In a sea of slavishness to trends and corporate dictates, Maria Cornejo stands alone. One of the longest-lasting independent designer brands, Zero + Maria Cornejo stays true to its name on more than one level. Cornejo wants her clothing to be a baseline for women to express their own style. She wants no one telling her how to make it so.
With circular shapes as a point of departure, her garments are often draped and cut from one piece of fabric with a minimum of seams. Original prints are developed from the hundreds of photos she shoots in her daily travels. “I’m kind of geeky that way,” she said.
At a trunk show recently, the Chilean-born, England-raised, New York-based designer, who recently became a U.S. citizen, expressed gratitude for her success. She also was grateful for the padded sneaker soles on her snake-stamped Zero + Maria Cornejo “Ijo” sandals as she popped up to greet one client wearing one of her dresses, then ducked into a dressing room to help another decide on size for an inky Suri alpaca coat, before returning to our conversation. This is an edited transcript of it.
Q: To what do you attribute your 16 years of longevity — 17 this summer — in this tough business?
A: We had our best year yet (last year). The collection is doing great. I think it’s because I’m a woman and I design for women. There is fantasy and desirability, but at the end of the day I think I know how women want to feel better than a male designer might. I want to look good and be comfortable. You can style these clothes wearing flats, then change shoes and add jewelry and be ready to go for the evening. They’re easy to adapt. Women have many lives now. They drop kids at school, then go to a meeting and the office, then a cocktail party. A lot of women don’t have time to go get dressed up.
Q: Many of your clients are artists (Cindy Sherman, Tilda Swinton, Karen O, Wangechi Mutu, Kara Walker). Why do you think they’re drawn to your line?
A: I think because the clothes aren’t obvious, and it can be about them. Last year we did the 15th anniversary project, where these 15 women all picked their favorite (Zero + Maria Cornejo) piece that they wear all the time. It was a tiny collection edited by them. The clothes are versatile, so they can fit their own personality into them; it becomes about the draping or how you style them up.
Q: Do you ever think twice about maintaining your independence?
A: There have been times when it would have been easier to give up, but then you lose freedom. It would be great to find a retail partner — but not to get involved in the collection. When people get backing from big companies, they lose the essence of what they’re all about. I have never been about branding and labels. It’s about the piece and being creative.
It’s harder than ever to be independent, but I think that’s why you have to have a real point of view, because you can’t compete on price or advertising. The biggest luxury right now is to be an individual.
Q: You started as a retailer, opening a store to show your clothes, sort of the reverse of many designers. Why?
A: I wanted to have a collection not filtered by anything.
Q: You produce most of the collection in New York, which we hear is more expensive to do than overseas. Why do you do so?
A: The fabrics come from all over, but we produce in New York, except for shoes (Italy) and knitwear (China).
This way I know who’s making the clothes; also I think it’s great to support the local economy. Also it’s not sustainable to be flying things all over the world. To eliminate some of those processes, every little bit helps.
I’m on the sustainability committee at the CFDA (the Council of Fashion Designers of America). We try wherever possible to make the right choice. It’s not always easy with fashion — it’s a minefield — but at least we’re conscious of it.
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