Fashion Designer Maria Cornejo Talks 25 Years in Business

On Monday evening, Maria Cornejo will be honored with the Geoffrey Beene Lifetime Achievement Award at the CFDA Fashion Awards, presented by Amazon Fashion.

The Zero + Maria Cornejo founder and creative director said she received news of the honor via a phone call from Steven Kolb the morning of June 28 — the exact date, 25 years ago, that she opened her first Mott Street store and atelier in NoLIta.

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“It’s very emotional. It’s a big year in a lot of ways. Personally, my son is 25, and my company is 25,” she told WWD during an interview at her Bleecker Street store.

“At the time [the store opened], my reasoning was that I don’t want to work for other people, I want to have a gallery space and make things. My ex-husband [photographer Mark Borthwick] was doing really well in the fashion business at the time and flying all over the world. With me, consulting, I would have to do the same thing. So I thought with this, I could be home every night for my kids,” she said.

Zero + Maria Cornejo RTW Fall 2023
Zero + Maria Cornejo RTW Fall 2023

Since her brand’s inception in 1998, Cornejo has been a champion of sustainability (one of her founding pillars) and pioneer of timeless, design-forward fashions that long predate the term “quiet luxury.” Her garments are rooted in upcycled materials, local manufacturing and geometry and minimalist shapes. Prior to launching her label, the Chile-born designer worked in London, Milan, Paris and Tokyo — she first found success working with John Richmond to create their collection, Richmond Cornejo, and consulted for Joseph, Tehen and Jigsaw — before relocating to New York in 1996.

“At the end of the day, it’s been a labor of love and it came with a lot of sacrifices. I was doing it with kids when it wasn’t trendy to have children. I remember talking to a PR company and they said, ‘Well, what’s your angle going to be?’ and I said, ‘Can you just make it cool that I’m designing beautiful clothes, I have two kids and am a normal person?’ He said, ‘It’s going to take a long time.’ I have taken a long time, but I’m still here. A lot of people have come and gone but it’s sort of bittersweet. I’m looking forward to my kids being proud of me more than anything, and the team of course,” she said, referring to her team as her second family.

”[The award] means a lot because it’s been a lot of work for everybody. There’s still sometimes sleepless nights and it’s a labor of love. It’s not just clothes,” Cornejo said.

“Running a small, independently owned fashion brand has never been easy, but right now it truly is not for the faint of heart. It’s a challenge,” Zero + Maria Cornejo president, Marysia Woroniecka, told WWD. The two, who are friends and have known each other since the ’80s, began working together in the 2000s. Woroniecka officially came on board after the 9/11 attacks. “She’d lost her backing and it was really a challenge after that particular moment for an independent designer to continue. So I got involved then, and we started growing the business,” she said.

Zero + Maria Cornejo started as “a cool, NoLIta designer with a little store,” Woroniecka said, before opening a second location that has since closed on Greenwich Street.

Maria Cornejo
Maria Cornejo

The brand opened the Bleecker Street store, which includes a studio and showroom, a Los Angeles store and in 2001, was picked up by Barneys New York.

“All of those things together broadened visibility and awareness of the brand that have not otherwise been there,” she said. “We grew in the next 10 years by something like 16 fold. We grew massively — leaps and bounds.”

Today, in the post-Barneys era, the business is in about 50 or 60 doors and primarily sold in the U.S. market. Retail partners include Bergdorf Goodman, Mitchells, Richards and ByGeorge in Austin. “They exemplify the kind of store that we do incredibly well with,” Woroniecka said.

Both Cornejo and Woroniecka travel for trunk shows, and noted one-on-one customer relationships are key.

“We’ve known for years that it can be challenging for people to encounter our collection in a much more traditional mall or department store context. I think it’s so much more resonant in a more specialty store environment,” Woroniecka added.

Sketches by Maria Cornejo for Zero + Maria Cornejo.
Sketches by Maria Cornejo.

This year, the brand has seen new clients shift back shopping in the Bleecker Street store (55 percent) versus online (45 percent), Woroniecka said.

Through the years, Cornejo has won the fashion prize of the Cooper Hewitt Design Awards, the CFDA Lexus Eco Fashion Challenge, been a runner-up at the 2017 CFDA + Lexus Fashion Initiative and won the Fashion Group International’s sustainability award. She was also a founding member of the CFDA’s Sustainability committee and is a CFDA board member.

