Obama, now Oscar?


Maria Pinto may be Chicago’s most famous fashion designer, thanks to Michelle Obama, who wore her simple sheaths, slacks and tops regularly on the campaign trail. But now Pinto is hoping for exposure of another kind -- in Hollywood. So she came to L.A. last week for the first time to try her hand in the Oscar dressing derby.

She took a hotel room in Beverly Hills, set up clothing racks with two dozen or so gowns and invited stylists to come in, hoping one of her designs would end up on the red carpet, with all the international attention that brings. Pinto also participated in the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences annual Oscar preview fashion show on Tuesday, competing to have her design worn onstage at the Academy Awards by an “Awards escort.”

With more than 20 years in the business, Pinto is hardly an up-and-coming talent. A native of the South Side, she attended Chicago’s School of the Art Institute before traveling to New York to study with Geoffrey Beene. (You can see his influence in the sculptural styles Obama is drawn to in Pinto’s line.) When Pinto opened her own business in 1991, her first accessories collection was bought by Barneys New York and Bergdorf Goodman.


Pinto was on the 7th Avenue fast track, but she decided Chicago was home. She opened her first store last year in the West Loop neighborhood, selling day wear, embellished shawls and evening gowns downstairs from the workroom where the pieces are made. She finds her fabrics in Paris, and her clothes range in price from $275 for a bias-cut camisole, to $450 for a taffeta blouse with hand-cut petals at the neck, to $900 for a wool day dress, to $1,800 for a coat.

Pinto’s clothes are not available in the L.A. market, but she’s hoping that will change soon. She’s also hoping her L.A. trip will bring her brand to an even wider audience. (Oprah Winfrey and Brooke Shields are already fans.)

Indeed, there was something for every Hollywood persona on her hotel room rack -- a slinky gold sequin number with an asymmetrical back for the pop diva; a bubble-gum-pink ball skirt and strapless top with hand-fringed belt for the ingenue; a zany grass-green skirt and matching cami with rivulets of chiffon for the sexy sidekick; a mermaid-style gown festooned with coq feathers for the just-look-at-me first-timer.

As of Wednesday, six stylists had dropped in. Next Sunday, we’ll know if anyone took the bait. In the meantime, I sat down with Pinto to ask her about her inspirations, her path to fashion and her pal Michelle Obama.

How did you meet the first lady?

She was referred to me by a very good client when Barack was running for the U.S. Senate. She’s very low-key and we’ve become good friends.

Everyone associates you with the sheath dresses Obama wore so well. Is that your style or hers?

It’s mine and hers. A little go-to dress is essential in any wardrobe. You want that piece that makes you feel fantastic.

What’s your philosophy about designing clothes?

I always think about what my friends need. They travel a lot, go from the office to an evening event. It’s about what I can do to make their lives easier. Because at the end of the day, clothing is very important, but it shouldn’t be so important that it distracts you or frustrates you.

You’ve already dressed the woman everyone wants to dress. Who else is there?

You, you, the universe! I would love to dress someone like Kate Winslet. For me, it’s about dressing women who are doing interesting things more than just dressing a celebrity because she’s a celebrity.

Have you been invited to the White House yet?

I got an e-mail saying we’d be getting together soon.

How did you know you wanted to be a designer?

I have always wanted to be a designer. I started sewing clothes at age 12. In high school, my friends started buying clothes from me. I made my own prom dress from a Halston pattern. It was peach, with a halter neck and a wide sash. It was so cutting-edge for high school. I’d still wear it today.

What inspires you?

I travel a lot, both physically and through books and film. The last place I visited was Buenos Aires. I was very inspired by tango, and the way fabric moves over the body when you’re dancing. That may be the starting point for my next collection.