New Fashion Week is well underway, which means that the city is rife with fashion designers vying for attention from celebrities and the world’s press. Indeed, everyone wants a piece of The Big Apple, as it is the perceived location where fashion dreams come true and success is attained. But Maria Pinto—the famed designer of style icons like Michelle Obama and luminaries like Oprah Winfrey—has never been one to follow the status quo, dancing to the beat of her drum since launching her business 25 years ago.
Archival images. Photo: Maria Pinto
Unlike most American brands, she set up her base in her hometown of Chicago. And now that she has achieved the incredible feat of staying in the cutthroat fashion biz for a quarter of century, she sees no other place to celebrate than the Windy City. A retrospective of her work will be unveiled this weekend at the City Gallery at the historic Water Tower, along with a presentation of her latest designs for M2057, her new ready-to-wear line.
Having sustained a career for so long, Pinto has definitely experienced major highs and lows. Upon graduating from fashion school, she went to work for the legendary designer Geoffrey Beene in New York City. She would later return to the Midwest, and founded a line of scarves, which seemingly became an overnight success. Her pieces sold at every major department store, including Bergdorf Goodman, Barney’s and Saks Fifth Avenue. And to capitalize on her growing brand even further, she started designing eveningwear that soon caught the attention Chi-town’s elite. To be sure, having First Lady Michelle Obama and media queen Oprah Winfrey as fervent fans is something that most cannot claim. But even with all these accolades, Pinto had to shutter her business in 2010 due to a dwindling economy.
Fashion is one of the toughest industries to be in, which is why it takes passion, tenacity and, more importantly, wisdom to learn and grow from one’s loses—a sentiment that Pinto fully embraced. She saw that her customers were becoming less prodigal with the way they shopped, looking for items that were both stylish and wallet-friendly. The exotic materials and couture-like details that originally marked her designs were becoming less viable. To keep up with the times, she launched M2057 through a Kickstarter campaign that raised $270,000 (the most successful womenswear campaign at that time). And though her new rebranded line is much more accessible in terms of pricing and availability, it still retains the same architectural, yet feminine quality that made Pinto the go-to designer for the most powerful women in the world.
Here, Pinto discusses 25 years in the fashion business, her new capsule collection, and how she is looking to grow M2057.
Why did you decided to set up your business in Chicago instead of New York?
I love both Chicago and New York, and I consider both of them home. New York provides a certain energy and inspiration that I love to visit, but Chicago is my incubator. I return here to do the work in a quiet and less stressful atmosphere.
How would you describe your design aesthetic?
Modern minimalism with an architectural edge. The work I do today has a feeling of deconstructed couture—that is, pieces that have a refined quality and detailing combined with a raw, industrial energy. I refer to my designs as blank canvases, which create a strong statement, but give the wearer an opportunity to personalize and let her own style shine through.
How did you go from designing scarves to eveningwear to daywear?
It has definitely been a natural evolution. When I began designing wraps and scarves, it started as an idea for a small business that I knew I could manage, but it exploded into so much more. It was 1991, and by chance that was the very moment the Pashmina craze hit. American women embraced the idea of scarves and wraps in a very big way. Two years later, I was eager to work more three-dimensionally in the form of garments. I launched an eveningwear collection, which included beautiful separates—elaborately beaded tops and skirts with hand-embellished feathers and unusual materials. Eventually I wanted to provide fashion that went beyond the party, so in 2004 I added suits, dresses, and jackets for day in luxurious fabrics like alpaca and gorgeous leathers and wools. I am something of a fabric junkie! It felt natural to progress into ready-to-wear with M2057, which takes all the elements of Maria Pinto—design integrity, fit, construction, and exquisite fabric—but brings it to a more accessible level.
How would you describe the fashion industry today? And how has changed since you began in the business 25 years ago?
It has changed dramatically since the launch of e-commerce. Now we can access everything from everywhere. There is something wonderful about that—it is a major part of our business and it’s very important that customers around the world can find M2057—but it is also a little sad. I do miss that thrill of the hunt—where you could get truly excited about seeing something exotic that was not so easy to find.
