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Designer Maria Pinto in the Mark Shale location; Portrait by Jason Robinette

Back to Business

by Amalie Drury | CS magazine | April 28, 2011
Maria Pinto has always been a mistress of reinvention. She’s done it before, when the post-9/11 downturn and embezzlement by a former employee forced her to shutter her ready-to-wear business in 2002. And even though just a few short years ago she was hailed as a superstar in publications ranging from Vogue to Women’s Wear Daily, Pinto is reinventing herself once again with a new job as creative director of women’s fashions for the Chicago-based Mark Shale stores. Instead of designing clothes for her own label, she’s stocking someone else’s store with someone else’s designs. But as usual, Pinto, 54, isn’t dwelling.    “I look at different parts of my life like chapters in a book or scenes in a movie,” she says. “When something bad happens, I think, ‘This would only be 10 minutes in a movie.’ You can sit around having a pity party for yourself, or you can accept these things for what they are and ask: what’s next?”     Just three years ago, Pinto’s fame as a designer was skyrocketing. Soon-to-be First Lady Michelle Obama had been wearing Maria Pinto garments for years—an early example was the white silk taffeta gown she chose for Oprah Winfrey’s Legends Ball in 2005—and she was making international news in Pinto’s boldly hued, streamlined dresses both before and after the 2008 election. “Power Purple” was a New York Times photo caption under a shot of Obama striding across a stage the night her husband claimed the Democratic presidential nomination. One after another, Pinto’s looks earned press and blogosphere raves: “This leading lady is loyal, and we love it,” wrote FabSugar when Obama wore Pinto’s teal wool V-neck dress with a flower brooch to address the 2008 Democratic National Convention in Denver. “After Election Night Dress Mishap, Michelle Obama Comes Back Strong,” declared a New York Observer headline when Obama donned a beautifully cut, blazing red Pinto for a post-election visit to the White House. The controversial Election Night dress—a red-and-black Narciso Rodriguez reportedly chosen by Chicago boutique owner Ikram Goldman—was daring, but it didn’t win the approval of the American public the way Pinto’s classic silhouettes had.    The designer was soon profiled in The New York Times in a story titled “An Obama Fashion Bump.” A 45 percent uptick in orders encouraged Pinto to open a retail store in the West Loop—a first for the designer, whose clothes had previously been sold only in stores like Bergdorf Goodman and Barneys New York. On a steamy summer night in August 2008, hundreds of friends packed an opening-night soirée for Maria Pinto, the store. The timing of the expansion seemed opportune, but with the economy sinking into recession, in reality it couldn’t have been worse. The retail landscape began its freefall, and reports came in early 2010 that Pinto’s store—and her design label—would close.    When longtime Pinto friend and celebrity stylist Jesse Garza heard the news, he wasn’t worried. “This is the thing with her,” he says. “She’s a survivor. She always comes back.” Pinto spent months visiting friends in Barcelona, taking a painting workshop at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago’s Ox-Bow camp in Michigan and relaxing at a yoga retreat in the Berkshire mountains. “Very therapeutic!” she grins. Then, after being introduced by a friend of a friend to Mark Shale CEO Scott Baskin, Pinto was offered an intriguing chance to dip her toe back into industry waters. Known for its upscale but practical inventory of business suits and daywear for men and women, Mark Shale had a following—but not a strong enough one to save the company from filing for bankruptcy itself in 2009. Down to three Chicagoland stores from a onetime high of 11 (the 900 N. Michigan, Northbrook Court and Oakbrook Center locations remain), the store was looking for a creative boost to help attract new clients.   “I had followed Maria’s career and knew she was a fixture in Chicago; so is Mark Shale,” says Baskin. “I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if we could join forces somehow?’” Pinto, Baskin explains, is serving as a mentor to his buying team and expanding his store’s assortment. “Sometimes you can’t see beyond the trees in the forest. She’s thinking about dresses in a bigger-picture kind of way. She has a different viewpoint in terms of vendor structure. She’s bringing in designers we hadn’t looked at before.”    For her part, Pinto says it’s not about changing the customer base, but broadening it. “We’re not a department store; we’re still maintaining a Mark Shale focus. But now we can dress women not just for work, but for the weekend and out for cocktails, too.” Pinto is buying more from lines like Catherine Malandrino, René Lezard and Ports 1961, and adding surprises like breezy knitwear from Buenos Aires-based Viviana Uchitel. “As a designer, I look at clothes differently than most people,” she says. “In my own business, I worked with the best buyers from the best stores around the world. I bring all of that to this project.” When selecting merchandise for Mark Shale, she says, she digs beyond a garment’s initial appeal, scanning each item for fit, drape, the proper cut of an armhole.    “You can already see her influence on the racks there,” says Kath Carter, a partner at Ernst & Young and a former Maria Pinto customer who still counts a mint green Pinto peacoat among her favorite items in her closet. Carter recently purchased two Pinto-selected suits at Mark Shale. “This job is a win/win for her,” Carter says. “She gets to stay close to the retail world, but this economic environment was hard for all of us to get through. Here she can do what she loves without the stress of having to make payroll.”    Garza agrees, saying, “Maria should be focused on what she does best, without the whole weight of the world on her shoulders.” He sees the Mark Shale job as not only a valuable corporate learning experience for Pinto, but a possible bridge to future projects like designing a collection for an established brand that needs reviving. Meanwhile, on visits to Chicago, he’s been noting with approval the changes at Mark Shale. “Style is power, and Maria’s already adding an edge to what they have. There are really sleek, cool things happening in that store.”    Pinto’s contract at Mark Shale runs for just one year, but both sides claim to be looking forward to a long partnership. Meanwhile, thoughts of her own line are never far from her mind. With her new bird’s-eye view into the industry, Pinto says, “What I’m finding really interesting are the voids I’m seeing out there.” Designing is a lifestyle for her, and as long as her ideas have relevance, she says, we haven’t seen the last of the Maria Pinto collection yet.