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Maria Cornejo: 'Know Who You Are'

The hyper-focused designer of Zero + Maria Cornejo reflects on 20 years of a brand built on point of view and word of mouth.
Maria Cornejo | Source: Courtesy
By
  • Chantal Fernandez

NEW YORK, United States — "It's a really good time for people to focus on what they are good at," says Maria Cornejo, on a late summer morning outside Bowery Hotel, a few blocks from her Bleecker Street boutique and atelier. "There's a lot of jack of all trades, master of none. You can't be everything to everybody."

This kind of focus has kept the humble yet confident designer of Zero + Maria Cornejo, the independent label which shows its Spring 2018 collection on Monday evening, in the fashion business for 20 years. That and her ability to attract a cool clientele with good taste and little tolerance for nonsense. Think: Michelle Obama and the artist Cindy Sherman. "I’m a great believer in gut instinct," says the daring but understated Cornejo.

That's not to say her journey has been without its twists and turns. She didn’t even secure her first store on nearby Mott Street, which doubled as the brand’s atelier, with fashion in mind. Cornejo, who was raised in the UK after her family was forced to flee political persecution in Chile, was not eager to get back into the business after launching a line in London in the 1980s that attracted buzz but was ultimately closed for personal reasons. After she and her husband the photographer Mark Borthwick moved to New York in 1996, they planned to use the storefront opened in 1998 as a collaborative space for projects with artists.

But she saw an opening in the market: what would become designer contemporary. "There was such a disconnect between what was fashion in the magazines and what you would see [on the street] which was Gap or Banana Republic, so for me, it was about [creating] interesting clothes that I could wear every day," said Cornejo. So when the store opened in June 1998, she started designing jeans and t-shirts in her now signature geometric shapes, produced by three sample-makers in a small workspace in the back of the shop — and waited. "The instant reaction was really good," she remembers. Models Kate Moss and Amber Valletta were among the curious shoppers who stopped by in the early days.

Soon Barneys and Colette came calling for the Spring 1999 collection, even though Cornejo was opposed to the idea of wholesale because “you have no control over it anymore.” But both retailers offered to pre-pay her for her pieces, and Colette featured the designer's wares in its windows during Paris Fashion Week. “My first season… that was major,” she says. “That wasn't the plan at all.”

She also found a trusted sales partner: Michele Sodi, who was introduced to her by Pierre Rougier and Sylvie Picquet Damesme of PR Consulting. "We started with very few clients that really believed in what Maria was doing — it was very organic," says Sodi. (Now Zero + Maria Cornejo sells at 67 doors in the US and around 20 internationally.)

“She was one of the first that was considered designer, carried in designer stores, but her price point at that time was much more affordable,” recalls Sodi. “That was another reason why we didn't really go beyond Barneys, because in larger stores that was more of an issue.”

“What’s amazing and unique and wonderful about [her work] is that the same consistent strong line has been there [from the beginning] to the last fashion show that I saw,” he adds. “She’s the real thing.”

A key turning point came when Marysia Woroniecka joined Cornejo as her business partner in 2005, after balancing her own direct-to-consumer business with wholesale accounts became too much for Cornejo to manage alone. Woroniecka had worked as Cornejo’s publicist when the designer was 21, so the partnership was a natural fit. Each now owns 50 percent of the business.

The in-store experience remains key to Zero + Maria Cornejo's identity. A lot of the early clients came to the store simply because they liked the space and until a few years ago, Cornejo was at her store every day. “There’s a reason it’s called retail therapy,” she says. “It’s about relationships, it’s about experience.” In 2006, she opened a second store on Greenwich Street and, in 2010, she made the jump to Los Angeles.

Unless it comes from a real point of view, it doesn't work.

“I was the one that was being very chicken little about it,” she says about the West Coast expansion that Woroniecka championed. Cornejo worried she wouldn’t be there enough to ensure it was the right environment, but when her daughter Bibi Cornejo Borthwick decided to move to LA to open it “I felt comfortable,” she recalls. In the end, opening in Los Angeles, where Cornejo already had a strong customer base, was a smart move. “It really helped, profile-wise.”

