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Pinto Builds on Obama Link, Plans Chicago Store

Designer Maria Pinto, who counts Michelle Obama and Oprah Winfrey as clients, is set to open her first retail space here this summer.

CHICAGO — Designer Maria Pinto, who counts Michelle Obama and Oprah Winfrey as clients, is set to open her first retail space here this summer.

Pinto wants to build on her namesake line’s momentum. The designer is known for her luxe evening gowns and accessories — the latter are sold at Saks Fifth Avenue and Barneys New York.

She began dressing Obama more than four years ago. And now Pinto is getting increased attention as the wife of Democratic presidential candidate, Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois, is photographed wearing her clothes, including a red scoopneck sheath dress on Super Tuesday.

Pinto said she knew it was time to open a store and elevate her brand with sales on the upswing, Michelle Obama making Vanity Fair’s best dressed list and Winfrey wearing a Pinto-crafted cognac-colored long leather skirt to the 2007 premiere of Denzel Washington’s film “The Great Debaters.”

The store will be a major step for the designer, who re-launched her fashion business in 2004 after economic fallout from the Sept. 11 attacks and an employee embezzlement forced Pinto to close her then 11-year-old company in 2002.

Launching retail is “the right step from a business standpoint,” said Pinto, who selected a 2,100-square-foot space at 133 North Jefferson Street in the West Loop neighborhood, adjacent to the upscale restaurant Sepia.

Pinto said the neighborhood is a good fit, though it is known more for restaurants than retail.

“I wasn’t interested in doing a store in a mainstream kind of way,” said Pinto, who plans to house her design studio and office on the sixth floor of the building. “And there’s such a great energy over there.”

Architect Elissa Scrafano and interior designer Scott Heuvelhorst will oversee the construction and design of the space, which Pinto said should project a modern, minimalist, relaxing vibe where clients can “take a deep breath and relax.” Shoppers should expect charcoal gray bamboo floors, black crystal chandeliers and curvy, comfortable upholstered chairs.

Prices begin at about $300 for silk tops, scarves and wraps, with trousers starting at $500, jackets, $750, and coats as much as $1,800. Dresses will range from a bias-cut silk design for $1,200, lace or lightly embellished gowns for $1,500 to $2,200 or more and hand-beaded gowns for $4,000 to $5,000.

Eveningwear accounts for about 60 percent of Pinto’s business, which has grown as women who came to her for black-tie benefit gowns began buying daytime items, as well.

Although Barack Obama is locked in a tight race with Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D., N.Y.) to determine who will face the presumptive Republican nominee, Sen. John McCain (R., Ariz.), Pinto said, “I already have something in mind” for Michelle Obama to wear at an inaugural ball.

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