Maria Pinto is back in the fashion biz again. Since closing her West Loop boutique in 2010, the Chicago designer, who has dressed both Oprah Winfrey and Michelle Obama (Pinto’s designs included most of Michelle’s clothes in the 2008 presidential campaign, including the iconic sleeveless purple sheath), had kept a low profile. But now Pinto, sporting oversized cat-eye glasses, has a new gig: the Creative Director for women at Mark Shale, the fashion retailer with a flagship store at 900 N. Michigan Avenue plus stores in Oakbrook Center and Northbrook Court.

As Creative Director, Pinto is curating—not designing—the women’s collections for Mark Shale. But based on the mini spring fashion she oversaw on Wednesday, Pinto is bringing her famous eye for clean, modern lines to her selections, which included work clothes, cocktail attire, and weekend wear by Diane Von Furstenberg, Catherine Malandrino, Rene Lezard, Trina Turk, and Halston.

“I’m still interested in integrity in design,” said Pinto. “I still care about finishing details and buttons—I can drive the buyers crazy over things like that.”

Pinto studied under fashion icon Geoffrey Beene and then started her own line in 1991. Her clothes were sold at Bergdorf Goodman and Barneys New York; then, with a major company revamping, Pinto operated her own atelier on Elston Avenue before opening her boutique in the summer of 2008. “It’s nice now to be part of something bigger,” she says, “where I can enjoy myself and not have to worry about making payroll every two weeks.”

The addition of Pinto is part of a new brand direction casting Mark Shale, an 80-year-old Chicago-based company, as a luxury, full service fashion destination. Another crucial part is the hiring of ad agency Tom, Dick & Harry/Chicago, which is currently retailoring Mark Shale’s web site and advertising. One upcoming example: a full-length photo of a slate grey anorak with the headline “Field Tested on the Gold Coast.”

Next month, Pinto will be on-hand at the various Mark Shale stores to meet women shoppers and to discuss spring clothes. (See her from 5 p.m. – 7p.m. on April 7 at Michigan Avenue, April 14 at Oakbrook Center, and April 21 at Northbrook Court.) It’s a rare chance to get some advice from a premiere designer about a multitude of labels available right there on the racks. Mark Shale just may have scored the coup of the season: finding its own perfect statement piece for the company.


Photography: Erika Dufour; Hair and Makeup: Krista Gobeli