“Yes, it was heartbreaking and very sad, Ms. Pinto said ...Ms. Pinto abruptly put up a “closeout sale” sign in the window of her West Loop boutique and announced that she was folding her fashion business...“I was like, where are the orders? O.K., this is not a good sign.”
CHICAGO — Fashion and politics are seasonal and unpredictable, yet the two came together quite well here for the hometown designer Maria Pinto and Michelle Obama, whose first memorable bursts onto the national scene were often in Pinto creations.
Remember the purple sheath Mrs. Obama wore the night of the fist bump heard round the world? The teal number at the Democratic National Convention? Or the red dress she wore to meet the Bushes on their way out of the White House? Maria Pinto all, designed right here where both women were born and raised and, over the course of one remarkable election, became stars.
So when Ms. Pinto abruptly put up a “closeout sale” sign in the window of her West Loop boutique and announced that she was folding her fashion business, Chicago — and Pinto devotees all over — reacted with disbelief: What in sartorial heaven happened? “I pushed as far as I could,” Ms. Pinto, 53, said in her first lengthy interview since the demise of her store and wholesale operations in mid-February.
Just back from a month’s break in Barcelona, she pointed to the strain that a sour economy had placed on her business just as it was expanding and gaining major traction beyond a loyal Chicago following.
But Ms. Pinto acknowledged having made some typical startup mistakes in building her brand, in areas like financial management and operations.
After 16 years of designing out of a somewhat anonymous atelier, she opened the boutique, named after herself, in August 2008, capitalizing on a wave of enthusiasm for her work, as displayed mostly by Mrs. Obama on the campaign trail. She also increased her wholesale operations and had been maintaining a showroom in New York.
While Mrs. Obama diversified her style after becoming first lady (she has been drawn to high-end designers like Jason Wu and Narciso Rodriguez, as well as brands like J. Crew), she still sported Maria Pinto every now and then. But even high-profile support of the brand, priced in the hundreds and thousands of dollars, could not save it from the reality of the Great Recession.
The real problems started right after the introduction of the spring 2010 line in New York last September, Ms. Pinto said. “They loved the line,” she said. “I was like, where are the orders? O.K., this is not a good sign.”
Pinto was carried at stores like Barneys, Saks Fifth Avenue and Takashimaya — a store whose New York location will soon be closing its doors, another victim of the recession.
“She’s such a highly regarded talent,” said Anne Brouwer of McMillan Doolittle, a Chicago firm that specializes in retail analysis. “It was certainly a really difficult time to open.”
Still, fashion watchers said her style helped define a moment. “As a fan of the first lady’s, I was discovering Michelle Obama’s style influence, and Maria Pinto was part of that story from the very beginning,” said Mary Tomer, creator of Mrs-O.org, a blog devoted to Mrs. Obama’s clothes.
But Mrs. Obama chose from the conservative end of Ms. Pinto’s collections, which also included pieces like leather jeans, dresses of sassy feathers and kangaroo jackets and Weight belts. There is so much more the designer wishes she could have been known for.
“Yes, it was heartbreaking and very sad,” Ms. Pinto said of the last few months. “The good news is that my creativity goes with me anywhere I go.”
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