After garnering national attention as First Lady Michelle Obama’s designer of choice on the campaign trail, Maria Pinto 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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“I’m speechless; it’s very humbling,” said Pinto, a 1990 SAIC graduate who was honored on Thursday during the school’s annual fund-raiser, “The Walk.” The award was particularly significant for Pinto given the ups and downs of her career. Known locally for the eveningwear and sleek sheaths worn by Obama, Pinto launched her line in 1991 but declared bankruptcy in 2002 after an employee embezzled funds and the company was under strain from 9/11.

Pinto rebounded in 2004, gaining Obama as a client and landing Barneys New York and Saks Fifth Avenue as accounts. With newfound name recognition, she opened a store in Chicago last year. Broadway costume designer William Ivey Long, a past Legend of Fashion award winner, introduced Pinto, saying she helped “co-create the new image of America.”

The evening marked the 75th anniversary of the school’s annual fashion show and featured some 200 student designs. Highlights included junior Rachel Goldberg, who used fashion as commentary. Inspired by Victorian mourning traditions, Goldberg worked images and news clippings from 9/11 into a black cotton and wool quilt dress with vinyl panels, worn with a ruffled cotton underskirt and black tulle petticoat.

Attendees included Ikram Goldman, the Chicago boutique owner and supporter of the school who has come to be known as Obama’s unofficial stylist. She noted that, while students are clearly “pouring their heart and soul” into their work, they may need additional training in how to turn their craft into a business. Even so, SAIC president Wellington Reiter said the fashion department’s integration of art, design and fashion will remain. “We are not going to retreat,” he said, “We are not training people to go directly into industry.”

Mayor Richard Daley, who came with his wife Maggie, has attempted to help highlight and expand Chicago’s fashion industry, appointing a Mayor’s Fashion Advisory Council and launching a city fashion week.