NEW YORK (AP) — Maria Pinto isn't particularly interested in coattails, considering the Chicago-based fashion designer hasn't campaigned to become a household name despite being a favorite of soon-to-be first lady Michelle Obama.
Obama chose a purple Pinto sheath on the night her husband secured the Democratic nomination and an ocean-blue one the night she spoke at the Democratic National Convention. She wore a Pinto coat the chilly day in Springfield, Illinois, when Barack Obama announced his candidacy for president, and a periwinkle dress by Pinto on the cover of Newsweek magazine.
But the designer herself has spent the last few months as she did the ones that came before Obama-mania, building a business of loyal customers while approaching fashion with an artful, not trendy, eye.
“I don't want to be a disposable part of fashion,” Pinto said in a recent telephone interview. She doesn't like to comment on her celebrity clients — who include Oprah Winfrey — but did describe Michelle Obama's style as “timeless” in a statement last summer.
“Choosing items that are always modern and chic, Mrs. Obama possesses a natural and unpretentious sophistication, which is reflected in her clothing,” she said in the statement. “But what I love most is that at the foundation of this fabulous woman is an unbelievable brilliance and eloquence coupled by the grace and beauty of a dancer.”
Will she design Obama's inaugural gown? Eveningwear is a specialty for Pinto and she previously put Obama in a dramatic white tiered gown for Winfrey's The Legends Ball and a colored halter gown for the awards of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
But Pinto is mum – probably because she's not interested in either being or creating an overnight sensation. Her clothes are for real women, she stresses, not just ingénues who are here today and gone tomorrow, or starlets who have famously fickle taste.
She has had an almost lifelong interest in fashion, saying her career path has been clear for as long as she can remember.
“I've always been interested in art, and fashion and design are an extension of that. I'm not blurring the line with ‘art-to-wear,’ but it's about respecting the creative process.”
Pinto grew up in a household of seven kids with her and her twin brother the youngest. She got her first sewing machine in the eighth grade after admiring an older, style-savvy sibling.
Yet they had very different styles, Pinto now recalls with a laugh. “I remember an outfit that I put orange and pink together. My sister – who always hit the trend just right – gave me hell for that, but as the 7th child, I have some rebel in me.”
Pinto attended the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and launched her own label in 1991 after a stint working with the late draping master Geoffrey Beene; she has since made such easy, flattering cuts her own signature.
“She's been consistent in terms of her sensibility – her clothes are beautiful and she captures a sense of quality and high style,” said Andrea Reynders, chair of the Art Institute's fashion department and a former instructor to Pinto.
Reynders, in fact, has asked if Pinto will make her an evening ensemble to wear for the school's spring awards ceremony – during which the designer will be honored.
After selling her garments and accessories to upscale stores such as Bergdorf Goodman, Barneys New York and Takashimaya, Pinto opened her own atelier and boutique on Chicago's West Loop last summer and she has no plans to uproot to Washington, D.C., or to New York, the capital of style.
“Chicago seems to be working for me at the moment,” she said.
There's also a hint of Midwestern practicality when Pinto talks about her mantra to mix luxury with low maintenance. Her new spring collection emphasizes the fluid curves of Rococo art, which Pinto says give the appearance of movement and enhances a woman's shape.
Pinto, as a 51-year-old professional, knows her customer inside and out, almost always wearing her own designs.
“I think I need to be able to put things on my body. When you put something on yourself and feel, you get a sense of being inside the garment – you get a sense of the shoulder, sleeve or volume of the skirt. It informs where you go next.”
Photo: Maria Pinto