A Favorite of Michelle Obama
Chicago-based designer Maria Pinto was not well-known outside the Windy City until Michelle Obama (wife of then-presidential candidate Barack Obama) began to attract attention for her style and fashion sense. Many of the pieces that turned heads were designed by Pinto. One notable outfit put Pinto on the map - the streamlined purple sheath that Michelle wore the night her husband won the Democratic presidential nomination in June 2008.
As Pinto told Access Hollywood in October 2008, she had no idea Michelle was going to wear the dress that night:
"When she came out I was like, OK. That was in the back of her closet and she just dug it out. I'm thinking I love you, Michelle," laughs Maria. "People loved the dress and were interested where they can buy it."
When Michelle Met Maria
Obama began wearing Pinto in 2004 after a mutual friend connected the two women. Pinto described to the Toronto Star how a simple conversation over dinner brought Michelle to Maria:
[The friend] said, `I know someone who'd really like your stuff. Can she come and see you?' That was while her husband was running for the Senate so they didn't have much of a profile.According to an article in the New York Times, Pinto says:
Michelle came in just like everyone else and said: "I need a few dresses. I need a suit for work ....At nearly 5' 11", Pinto describes Michelle as "a dream to dress, elegant and statuesque," but doesn't design specifically for her; ""She'll come in and buy stuff for the season but then she wears it as and when she pleases."
From Success to Setback...and Back Again
At age 51, Pinto's been in the business for only 16 years.
She was employed as an office assistant for Geoffrey Beene for two years; as she told Gary James of FamousInterview.com, she did "anything and everything," including acquiring pieces for fashion shows and working with models and designers.
She eventually struck out on her own, taking out a small loan and producing samples which she showed to various Chicago retailers. After being picked up by Ultimo, a legendary store with an international reputation and many high-profile clients, she traveled to New York. There, Dawn Mello (past president of Bergdorf) was impressed by her work and Pinto's women’s accessories collection debuted at Bergdorf Goodman in 1991.
Although she achieved significant success from 1991-2001 and was carried by Saks Fifth Avenue and Nieman Marcus among others, she declared bankruptcy in 2002 and closed down the business. Part of the failure was due to the shaky economy following 9/11; another factor had to do with the embezzlement of hundreds of thousands of dollars by a long-term employee.
Pinto's misfortunes didn't end there. According to Chicago Magazine:
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."She relaunched her label in 2004 with a detailed business plan, fewer employees, and lower overhead. By early 2008 - even before her name became a household word to fashionistas nationwide - her company had reported an annual revenue growth of 300 percent.
While recovering, Pinto took painting, computer, and business classes to help her bounce back.
Her pieces are currently carried by department stores such as Barney's, Saks Fifth Avenue, and Takashimaya in New York.
Pinto has received a number of design awards, among them the Gold Coast Fashion Award; previous recipients have been Donna Karan, Bill Blass, and Anne Klein. She graduated from The School of The Art Institute of Chicago with a degree in fine arts, and has studied at Parson’s School of Design in New York and Fashion Institute of Technology.
Next page: Maria Pinto's childhood, early influences, and why the designer didn't pursue her passion until she turned 30.