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Nyack’s Sketch Diary: Maria Luisa

by Bill Batson

Maria Luisa Whittingham is a civic seamstress. It weaves business, social responsibility and family into a garment of retail longevity. From the enduring and colorful threads of a matriarchal tradition and her own raw talent, she created a popular company and brand: Maria Luisa. Here is the global history of a local device.

Where did you learn the merchant tradition?

My first experience with the merchant tradition took place very early in my life. My mother, Carmen Mercedes Colon de Perez, ran a bazaar in Cayey, Puerto Rico. I grew up exploring back rooms and looking under checkouts in his general store.

Carmen Mercedes Colon de Perez

She opened the store when she was 20 years old. She had an eighth grade education. When her mother passed away, she had to go to work and help the family as an elder. She worked for a department store as an accountant and manager.

When she opened her own store, she carried everything from soap to yarn, handbags to dresses.

So your mom was your mentor?

She was my biggest supporter. She was definitely my mentor. For someone with few opportunities, she really maximized what she had. Later in life, as a stay-at-home mom, she sewed. She was also an excellent seamstress.

I sat under his sewing machine, took his leftovers and sewed. No class. I would just take a needle and thread and sew clothes directly onto my dolls.

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The coat building

When we moved to the United States in 1967, I was in fifth grade. I started sewing my clothes and in middle school my classmates paid me $15 to spruce up their jeans. There was no fashion program at Hillcrest High School in Queens, so they combined art and home economics for me. I was able to produce products under my program.

At the end of my senior year, one of my professors, Ms Clara Steiner, was so supportive that she scheduled a fashion show with college students as models. I went to the Fashion Institute of Technology.

What was your first fashion job?

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Maria in her first store at 37 South Broadway

The first job I got was with London Fog. I made raincoats. One of my teachers, Marie-Anne Ferro, worked there and recommended me. I went to work at 512 Seventh Avenue, the coat building.

The Coat Building?

Yes, it was the construction of coats, outerwear, coats and suits.

I was the first employee hired out of college. I stayed there two or three years. I was the assistant designer. Two of the coats I worked on made the line. One became a bestseller, the Freddie. It’s so cool when you stand on the subway platform and see the coat you designed. It’s really exciting.

My next stop was an independent company that designed and produced ice skater outfits. It was interesting and fun. I met a lot of good people there.

Then I went to College Town, a company of similar size to London Fog. It was a big Baltimore company. Around this time I had my son Christopher and my division in College Town folded, so I started freelancing.

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Maria and her son Christopher

At that time, I went for my physical examination. My doctor got real serious and he said, “I want you to do this test, it’s probably nothing to worry about at all about a lump on your ovaries.” It’s probably nothing at all, but I’m worried.

It was the first time I felt mortality, as such; not like a document that says I’ll live a long time and can return when I’m old and it’s time to go. I saw that death can occur at any time. It turned out to be nothing. But it shook me deeply. I had a little baby.

So I went out and bought life insurance. I respected my parents, but I didn’t want to live their life always wanting more and having less than I needed. I realized I couldn’t wait.

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Maria’s first label

Is that when you launched Maria Luisa?

I had written business plans that were going nowhere. But after that date, I jumped on it. Saw a little place while visiting Nyack from Monsey where I was living at the time.

Where was your first store?

I started downstairs in the mall next to the YMCA in 1987. I started with $2,000. I was 30 years old. Everything I sold, I made. I fashioned ribbons into belts, I made silk blouses, lace lingerie. It was half the size of my current back room. I had a friend who I took the bus with. She had beautiful jewelry from France and fabrics that I bought to make my line.

Maria selling one of my Hopper Bike t-shirts to Collette Fournier, who is currently exhibiting her photographs at Maison Edward Hopper.

After two moves inside the mall at 37 South Broadway, I took the plunge and opened at the corner of Burd and South Broadway where I remained for 21 years, until moving to my current locations at 77 South Broadway.

What was the business climate in Nyack in 1987?

I started at the bottom of an economic cycle, right after a stock market crash. I didn’t have a lot of money to lose. I still had a job. At the time, I was freelancing for Putumayo. I was doing all their technical specifications for India.

Ever since I started at the bottom, I’ve always enjoyed growth. I grew up for quite a number of years. Then came 9/11. It was a wake-up call.

How have things changed?

After this tragedy, I had to get smarter about how I bought, how I did business. When things are going well, you can afford to do a little of this, and a little of that. Today, there is no margin for error. You are already leaning on the negative. You can’t make mistakes.

In the business climate of the last ten years, you have to be constantly on the move, on the move. It’s like being on an obstacle course. Everything is in motion.

I heard that you participate in trade delegations in other countries.

I went to Peru in 2013 for the first time. A representative of the Peruvian government entered the store and invited me to join a trade delegation.

Maria Luisa in Peru

There were two trips to Peru. My work concerns the communities of Lima and Ayacucho. I developed a group of bags that arrived in September 2014. They look like pillows, but are interpreted as bags. I use one all the time.

Some of my suppliers are nonprofits like Malia Designs, who use their sales profits to reduce human trafficking around the world. The products they make use already existing materials that are made by communities who are also empowering themselves by making the product. An example is a bag made from recycled cement bags made in Cambodia.

Maria Luisa Boutique is located at 77 South Broadway in Nyack. You can learn more by visiting marialuisaboutique.com

Artist and writer, Bill Batson lives in Nyack, NY. Nyack’s Sketch Journal: “Nyack’s Sketch Journal: Maria Luisa© 2022 Bill Batson. Visit billbatsonarts.com to learn more.

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