Boutique owner and community activist Maria Whittingham’s formula for entrepreneurial success combines fearlessness, talent, and a staunch work ethic
The personal touch: “People still like to browse for unique things they won’t find anywhere else,” says Whittingham
Photograph by Ken Gabrielsen
Maria Whittingham, owner of Maria Luisa Boutique and ML by Maria Luisa, which has two Nyack locations, credits her family with playing a key role in the shaping of her career path. Born in the South Bronx, Whittingham was three years old when she moved with her family back to her parents’ homeland of Puerto Rico. “My family always worked hard,” Whittingham says. “My father was an orphan, and my mother lost her own mother when she was only about 13; she had to quit school to get a job and help support the family.”
By the time Whittingham’s mother was 17, she was managing a general store in Puerto Rico. “She was also a dressmaker,” Whittingham recalls. “Of her three daughters, I was most interested in that and started learning to make clothes myself.”
Her family moved back to New York when she was 10. After high school, Whittingham attended the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City, where she majored in design, then began working for a business that provided garment samples for companies like Anne Klein Studio.
During that time, Whittingham became friends with a young designer, Narciso Rodriguez, who remained a steadfast supporter. (Rodriquez later became known for creating the wedding dress worn by Carolyn Bessette when she married John F. Kennedy Jr. in 1996.)
After working in design and production in the garment industry for several years — and following marriage, the birth of a son, and a move to Rockland County — Whittingham was faced with a sudden health scare. “It was the first time I realized you don’t automatically have a guarantee that you’re going to grow old. It really turned me around,” she says.
Fortunately, the health scare was resolved, but it inspired Whittingham to take a leap by opening her own business. In 1987, she launched the Maria Luisa Boutique in a 400-square-foot space downstairs in Nyack’s YMCA building. The store featured designer clothing, shoes, toys, “and I carried hand-painted T-shirts made by Narciso Rodriguez. He was so supportive when I began the business,” she says. Whittingham later moved the shop to its current South Broadway location.
By then, raising her son as a single mom, she focused on expanding the store and creating a one-of-a-kind shopping experience. In 2007, she opened a second shop, ML by Maria Luisa. Her brick-and-mortar stores and online shop offer a variety of handmade, eco-friendly items made in the US and around the world. “I can usually tell customers exactly where an item has come from; we focus on a lot of fair-trade items.”
Maria, who lives in Upper Nyack, has served in organizations ranging from the local chamber of commerce to the NAACP. She’s received community and business awards and was named the 2014 Rockland County Entrepreneur and Community Activist of the Year by Nyack College. Last year, Maria started a scholarship fund. “It’s for a female high-school student in the Rockland County area,” she explains. “The first winner went on to music school, and I was so pleased to be a part of it.”