What prompted you to take a break in 2010, and close your storefronts?
There was a clear message that the recession was going to have tremendous impact, and who knew for how long. Trying to do luxury in an overcrowded space was becoming less and less feasible financially, and I didn’t want to dilute the brand by having to make sacrifices in terms of design, fabrics, and craftsmanship. It was more interesting to me to move on to the next thing.
Why did you decide to come back to fashion with M2057?
In 2010, I was offered a position at Mark Shale, a multi-store retailer that had a respected reputation as a go-to resource for professional women. They were looking to rebrand themselves as more modern and fashion-forward, and they sought me out to act as Creative Director. I led a buying team in sourcing wonderful collections from around the world. From that experience I discovered two things: the first was that there was a void in the market for clean, beautiful-fitting garments in an accessible price range; the second was more personal. I realized that without designing, my life did not feel complete. The seed for M2057 was planted then.
Who is the M2057 customer?
Fierce, intelligent, and she does not want to sacrifice being feminine to succeed in what was once, and perhaps still is a little, a man’s world. She needs her wardrobe to do double and triple duty, whether that’s going from meetings to cocktails, from shuttling the kids around to traveling the world, and everything in between. She is looking for effortless fashion that helps her look impeccable and feel beautiful for whatever life throws her way.
Photo: Charles Ommanney/Getty Images
What are some your career milestones?
The first came quite early, when Joan Weinstein, the owner of Ultimo, bought my accessories. That opened the door to Barney’s, Bergdorf Goodman and Saks Fifth Avenue. Then in 1994, Dawn Mello returned to Bergdorf Goodman from Gucci and came to see my collection, and by the next season, we were sold in three departments there. As a young designer, that was quite important for me. Of course working with Michelle Obama and seeing her wear my designs has been very gratifying. I was also very proud to receive the “Legend of Fashion” award from my alma mater, the School of the Art Institute. And I curated an exhibit for the Field Museum and designed an outfit that is now in their permanent collection—that was quite exciting!
How would you describe your relationship with your celebrity clients like Michelle Obama and Oprah Winfrey? How have these relationships influenced your career?
Certainly these relationships have brought awareness to my work, and that has been a tremendous gift and honor. But it is important not to let the fact that they are celebrities affect the work or your own attitude—they are women who need specific things out of their wardrobes, just like we all do. I tried my best to give them pieces that reflected their own personal styles and met whatever needs they had.
You’re celebrating your 25th anniversary with a capsule collection. Tell us about that.
For Collection 25, I knew I wanted to launch leather for the first time in M2057. So I looked at the history of leather, particularly starting in the mid-20th century with the bomber and motorcycle jackets worn by Steve McQueen, Marlon Brando, and James Dean. But the real inspiration came from the style of iconic women like Joan Jett, Patti Smith, Tina Turner and Debbie Harry. They borrowed from the boys and helped pave the way for women to find their rightful place in music. Several of the pieces from the collection are named for these women, like the Jett leather pants or the Benatar leather dress.
M2057 Collection. Photo: Sandro Miller
Why did you decide to have a retrospective of career at the City Gallery at the historic Water Tower?
I was invited by the city of Chicago to have a retrospective, and it is quite an honor to be able to show work from throughout my career in such an iconic and historic space. Throughout the fall we will show a rotating display of fashions and textiles from my archives as well as a few pieces from the current M2057 collection. The centerpiece of the exhibit is the Collection 25 campaign, which Sandro Miller photographed. Sandro is a dear friend and was always my first choice to shoot this collection. He is a true artist and I knew he would capture that raw edge and power that I was seeking.
Where do you see yourself in the next five years?
In five years, I want to have multiple brick-and-mortar locations in which we offer an amazing customer experience that utilizes both technology and a memorable face-to-face experience. We know we need to evolve constantly with the changing face of retail, and we want to do so through technology, while remaining true to our core—a great team of stylists offering the utmost in customer experience.
What do you attribute your lasting success to?
Tenacity and passion for the work that I do!