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Maria Pinto to Close Business

Maria Pinto's boutique

Image by swanksalot / Creative Commons

A significant influence in the first lady's style has come to an abrupt end. It was announced today that designer Maria Pinto is closing her business, including her West Loop Chicago boutique, and early next week, is expected to file for bankruptcy.

The designer told the Chicago Sun Times in an exclusive interview published Sunday:

''After 20 years of pursuing my greatest passion and striving to build a successful high-end fashion business, the time has come for a new chapter in my life.''

Pinto cited ''increasing economic challenges and soft buying trends at the top end of the apparel market'' among the reasons for the downfall of her business, which includes the shuttering of her design and wholesale operations and the retail store on South Jefferson.

''I am confident that the 'Maria Pinto' name will not go away, but will merely take a break, before emerging in a new form. I plan on using the next several months to explore different avenues and opportunities for business, as economic conditions improve," Pinto said.

It is a sad day for Maria Pinto, and certainly, for fans of the first lady's style. It was Mrs. O's penchant for Maria Pinto sheath dresses, created in bold jewel tones and always with a flawless fit, that first drew the future first lady a loyal fashion following. When Mrs. O was named to Vanity Fair's International Best Dressed List in 2007 and 2008, Maria Pinto was named as a favorite designer on both occasions.

Mrs. O's purple Maria Pinto sheath dress, worn with a studded Alaia belt as Barack Obama secured the democratic primary in 2008, is practically an icon in itself. Three words - "purple sheath dress" - bring the exact dress to mind in an instant. The same can be said of the turquoise, three-quarter sleeve dress Mrs. O wore to open the DNC, and, of course, the red dress with sunray pleats at the neckline that Mrs. O wore for her first post-election visit to the White House. Though the first lady has diversified her repertoire of designers in the past 18 months, Maria Pinto is, and will continue to be, very much at the heart of Mrs. O's emerging style legacy.

Just over two months ago, I had the opportunity to interview Maria Pinto at the Cooper Hewitt National Design Museum in New York for a "Inside the Designer's Studio" event. The full interview is posted on YouTube here. At the time, there were no apparent signs of trouble, as Maria Pinto spoke of early plans for her Fall 2010 collection and hinted at the possibility of future retail locations.

From a business standpoint, we did talk about the period around 2001, when she decided to close her business following "embezzlement by a bookkeeper and 9/11." When I asked what she did differently upon reopening in 2003, Maria replied (18:00 on video): "the biggest difference was surrounding myself by people who were really brilliant in areas where I wasn't: business planning, accounting, etc. ... When I relaunched, that was a big part of it, and still is."

Update: Women's Wear Daily has a thorough piece on Maria Pinto's closing, here. Though they don't have further detail on what specifically led to the closing, there's good perspective from several industry insiders...and as we feel, a general sense of shock throughout the piece.

"The news came as a surprise to many, given that Pinto’s star appeared to still be rising. Just last year, Pinto was inducted into the Council of Fashion Designers of America, showed her Spring 2010 collection during New York Fashion Week and joined the likes of Anna Sui and Nicole Miller as the recipient of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago’s Legend of Fashion award."

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Reader Comments (32)

Wow.............I'm seriously stunned and speechless!

Monday, February 15, 2010 at 12:57 AM | Unregistered Commentercanyongal

It really speaks to the decline of disposal income amongst those that usually purchase higher end clothes that the woman that was Michelle Obama's favorite designer has to close.

While having one extremely high profile client doesn't automatically guarantee success, it really makes me fear for the future of similarly mid-size designers (not superstar houses like Gucci, not totally unknown), because if someone who got publicity the world over can't stay afloat then who can?

The Sun Times article is interesting because it mentions what I noticed before, that Maria wasn't the featured designer of several high profile First Lady moments (Inauguration day & night, European trip), that doesn't mean Michelle no longer liked her, Michelle was just trying to diversify but I wonder if that personally hurt Maria and if that professionally hurt her sales, or if Michelle not wearing Maria as much didn't have that much to do with it.

I wonder how Jason Wu and Thakoon are doing business-wise.

Monday, February 15, 2010 at 1:14 AM | Unregistered CommenterMica

You would really think with the First Lady's endorsement, that her sales would have gone through the roof. Look what she did for J. Crew. Or At least some larger company would have acqired her. This is surprising indeed. Me thinks something else is afoot....

Monday, February 15, 2010 at 7:49 AM | Unregistered CommenterSerenity

It seems to me that Maria Pinto had not been the "favorite designer" since the inauguration, when Isabel Toledo was chosen to do the day ensemble and Jason Wu to do the ball gown.

