Maria Cornejo walks the walk. Since the late 90s when she opened her Nolita atelier, she has centered her brand around core values that, in 2019, many other fashion house are still scrambling to catch up with. From day one, Zero + Maria Cornejo has been about empowering real women with attainable, wearable luxury, and doing so responsibly.
Maria is a founding member of the CFDA’s sustainability committee, and has long been committed to local manufacturing and responsible design. As a result, she’s inspired and catalyzed many conversations about change in the American fashion industry.
Since it’s renewal month over here at the Atelier, I thought she would be the perfect person to have a conversation with. Anna and I went to her studio a couple of weeks ago to talk about her style and her process, and to take some pictures. Our conversation below…
Describe your style in three words or phrases.
Youthful, modern, ageless.
What is your ideal outfit or uniform?
As a designer, what do you think modern women want to wear right now? What do they care about?
I think we want to feel empowered and comfortable. You almost want to forget about what you’re wearing. You want to feel like you’re just wearing nothing. By that, I mean, you feel so good about yourself, that you aren’t thinking about your clothes. It’s about flattering and empowering women.
Do you think the brand reflects your own personal style? Are you influenced by it? Is it influenced by you?
I think the brand– it’s me. It’s my influence because I created it from the beginning, it’s my way of thinking that formed the brand, you know? And of course everybody helps evolve it, but the heart and core of the brand is from that beginning point, that’s what it was always based on.
What are the core principles that the brand has been based on from the beginning?
Producing locally, making clothes that are interesting and flattering, focusing on women that work in the arts, empowering women, supporting your community, and sustainability. Through the years as you accumulate different teams, things sometimes get forgotten and I think it’s been really great to regroup everybody around the same concepts again and to refocus it all, you know? Because after 20 years, of course, as you grow things are going to change. Everybody brings something to the plate, but the brand started very much with these ideals.
Speaking of producing locally and being very conscious of sustainability from the beginning…. what does responsible design mean to you?
Responsible is being mindful of the planet, being mindful socially, mindful of ecology. Eliminating processes, eliminating waste, producing vertically. I don’t see the point of flying a fabric from Italy or Japan somewhere else to be made. I think there is a lot of waste in doing that. I have worked for big companies, so I know what happens to things. We try and keep the processes to a minimum and keep everything local. 85% of our collection is still made in New York.
Wow. That’s amazing. I know denim is a big thing for you right now–you’re doing organic denim?
Yeah, I think it’s a way to bring the collection back to its roots. For me, in the beginning when I started making clothes, I wanted interesting clothes that you could wear everyday. I was in fashion, I didn’t want to wear Gap. But, I just had two kids so I wanted to run around, I didn’t want to look boring. I think you can still have interesting clothes and be comfortable. It’s more about having clothes that support your lifestyle, that you can wear everyday. I am not a great believer in things that you wear once, you know the things that people get photographed in and then they throw away, or the ball gown that they buy for $10,000 and then never wear again. I think that that is really wasteful.
Hopefully, my clothing will feel quite timeless. The way I look at it is that they will make good vintage, they’ll get passed on to somebody and they will get use out of them. They’re not disposable. The fabrics are really good quality.
It’s funny to think of something making good vintage. It’s cool…
It’s funny because now I find myself going back to my own archives for inspiration. Sometimes I’ll come into the office wearing something and the girls will go, “what is that?” and I’ll go “you know–,”
It’s vintage Maria Cornejo!
Yes! I’ve been designing since I was 21, that’s 35 years, so quite a while…
You opened in 1998? Obviously, the industry has changed a lot since then. How do you feel that it’s changed? What are you excited about? What are you not excited about?
When I started, there was either really expensive clothing or there was the Gap and Club Monaco. Now, there’s H&M, COS, Forever 21, there’s a lot of fast fashion. I think there is a little bit too much of everything, but I think that’s with every industry, not just fashion. Whether it’s music or makeup, even skincare– there’s like 20 million skincare brands now. I think the internet has amped everything up on steroids to the point where people don’t know what to buy anymore because there’s just so much of it. Unless you have a real point of view, a lot of brands are not going to survive–there is a lot of stuff out there competing for attention. I think that’s why brands focus now on being loud and making a lot of noise, rather than quality.
Do you think there’s going to be a backlash?
I think there already is. I see the way that my son looks at things, the way that some younger people look at things. They’re much more edited and they don’t want to shop that much, it’s not this disposable mentality. A lot of stores are seeing it in retail, people are consuming less and being more mindful. I think it’s good, people should buy things because they really love them and they’re going to wear them again and again, not just because they’re on sale. There’s a lot of “jack of all trades” and “masters of none” at the moment, which is a bit scary.
What is most important to you: comfort, beauty, or innovation?
For me, they’re tied together. It’s about innovation but if it’s not worn, if it doesn’t feel good, it’s not relevant. It needs to feel good, it needs to be worn. I think a piece of clothing is not successful if it sits in somebody’s cupboard. It needs to feel good and empower the woman who wears it.
Whose style do you admire? Do you have icons?
It’s hard for me to single one person out, to be honest. When I was growing up, during college, I was very inspired by Rei Kawakubo and Vivienne Westwood. Two female designers. It’s hard to say, I mean, I’m inspired by architecture, by art. I’m never inspired by fashion, per se. I don’t really look at fashion for inspiration. I am inspired by our clients because our clients do the coolest things wearing the clothes. I always say that the clothes have the most interesting lives, you know? If clothes could talk, they would be telling many stories.