenue growth of 300 percent. “It is wonderful that a Chicago-based designer is being recognized as an important force in fashion industry markets like New York,” says Ikram Goldman, the owner of the internationally known Chicago boutique Ikram.            

“She has come back with a bit more edge and a bit more sex appeal while keeping her luxury style,” says Stacey Jones, the fashion director of Chicago magazine. Some of her regular clients agree.

“This is some pretty sexy stuff,” says Jan Melk, a private investor whose eveningwear purchases for the past three years have been exclusively Pinto designs. “That extends into her daywear, too, like these unbelievably lightweight laser-cut leather jackets.”

“I always feel very glamorous and very sexy in Maria’s clothes,” says Melinda Jakovich, a Gold Coast realtor who has worn Pinto designs for the past five years. “She doesn’t want to just sell you a dress. She wants you to look your best.”

In May 2008, Pinto’s sales potential will increase when she opens her own 2,000-square-foot boutique, with workrooms upstairs, in the West Loop. “Today you can buy almost anything online,” she says. “So people come to you for your experience and your eye. Add a cup of espresso or a glass of Champagne and a beautiful environment, and you have a memorable hands-on experience.”

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Photography: (Image 1) Erika Dufour; Hair and Makeup: Krista Gobeli



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