2018-10-03 / Features

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Maria Elena Piña-Fonti

Queens resident and fashion designer Maria Elena Piña-Fonti founded fashion company Maria Elena Couture in 2014. Maria Elena and her brand returned to the New York Fashion Week (NYFW) runway to showcase her new Mimmo & Lola couture line and new designer handbags at two fashion shows. Maria Elena blends influences around her with a touch of Cuban flavor and retro glamour to create unique contemporary designs. Her designs take inspiration from her family, friends, and Cuban historical figures and icons. Fashion designs are expressed in vibrant colors, fashionable prints and patterns, and distinctive shapes and textures. To see ME fashions in two NYFW shows, visit nyfw.net/designers/maria-elena-couture. When we invited Maria Elena to be interviewed, she said, “Maria Elena Couture, like myself, calls the very culturally diverse borough of Queens home. So as such, I am thrilled to share my history with your newspaper.”


Maria Elena Piña-Fonti (r.). 
JP Yim / Getty Images Maria Elena Piña-Fonti (r.). JP Yim / Getty Images QG: Tell us about your NYFW experience!

MP: The fashion shows executed at NYFW, September 7 and 9, had as their theme “Seaside Moonlight Romance.” The Maria Elena Couture handbags and “Mimmo and Lola” unique garment collection walked the runways Friday for the Art Hearts Fashion show and Sunday at the SMGlobal Catwalk show in NYC. The haute handbag and couture collections were a visual depiction of the varied phases of romance from puppy love to tempestuous passionate romance in synergy with the never ending energy of the seaside. Hence the variance of the colors, shapes, textures of the textiles and leathers. Like romance the dual collection of handbags and couture walked is about the power of joy and energy that the woman wearing it brings to life in her everyday experiences.

The music for the shows was a composite of traditional Cuban music that ranged from mambo to boleros, skillfully and creatively blended by Ronald Piña.

The designs are my exclusive creations from the handbags to the couture styles worn by the very professional and beautiful models. My designs are inspired by the energy of my everyday life and memories of my dual cultures of the US and native Cuba. My handbags are christened after important women both in my life and historical figures in the Cuban culture. For example, we have a new bag called Florencia after Florence Nightingale, founder of modern nursing. Additionally, the Dulce bag is christened after a Cuban poetess and daughter of the author of the Cuban national anthem. Its colors are reflective of the colors of the American and Cuban flags, and Cuban national bird, “Tocororo.” I believe fashion can be a teaching moment.

I am personally engaged in the construction of my couture and handbag designs. The couture pieces are skillfully crafted here in New York and Miami by stellar men and women with great experience. The fabric handbags are manufactured impeccably by hand in New York, and the leather bags by a Chinese company with extensive experience.

The fabrics of course are selected based on the collection and season. The collection walked in September is a mix of colorful leathers and fabrics ranging from silk shan-tung to ombré to beaded lace and soft organzas. My collection at this time is composed of textiles from here in NYC and lace from China as well as the leathers from China.

QG: What inspires your fashions?

MP: My formal education was in the sciences and education. However, since my early childhood I was saturated in the world of fashion via my mother. Soon after arriving in the US, she entered the fashion world as a very talented runway sample seamstress. Not having the dominant language fluidity, I became her voice in every aspect of the fashion industry. She instructed me on technical components as well as the art so embedded in the industry. She instilled in me fashion’s contribution to the health and wellness of the mind and the psychesoma connection of a person to fashion. She taught me the importance of carrying your own style with cachet. I can remember she and I creating garments for me. Having said all of this, my love of fashion goes back to my early childhood. I define my history with fashion as one’s first love. You never forget it, irrespective of place or time. It is always a part of you. Such is fashion for me.

QG: How did you first start designing clothes?

MP: Maria Elena Couture was founded four years ago as a handbag company with a combination of fabric and leather products. This year, we have added a couture collection line called “Mimmo and Lola,” “Mimmo” named for my husband, Domenico and “Lola” after my Spaniard subculture and short for Dolores. Although we walked my unique designs this past February at NYFW, it was formally launched this September with the 2019 collection. My designs are exclusively created for my MEC brand. As a company my creations have walked runways in Palm Beach, Fort Lauderdale, and NYC.

QG: Was it a struggle to open your own fashion house? Where are your designs available?

MP: The initiation of the brand has been a beautiful yet challenging adventure. I started this process about five years ago with the exploration of all the legal and financial components that go into the development of a business. I then needed to reach out to companies that would be experienced in handbag production, from my sketch designs to manufacturing, which was a big learning experience; followed by establishing technical avenues for communication and development of inventory. This all was a long winding trip. The fashion industry is tough in that brand identification many times supersedes other important pieces. So I find it is still an ongoing challenge in that the name has to be put out there to a saturation level in the community. It is a long laborious journey which requires perseverance, passion and an extensive network. I can now say a revised website will be launched, much improved, and the new couture line will be incorporated into the site in the coming weeks. At this time, MariaElenaCouture.com is our online store. We invite you to visit.

Having said all the above, I love all the phases of the fashion experience: the inspirational creative phase that sparks a transformation from simple to complex; the visual phase that brings you to the visual expression in a sketch that can change many times; the treasure search for materials that will concretely express your cognitive vision; the actual physical construction, of your vision which will mutate many times; the runway explosion of your collection, and the model that skillfully brings it to life on the runway. Ultimately the phase when your client and your art piece synergistically come together is the epitome of your work. All of this is interlocked with all the arduous raw knuckles activity backstage, if you will (literally and otherwise).

QG: Who are some of your favorite fashion designers that we might have heard of?

MP: Aside from my mother’s influence as I stated earlier, I am much enamored with Carolina Herrera – not just for her glamorous, exquisite fashion designs, but also for her free spirit to jump into the fashion world without formal fashion education, her love for art “amor al arte,” and her ability to straddle her family and life with her professional life. I adore the Versace combination of edgy, sexy, and timeless fashion style. Undoubtedly, Oscar de la Renta is on my list for the personification of classy elegance that I think reigns as “His” in all his collections. Kate Spade’s work is prominent as well on my list, for her unique expression and love of colors, particularly in the handbag fashion world.

I love fashion in that it is a way to connect creatively and collectively with the psyche and soma of women and synergistically share a joy for life essential to the wellness and health of women globally.

QG: What are your favorite places to shop and dine in Queens?

MP: Dining and shopping experiences are varied in Queens. As for dining I am a fan of Portofino, Alberto’s, Dee’s, Daisy’s, Vetros’ restaurants and Cabana. As for shopping, I like the exploration of varied boutiques and so no specific establishment comes to mind. Of course there’s my brand which I carry on my daily travels and now my couture line.

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