I don't believe that Maria Pinto sold through Ikram Goldberg's boutique. Jason Wu and Thakoon do. Ikram has appeared to be a controlling factor except with Talbots and J.Crew.

Pinto's designs were the most flattering. They are also pricey, but far better value for the money than Wu or Thakoon, IMO.

Monday, February 15, 2010 at 8:30 AM | Unregistered CommenterBeeGee

This is definitely sad news. To respond to Mica's comment, Michelle Obama, although a public fashion icon, still has the power to choose who to wear and to what event. Being dependent on a high profile client and the exposure that entails is a poor business strategy. I wonder if a lack of assessbility is the problem with fashion. Looking at the picture outside of Pinto's studio would make me think that the studio is not for me, no one dresses like that in corporate America. Also the lack of diverse models, body types - and the assumption that everyone is or aspires to be a size 2 is troubling.

Monday, February 15, 2010 at 8:39 AM | Unregistered CommenterDreamChaser57


Monday, February 15, 2010 at 9:18 AM | Unregistered Commenterredlipstick

I thought the economy was supposed to be getting better

Monday, February 15, 2010 at 10:10 AM | Unregistered CommenterBootzey

I don't believe that Maria Pinto sold through Ikram Goldberg's boutique.

She did not. My understanding is that Ikram, for whatever reason, does not carry the work of Chicago designers.

Monday, February 15, 2010 at 10:15 AM | Registered CommenterHyde Parker

This is a sign of meagre times. Only those with significant disposable income could afford designer labels and we know that a lot of people who were once in high profile jobs are now out of work. Certainly as someone who earns a good but not excellent salary, I cannot afford designers such as Maria Pinto.

Maria Pinto has had more expsoure than the thousands of desingers trying to get a break. Michelle Obama wore some beautiful clothes designed by Pinto, the DNC dress still ranks as my favourite.

This is down to people being a lot more savvy. In the UK, the cheaper clothes shops - Primark and New Look are breaking profit records. People are just being alot more shrewd with how they spend their money.

Monday, February 15, 2010 at 10:33 AM | Unregistered Commenterjestina

What a sad sad day indeed!! Maria Pintos designs were what put Mrs. O on the Fashion map, and she is a wonderful designer and beautiful person from all Ive gathered. If Ikram has so much power over what Mrs. O wears- it is bewildering to think she would not have kept a good thing going by still choosing to dress Mrs. O in Maria Pinto. Makes me wonder if Ikram is only pushing her own Agenda and designers for her own gain.

Monday, February 15, 2010 at 11:21 AM | Unregistered CommenterBuckhead Betty

It's very tempting, on the basis of one small piece of information, to make up a lot of fantasy "possibles" relating to what one person may, or may not, be doing, what prompted a decision, or not, and who may be implicit in what has happened.

However, the fact remains that we are not privy to the conversations or thought proccesses that will have led up to this decision, and we don't know (as in KNOW), what lies behind this very sad decision.

A lot of businesses who have managed to ride out a year, year and a half of dwindling sales simply do not have the deep pockets that it takes to keep a retail outlet going in a recession. Even a relatively healthy number of sales doesn't necessarily outweigh manufacturing costs, staffing costs and renting a boutique.

It may be that Maria Pinto, having taken this step before, knows that it holds no terrors, and just decided to go into bankruptcy before the knock on effect of shutting down affected too many of her suppliers. If she had waited six months, shored up by the bank, who knows what the damage would have happened down the line, to her suppliers, staff or creditors?

As far as I'm aware all or most of the couture fashion houses run at a staggering loss but are offset by the holding company introducing diffusion ranges of consumables. Perfume sales, handbags, keyrings, diffusion ranges, make-up, washbags, sunglasses, tights, underwear. Maria Pinto is not - I believe? - large enough to have this economic safety net to carry her through a prolonged rough patch.

The closing of Maria Pinto is to do with Maria Pinto. It is nothing to do with either the first lady or Ikram. And the economy is getting better. An awful lot of businesses have gone under in the last eighteen months, it is just a shame that this one is one of them.

I wish Maria Pinto all the best in getting everything sorted out with the minimum of stress, and I'm going to be looking forward to seeing her emerge again in due course!

Monday, February 15, 2010 at 12:35 PM | Registered CommenterPosh Tater

This is unexpected news. I was literally shocked to see this when I logged into the site. I'm sad to see her go, but as the post suggest this isn't the first time that it's happened to her and she's been able to come back and be successful. I wish Ms Pinto all the best. What we see are mere failures are often times opportunities to learn and drive ourselves to be better. I hope she never gives up or lose her patience.