Her key? Relevance and substance.

“Fast fashion is for fast fashion. We’re selling beautiful clothes. They need to feel relevant and not be out of fashion in six months,” Cornejo said.

Her pieces are meant to counter the speed of the fashion cycle. “It has to be beautiful and needs to add value to the clients life,” she said.

She describes her clients as “real women” who “need a wardrobe.” For them, she aims to make clothes that are worth the money, especially as material prices rise. “There needs to be intrinsic value. I like to think that our clothes are like new classics and ageless.”

“People will come up and say, ‘Oh, can you do this again because I’ve worn it out,’ and that’s really sweet. Of course it’s always new ideas, but at the same time, it needs to be grounded on something of substance,” she noted.

Circle top, Triangle top, Tube top and Cutout triangle dress by Zero + Maria Cornejo, 1998.
Circle top, triangle top, tube top and cutout triangle dress by Zero + Maria Cornejo, 1998.

Cornejo has amassed a loyal group of shoppers through the years, something she attributes in part to being a female designer, designing for women.

“It’s always about being authentic and not trying to be somebody else. Find your own identity and find your client — dress your tribe,” she said. “They trust me and my team to make them look good. Ageless, not dated, and not ridiculous.”

The women who have worn Cornejo’s designs include Michelle Obama and Cindy Sherman.

“I feel like the clothes have been with people of substance while they’re doing things of substance,” she said. “I’m cool by association because the clothes get to be in these amazing places and be worn by incredible women.”

Cornejo said she never believed in having a “show” collection, but rather styles customers continually want to wear. It’s this ethos that keeps her customers returning year after year for new silhouettes and relevant reeditions.

Zero + Maria Cornejo's "Back to Zero," cover
Zero + Maria Cornejo’s “Back to Zero,” book cover.

The designer is working to stay present — stopping to “smell the coffee and buy myself flowers,” she said — though to honor the business’ 25th anniversary, she debuted her latest book, “Back to Zero,” as well as a “25 Year Anniversary” ready-to-wear collection.

The book (published by Dashwood Books) is a collaboration between between Cornejo and Borthwick and prominently displays her “tribe” — 15 creatives, of all ages, donning the 25-year anniversary collection — a limited-edition line of reeditions of her most iconic silhouettes, prints and fabrications. Chloë Sevigny poses on its cover in a luxe silk charmeuse wrapped One Chloe dress — a reedition of the one she donned for Purple Magazine in 1999.

“Originally, I made it in a K-Mart blanket, and now it’s one of our bestselling dresses,” Cornejo said. Other favorites from her archive, including the Foil dress, jumpsuits or triangle tops and caftans, can be seen on the likes of Francesca Sorrenti, Sunrise Coigney, Ilya Chaiken, Zora Sicher, Hanna Frolova, Madjeen Isaac, Brooke Williams, Alice Waese, Mia Enell, Silvina Arismendi, Ariel Steinbach and Belle Guinness, and more.

“One of the things I’ve missed the most about not doing shows in the last few years is that when you’re doing a show, you can cast many characters. Since we’ve been doing photography, we can only have one person do everything, and it’s really hard. [The book] was a really nice way to have different bodies, different ages and different characters and personalities,” Cornejo said. “It was about rekindling the joy of the beginning.”

Chloë Sevingy wearing Zero + Maria Cornejo for Purple Magazine in 1999.
Chloë Sevingy wearing Zero + Maria Cornejo for Purple Magazine in 1999.

With everything that Cornejo does, she attributes her success back to her two families — literal and work.

“It takes a lot of mental energy and emotional energy because I’ve always wanted to do something good,” Cornejo said. “To get the [CFDA] award means a lot to myself, the company and the team because we worked so hard.”

“In many ways, this is kind of the perfect award for Maria to get. It’s almost like she could have got the lifetime achievement award back in the first year as much as getting it this year, because what she does has always been about creating fashion which has longevity and is for a lifetime. It’s always been an ongoing project and the sense and ethos that she brought to the collection right at the very beginning is still the same today. I think that is the achievement — to maintain that singularity and focus through all these years,” Woroniecka said.

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