If you attended or read about any of our Makeshift events, you already know how much we respect and admire designer Maria Cornejo. She has been both conscious and vocal about fashion’s impact on the environment for many years—certainly before “sustainability” became a buzz word. Much of her design approach focuses on efficiency, and so Maria has become an innovator when it comes to cutting fabric in sophisticated and unexpected ways. Many of her garments feature unique angles and circular shapes and others are draped and cut from a single piece of fabric, using as few seams as possible. Her aesthetic is accessible and the fit is flattering.
Maria founded her current company, Zero + Maria Cornejo, in the late 90s—but the Chilean-born designer has been creating and producing clothing since the early 1980s. She co-founded her first company, Richmond Cornejo, just after the “punk” fashion movement moved through London, and she earned quite a following in Europe and Japan. She then moved on to consult for major retailers before creating her own signature collection.
When she founded Zero + Maria Cornejo, Maria bought leftover fabrics from larger companies, which opened her eyes to the amount of waste created by the fashion industry. Rather than create in large batches, she cuts each piece by hand, which allows her to envision the design pattern and use only the materials that are really necessary. In her company’s earlier days, each piece was made to order (much like at Alabama Chanin) so that she could understand and control the amount of waste she was creating. She told the Council of Fashion Designers (CFDA), “Knowing that fashion is the biggest polluter is enough of an incentive to make us want to continually review our practices and check ourselves. We’re trying to make positive change little-by-little, day-by-day wherever possible. What matters most is being consistent and considerate in all aspects. As a company, being aware of the whole process of a piece of clothing, where it’s made, the amount of steps to make a garment all tells us that we have to be aware of what we are putting out there at every step.”
Zero + Maria Cornejo have committed to working toward a transparent supply chain. They make use of sustainable materials at every possible opportunity. Her company is also a fervent supporter of using local labor to manufacture their products. Approximately 70% of her collections are produced in New York City’s Garment District; the pieces that are not fabricated in the US are made by small, independently owned factories and artisans in Italy.
Maria and her business partner Marysia Woroniecka take pride in running their woman-owned business and often partner and collaborate with other female artisans. A key component to Maria’s design philosophy is the desire to make garments for real women that last beyond a single season. She says she is “trying to bridge the disparity between what is being photographed and what people actually wear.” Women all over the world, including former First Lady Michelle Obama, actors Tilda Swinton and Susan Sarandon, and musician Karen O have all embraced Cornejo as a favored designer.
In 2006, Maria was awarded the Fashion Prize by the Smithsonian Cooper Hewitt National Design Awards. She was an original member of the CFDA Sustainability Committee. Maria was also chosen as a finalist—and awarded runner-up—for the CFDA + Lexus Fashion Initiative (for which Natalie served on the advisory committee), identifying designers who seek to elevate sustainability and make meaningful change in the American fashion industry—including commitment to responsible sourcing, ethical manufacturing, supply chain manufacturing, scalable business strategies, and consumer literacies.
Maria is often outspoken on political issues, placing women’s rights and refugee relief at the top of her priorities. Because her parents were prosecuted and her family was forced to flee Chile during the Pinoche years, she puts great efforts toward refugee assistance efforts. “As a former refugee and immigrant, this is a cause that’s near to my heart. I always say, being charitable is the ultimate luxury.” After attending the 2017 Women’s March, she expressed, “I really believe there’s strength in community and that you are only as strong as the people around you. People forget that in this day and age, it’s about having empathy for your fellow humans.”
This year, you have seen (and will see) our models wearing Maria’s shoes in our photographs and garment highlights. If you are interested in finding out more about Maria and Zero + Maria Cornejo, visit her website. You can find her collections at her eponymous stores and other major retailers, including Barneys, Bergdorf Goodman, and Net-a-Porter.com.