I would also like to point out how strange it is to shift blame (even implicitly) unto Mrs.O or Ikram or anyone else for this. Sometimes it's nobody's fault. It's okay to admit that the economy' is a big problem. I suspect there hundred of designers in difficulty and whose businesses are falling apart.

Any designer's career can't rely on one person only. Mrs. O can't bear the burden of every designer's failures because she's worn their designs. Last year everyone said she was the fasion industry's bailout, but economic reality tells us that inspiration is not enough. If people aren't earning enough, they will not buy. Let's not lose sight of that please. Michelle Obama is her own woman, just because Ikram doesn't sell something doesn't mean she's not going to seek it out. I might be wrong but I think I read that Ikram commissioned some clothes from designers she doesn't promote. On behalf of the fitst lady. The first lady herself knows what she likes and seeks out designers for herself.

Now I don't want to assume that I have any knowledge of Ms. Pinto's commercial and marketing strategy. But if I were a designer I would need to rely on more than that endorsement to market myself. My perception is that Maria Pinto hasn't over-used that exposure - I personally think it was a good thing but others might disagree. But blaming Mrs.O or Ikram for her problems seem to imply that her goal in life as a designer was to rest on her laurels and expect more custom orders from only once source. That is bad business, and I'm sure Mrs. Pinto knows it. And I know that the many readers of this blog know it.

If Maria Pinto says her business is a victim of the economy, I believe her word. I wish her nothing but good things and a promising future. Most of us have admired her designs. Personally, I hope to own one of her designs one day. So I'm looking forward to a relaunch!

ok I'm rambling here. im off!

Monday, February 15, 2010 at 12:38 PM | Unregistered CommenterIris

Tell me if I'm wrong, but am I hearing the underlying tone from some of you that Maria Pinto is in bankruptcy because Michelle Obama chose other designers for the inauguration etc, etc, etc. That notion seems so absurd to me.

All the major and minor fashion houses are hurting and laying off. There is a recession going on and Ms. Pinto is running a business and it failed, thousands of businesses have failed for myriad reasons. Are you saying that because Mrs. O does not wear her clothes all the time others rejected her and would not buy her clothes. Has anyone stopped buying Oscar de la Renta because she doesn't wear his and what does the fact that this Ikram not carrying Pinto have to do with it? Are all the designers she does not carry, are they failing? Does anyone have the FACTS to back up these claims. Do you get the sense that Ikram dictates to MO?? ( I don't think that the POTUS dictates to MO!!) Then why would she be wearing Target and J. Crew and Talbots and more recently Maria Pinto. I'll bet we'll see her in a Pinto frock soon.

Monday, February 15, 2010 at 12:43 PM | Registered Commenterdenisegirl

Regarding Ikram and her business practices, is any one against free market capitalism and competition. In capitalism you stand or fall on your own merits, and you run your for profit business for your benefit and that of your shareholders and employees not the business next door, right or wrong?

Monday, February 15, 2010 at 12:49 PM | Registered Commenterdenisegirl

Blame Mrs O? Good grief, No. This economic downturn has gone on too long. People are losing the ability to hang on.

I want to put out my pet point again: Mrs O dressed better BEFORE she was first lady (my opinion, of course). Perhaps is was due to changes in designers? I don't know. Does anyone else share my point of view?

Monday, February 15, 2010 at 1:53 PM | Unregistered CommenterJane

I wanted to add to my comment above about liking Mrs O's style better before BO the inagruation: This is not to say that she hasn't 'hit it out of the park' which some of her outfits over the past year - but I meant in an overall sense.

Thank you.

Monday, February 15, 2010 at 1:56 PM | Unregistered CommenterJane

Very sad, but nothing to do with how much Mrs O wore Pinto or not. J Crew is overall cheaper which may explain its increase in sales. IMO, the aspirant shopper is cutting back; one who shopped at Saks may now be shopping at Macy's etc.

Monday, February 15, 2010 at 2:17 PM | Registered CommenterTHC

In response to DreamChaser57's "To respond to Mica's comment, Michelle Obama, although a public fashion icon, still has the power to choose who to wear and to what event.", I have a couple of things to say.

First off, if I am interpreting your comment correctly, you are trying to inform me that above all, Michelle has the right the chose which designer and what outfit to wear at all times.

If that is the case, I have to tell you that I already knew that, and I am sure that anyone that has ever decided to wear jeans instead of a skirt, or a button down shirt and not a t-shirt will tell you that you the individual does indeed have the power to wear what you want.

If you are trying to tell me something that I already know as if it was new information, I will say that that is part of the problem with Mrs O comments.