Not every move was as successful. In 2009, Cornejo launched a full men’s collection, but was pressured by her sales person to make the line more and more basic. “For a woman to be designing a men’s collection, it has to have a point of view,” she says. She decided to end it in 2012. Handbags became and off-and-on category that she has since halted. And in 2012, three years after she moved her flagship-cum-atelier a few blocks from Mott Street to Bleecker Street, she decided to pull out of her Greenwich Street location. The new High Line, an elevated park, had flooded the area with more tourists and fewer shoppers.

“I felt like we were expanding too much and there was great energy in doing all those things, but at the same time, it came at a big personal cost to be doing so much,” says Cornejo. “It’s either for the love or the money and if it’s neither, then it doesn’t have a place… Unless it comes from a real point of view, it doesn’t work. Everybody should just focus on what they are really good at and get better.”

Focus has paid dividends for Cornejo. She said closing her Greenwich Street location made the Bleecker Street store stronger. Cutting the new categories did the same; her footwear line, which launched at Barneys for Spring 2008, was the only exception. “A lot of brands do amazing shows and then just sell a bag or a lipstick. We are the other way around. Let’s focus on what works.”

It was around this time that Cornejo started to really recognise just how much her brand meant to a loyal community of women, from Christy Turlington to Cleo Wade. “It happens quite organically that people come across the collection,” she says, citing the fashion and art networks of her husband and Woroniecka as part of the reason. But it’s more than that.

“I love the simplicity of her designs, her choice of fabrics (ideal for travel), the slouchy, un-fussiness of her looks, but it can also be very sexy and flattering in an atypical, avant-garde sort of way,” says the artist Cindy Sherman, who heard about Cornejo through Betsy Berne and has become a loyal, longtime customer. “It took a while to warm up to because things on the hanger look completely different once you try them on. And once I realised that, I saw the magic that Maria creates.”

“I think Maria’s fan base is hip enough to her looks that we recognise someone wearing Zero immediately,” she continues. “That’s how I started noticing certain art colleagues or style arbiters were fans, I’d often (or only) see them wearing Zero, or run into them at the store.”

Cornejo says she had no strategy to cultivate this community — it just grew on its own. “The way I look at it is: let's be cool by association,” she says, remembering how the artist Paula Hayes told her she wore a Zero + Maria Cornejo suit to a meeting with a museum and landed a show. Or how Michelle Obama name-checked her during her first Vogue interview.

Word of mouth, even after more than a decade in the business, pays off. The label has grown steadily since 2005 but had a major spike in sales two years ago that brought it to just shy of $10 million in sales in 2015. Since then, however, the business has plateaued, which is still an accomplishment in today’s retail environment.

"It's a strange time right now," says Cornejo, referring to the challenges in the wholesale market, which accounts for 55 percent of her sales, two-thirds of which are in the United States. Barneys and Nordstrom are her most significant accounts. "We've survived I don't know how many recessions now…We've been very nimble; when it's your own money, you keep everything really tight."

Her current strategy for survival is, like many of her peers, direct retail. She wants to make the store experience even more special with exclusive pieces and more casual offerings to better reflect the way women are dressing today. “Is there a place in the collection where we can embrace someone younger?… You have to remain youthful and relevant.”

Does she need to remain independent? Not necessarily, but she hasn’t found the right strategic partner. “Fashion people want things to turn around really quickly and they don’t understand that you do have to invest — it's not going to be an instant.”

And if there’s one thing Cornejo abhors, much to the benefit of her label’s longevity, it’s hastiness. “You can’t just swing with the trends; that’s one of the reasons that I’m still around,” she says. “I have a very clear point of view and I think, in this day and age where everything is available at different price points, you have to have integrity…It’s something that comes with maturity and knowing who you are.”

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