Ballpark Estimate: $300 to $5,000
Are you familiar with Chicago-based upscale clothing designer Maria Pinto? If you’d never even heard of her name until recently, you certainly are not alone. Pinto’s exclusive designs have been worn for the better part of a decade by many of Illinois’ best-dressed group and socialites, but the rest of the world wasn’t introduced to her simple, yet elegant, style until First Lady Michelle Obama brought it into the spotlight.
First Lady of Style
Throughout the 2008 presidential campaign, Michelle Obama selected some of Pinto’s unique designs for a variety of appearances that were highly-publicized. Perhaps the most famous of the many Pinto looks the first lady wore is a purple-toned sheath paired with large faux pearls that set of her figure, and also set the fashion bar extremely high. There is also a turquoise Pinto dress that captured much media attention for its simple but elegant lines.
A Flurry of Media Coverage
Rumor has it that Obama was first introduced to Pinto’s designs about five years ago, just before her husband was sworn in as senator. Since then, she has remained a loyal customer, turning to Pinto’s creations for numerous occasions. In fact, in a family photo early in the presidential campaign, Michelle and her daughters were photographed wearing coats that were designed by Pinto. In addition, during the presidential campaign, the now-president’s wife was included in Vanity Fair’s “Best Dressed” list of 2007, and when asked what designers she wears, Michelle named Pinto as her favorite. Such publicity helped transform the small-scale designer with a small, but exclusive clientele, into someone whose work is suddenly well-known and in high demand.
Style Is Contagious
Inspired by Obama’s unique sense of style, a handful of other celebrities and well-known names are also wearing Pinto’s beautiful designs. For instance, Oprah has been photographed in a Pinto original, and also selected Pinto’s clothing for viewer style makeovers on the show. Other notables who have been seen in Pinto’s designs include Courteney Cox, Sharon Stone and Christina Ricci. Further, Pinto is said to have designed sparkling eveningwear for at least a dozen inauguration ball participants in January of 2009.
Pinto’s Understated Elegance
Pinto is best known for her luxurious line of eveningwear. Her graceful designs combine classic shapes with extravagant fabrics and detailing. Such elements come together to find that perfect and luxurious blend of wearable elegance. Some of types of special accents she is works into her gowns include silver tulle with silvery shimmers captured in its weave, lace texturized with a python print and shantung carefully aged with acid to bring out its beauty in unusual and exciting new ways. Her palettes are usually neutral in order to let the richness of the designs and materials take center stage.
Pinto is a self-admitted addict for the finest fabrics – in fact, she travels to Paris a few times a year for fabric shows — and she prides herself on working them into the most figure flattering shapes. In addition, the clothing is perfection right down to the exquisitely tailored seams and often features beads, sequins and feathered embellishments to make them truly unique.
Taking Inspiration From Many Places
In a recent personal interview, the designer revealed her creative side as she talked about taking inspiration for her work from a number of unexpected, but moving, sources, including photographs of nomadic tribes in Ethiopia. The drape of animal skins and the shape of natural shells translate well into wearable art. She also looks to the curve of sculptor Richard Serra to take a lesson in achieving just the right curve, as well as geometrical shapes in the perfect proportions and angles, to make a woman wearing her designs look sensational.
Maria Pinto’s Story
Pinto is a native of Chicago who started to sew when she turned 13, but didn’t turn to fashion as a career until she turned 30. That’s when she attended the School of the Art Institute, where she focused on clothing design and construction. Following graduation, she worked in New York City for designer Geoffrey Beene, then returned to the windy city in 1991 to apply what she had learned from the master to start her own prestigious accessories collection, which was sold in the finest department stores and boutiques. Building on this fast success, she also branched out into couture and read-wear lines of day and evening clothing designs, which were sold at a variety of New York City shops.
Overcoming Serious Roadblocks
However, Pinto soon faced several challenges that threatened her success. First, the terrorist attacks of the World Trade Center in New York City resulted in many New York stores cancelled their orders of her clothing. Then, the designer discovered one of her employees had embezzled thousands of dollars from the business. These setbacks prompted her to finally close her business in 2002, 11 years after starting out on her own.
A Happy Ending
In 2002, Pinto was able to relaunch a scaled-back version of her collection, which quickly took off. Today, she continues to design couture and also ready-to-wear clothes, which are sold in a variety of price points to fit a variety of budgets, tastes and body types.
Where to Shop
You can find Maria Pinto designs through her own elegant boutique on Jefferson Street in Chicago’s West Loop. Her items are also sold in luxury stores, including Saks Fifth Avenue, Barneys New York (both of which carry her accessories) and Takashimaya in New York City (which carries select items from her ready-to-wear line).
What It Costs
You may remember the flurry of media attention that resulted when Cindy McCain wore an outfit reportedly worth $360,000 (including jewelry) at the Republican Convention. Obama’s more restrained, yet also elegant, taste, led her to call on a Pinto original at a tiny fraction of the cost, but still enabled her to look great.
Pinto’s items start at around $300 for some of her more simple shawls and wraps. These go up to about $600 or more, depending on the fabric and detailing. You can also get a ready-made blouse, shell or jacket in the $300 to $600 range. Dresses start at under $1,000 and go on up to about $5,000 for a hand-embellished creation. (Just keep in mind that custom-made creations can cost more, depending on your desires and specifications.)
While these are very reasonable prices for high-end designer wear, if these prices are still too rich for your budget today, there is one more, more affordable, way to get a piece of the first lady’s chic style for yourself without going broke.
You can attend a Maria Pinto sample sale, where items from past collections sell for a greatly reduced price. For instance, you can find a silk bustier for $25, a shawl for $75 and formal dresses starting at about $500. This is a great way to invest in some timeliness pieces you will be able to wear for years.
If you are interested in following the first lady’s fashion style and want to understand more about what works and why, you may want to pick up a copy of an upcoming Michelle Obama Style Guide, which is being written by Mademoiselle editor Mandi Norwood and is expected to be available widely at bookstores and online in the spring of 2009.