Everytime someone comments about, say, not liking Michelle's belt or that she should wear stocking, there is always a response from someone along the lines of "Michelle will dress the way she wants, not how YOU want", or just now I commented on Michelle not wearing Maria as much and you commented that she can chose whoever she wants.

Everyone realizes this but given that this a fashion blog, I think it would be better for everyone if people didn't have responses like that, because the purpose of posting Mrs O's clothes is to talk about whether you like how the pieces are put together, not commenting on something and having people say over and over that Michelle isn't going to change her look no matter what.

That isn't productive and it doesn't feel like a genuine discussion of fashion.

Finally, because I don't want this thread about Maria Pinto to be full of comments to my comment, I've posted the same thing in the O.Chat section:


Monday, February 15, 2010 at 3:57 PM | Registered CommenterMiss Mica

@Jane, no I don't really share your opinion. I love the fun and creativity Mrs O has shown after the inauguration. I think she looks fine before and after but I prefer the after because of the creativity of her outfits. I also love seeing designs from people I have not known of before Mrs. O. I

Monday, February 15, 2010 at 4:38 PM | Unregistered CommenterThat other Mimi

So sad. But I'm also getting the feeling from that short interview that she's secretly relieved now that the decision has been made. That she's looking forward to whatever comes next. I hope she goes back to a very small scale custom-design work business model.

I'm not an expert on the fashion business, but the story of a designer going bankrupt and then coming back with great success is not uncommon (off top of my head I think of Michael Kors & Donna Karan). It usually follows bad business decisions (like over-expanding the range of the line or number of shops or just bad timing) or global economy or public mood. But not exclusively and sometimes it's based on personal life changes, too. There are also many cases of designers partnering with fashion corporations and then losing use of their own name as a brand once that relationship sours. It's a tough business.

Restructuring at some point is common. Cutting out what isn't paying off. Right now, many small/medium design houses are scaling back their runway shows by using static-model installations at unofficial venues or in the designer's in-house showroom. Some are cutting the number of offerings. There's something very old fashioned & a bit appealing about that. A few small designers are opting for digital/online presentations only this season.

I wish Maria Pinto all the best. She makes beautiful, flattering and highly wearable clothes. She seems like a lovely person, too.

Re Mrs. O -- It's easy to forget that (as far as we know) she's no longer able to spend a leisurely afternoon window-shopping and drifting from from one shop to another trying things on on a whim; having lunch with a friend; then shopping some more. This either wouldn't be secure or she doesn't have the time or it would be used politically against her if she were seen loaded down with shopping bags. So it's really vital she has someone like Ikram & the use of online shopping.

Monday, February 15, 2010 at 6:24 PM | Unregistered Commenterdesertwind

Miss Mica, I totally understand where you are coming from, your response above is right on! In fact I think I have noticed a subtle trend that people here are withholding negative comments for fear of just that type of retaliation. So sad.
Regarding Mario Pinto's closing, it's understandable that the first thing to pop into people's minds is that Michelle starting snubbing her after the inauguration so that is why she's failing. But of course it's much more complicated than that.

Monday, February 15, 2010 at 6:43 PM | Registered Commenterbabs

Re the question of Mrs. O's clothes before and after the election.

Two thoughts: Remember, we're seeing a heckuva lot more pix of Mrs. O these days. Poor woman can barely sneeze without having a photo-record of it splashed all over! (remember the walking the dog patterned shorts?) So, we're actually seeing more looks and it's natural that we individuals may love and not love all the things we're seeing.

Second thought: As First Lady, I'm pretty sure she;s had to make some adjustments to what she wears. Some thought out before the inauguration and some learned on the job (I doubt we'll be seeing those hiking shorts again!)

Monday, February 15, 2010 at 6:45 PM | Unregistered Commenterdesertwind

Mrs. T, just watched your Cooper-Hewitt interview with Maria Pinto & really enjoyed it.

Funny -- she doesn't quite fit the picture I had of her! (for one thing -- and I don't know where I got this -- I'd thought she was a South American immigrant.....) lots of creative energy. Please keep us posted as she transitions through this phase of her career and on to something else.

Monday, February 15, 2010 at 8:40 PM | Unregistered Commenterdesertwind

@ desertwind, I think your assessment in the comment above is spot on. It's easy to make assumptions, but the truth is we simply don't know the details of what happened. I was as shocked as everyone else, particularly because, as I wrote above, there were absolutely no signs of trouble at the Cooper Hewitt event in November. One thing I have been pondering ... I've heard from a few people in the fashion industry that opening a retail location requires a lot of capital and can be quite costly to maintain. I can't help but wonder if the timing of Maria Pinto's boutique opening in August 2008, coupled with the economic downtown, was a major factor. Well, like the rest of you, I'm hoping she will ultimately emerge from this stronger than ever. Quite a disappointment.

Monday, February 15, 2010 at 10:56 PM | Registered CommenterMrs. T

I think she will Mrs T.

Mica / Miss Mica, I didn't see animosity towards you in that answering post, merely a response to the things you said. I really don't think it was meant to be patronising or antagonistic but part of a larger conversation. If we were sitting in a coffee shop (I always imagine that we are all in a coffee shop - with cake) we'd probably say the same things that we type here. Only I don't think people would get as upset face to face as they do sitting at home.

Person A thinks it's a bit weird to say "Michelle will wear what she wants to". Person B thinks it's weird not to! We're all different, all humans have the need to say what they gotta say, we all want to be right about the things we believe are true.

Jane I couldn't disagree with you more. Mrs Obama has broken the style barrier nearly every day since Mr O became President. She just keeps raising the bar. (There's a greedy little bit of me that wishes she had an engagement every day, so I could see more glorious clothes, but I'm trying to accept that this is unreasonable.)

Tuesday, February 16, 2010 at 8:02 AM | Registered CommenterPosh Tater

Re the Update, is there any way you can post the WWD article? I clicked to read but you have to register to read in full, and at a cost.

If registering were free then I'd of course do that.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010 at 6:03 PM | Unregistered CommenterMica

Mica, try googling Maria Pinto, and sort by "News". The WWD article will appear, and you should be able to read it in full without registering.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010 at 6:16 PM | Registered CommenterMrs. T

No one is blaming Mrs. Obama or Ikram for the demise of Pinto's business, which may be temporary according to the accounts I've read..

But here is the WWD's take on it from the article that can be accessed at Google News per Mrs. T's instructions:

Pinto, an SAIC graduate, launched her line in 1991 with her women’s accessories making their debut at Bergdorf Goodman. She later expanded into eveningwear, but declared bankruptcy in 2002 due to health issues, employee embezzlement and economic factors after 9/11.

Pinto relaunched her business in 2004, meeting Obama soon afterward. Pinto dressed her for several important occasions prior to her husband’s presidential bid. She wore Pinto’s clothing on the day Barack Obama launched his presidential campaign, on numerous stops during the campaign and on the night she famously knuckle-bumped him wearing a purple Pinto silk sheath and Azzedine Alaïa belt as he claimed the Democratic nomination. However, after her husband won the election, Obama expanded her repertoire and favored designs from younger talent such as Jason Wu as well as the work of veterans such as Isabel Toledo, Narciso Rodriguez, Francisco Costa for Calvin Klein and Michael Kors.

It could be said that Mrs. Obama's continuing to wear Pinto might have given her a needed boost. No one knows either way, do they...

Tuesday, February 16, 2010 at 8:42 PM | Unregistered CommenterBeeGee

BeeGee comments were made implying just that, and Pinto herself says that she will be back so yes, a temporary break is implicit in Mrs T's original article.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010 at 10:28 AM | Registered CommenterPosh Tater

If Isaac Mizrahi (sp?) can pull it out of the crapper, and turn his biz around and return to success and fame . . . so can Maria Pinto!

I work just around the corner from her boutique, can't afford to open the door but have always enjoyed her displays and clothes on Mrs. O.

God Bless, Maria! Much success in your future endeavors.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010 at 11:28 AM | Unregistered CommenterKentashi

Sunnier times will come and her fashion will be back, along with a powerful, classy "survival and perseverance" narrative. I hope she, as have others, will open up a more affordable line, along the lines of "Maria Pinto for Target" as have other designers.

I've never understood why the cachet (aside for the $ and prestige) of doing only high-end stuff. There's plenty of us in the middle and low ends with good taste albeit with thinner wallets (the only occassion when thin is not in, huh?) :)

Wednesday, February 17, 2010 at 2:33 PM | Unregistered Commentersd

I'm sure Maria Pinto will be just fine bless her heart. But Bee Gee you really need to dial back the negative anti -Mrs Obama stuff. It's really sad and try as hard as you may, the venom still seeps through.
Funny that the same WWD sometime ago concluded that none of the regular designers favored and regularly worn by Mrs O had seen any significant boost in sales and bottom line. How is it that now we are to believe that Mrs O could have singlehandedly saved Maria Pinto's business?
Everything seems to be the Obama's fault these days and yet when things go well they get absolutely no credit but much derision and ridicule. Shame on you lot.
Babs: You're "sad" because you have to "withhold *negative* comments"...! Now THAT IS SAD!

Sunday, February 21, 2010 at 3:17 AM | Registered CommenterLota

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