Fashion Designer Maria Cornejo Approached Her Clothing Line as an Artistic Project—and Accidentally Solidified a Brand

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The designer Maria Cornejo will proudly admit that one of her most iconic pieces, the chic navy wrap dress that was famously photographed on Chloe Sevigny for the Paris-based indie fashion magazine in 1999, is mass-produced garbage—well, it was an art project as well. “That was a blanket from K-Mart,” Cornejo said of the repurposed swath of fabric. “It never went into production. It’s falling apart now, disintegrating.”

What began as a creative lark was inadvertently savvy. “We ended up getting a lot of clients because of it,” Cornejo said. “This store in L.A. called out of the blue and wanted to have the entire collection. There was strategic plan. Everything happened very organically, and in a weird way, because I didn’t want to be a fashion designer.” Cornejo then summed up her very ’90s ethos: “The more you said no, the more people wanted you.”

The designer in her atelier. Courtesy of Zero + Maria Cornejo.

The designer in her atelier. Courtesy of Zero + Maria Cornejo.

It is a much different fashion landscape now. Despite all odds, Zero + Maria Cornejo has outlasted the big-box behemoth K-Mart’s New York City outposts and is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year. To honor the occasion, Cornejo’s fall collection consists of limited editions of some of her greatest under-the-radar hits.

The blanket dress (now christened the One Chloe and made in silk charmeuse) will be available for the first time. Many Sunday gallery crawl mainstays have been updated, such as the 1998 Triangle top and the 2011 Koya coat, which was displayed at the Met’s “In America: A Lexicon of Fashion.” The anniversary collection goes on sale next month.

Cornejo’s ex-husband and frequent collaborator, the art photographer Mark Borthwick, shot Sevigny for that original shoot. He reprised the role this year, photographing Sevigny again in the updated version of her namesake dress. Other Cornejo muses he’s shot for the brand include Cindy Sherman and Tara Donovan.

Brooke Williams for the 25th anniversary of the brand. Photo: Mark Borthwick, courtesy of Zero + Maria Cornejo.

Brooke Williams for the 25th anniversary of the brand. Photo: Mark Borthwick, courtesy of Zero
+ Maria Cornejo.

Since Zero + Maria Cornejo’s inception, it has operated as more of an art project using the tropes of fashion than as a traditional brand. It’s also a go-to label for women in the art industry, as well as artists. magazine dubbed her “the art world’s most famous fashion designer” and clients include Kara Walker and Marilyn Minter.

Zero + Maria Cornejo might not be a household name for those not in the know, but its influence is resounding. Sustainability and overlaps with art have been key tenets since Day 1, decades before the industry caught on (and only then oftentimes only as marketing ploys or empty virtue signaling).

The first Zero + Maria Cornejo fashion week show was staged in 2001. The venue walls were lined with black garbage bags and model casting consisted of all artists and photographers. “The show bombed,” Cornejo said. “The fashion people all thought it was too dark.”

Tube dress, 1998. Courtesy of Zero + Maria Cornejo.

Tube dress, 1998. Courtesy of Zero + Maria Cornejo.

It was late April, and Cornejo was having a bowl of soup at Il Buco in Noho, not far from her present-day atelier on Bleecker. A natural beauty, her silver hair was pulled back in a band. A blue and black printed muslin scarf was wrapped around her neck and her eyes were obscured behind sunglasses. Cornejo speaks with a British accent but hails from Chile.

“I left my country when I was 11, because of our ‘9/11,’” she said, referring to the coup d’etat and the subsequent collapse of the communist government. “We became refugees. We went to Peru for a year, and then we ended up in England.”

A look from fall/ winter 2001. Courtesy of Zero + Maria Cornejo.

A look from fall/winter 2001. Courtesy of Zero + Maria Cornejo.

The family lived in Manchester, where she immersed herself in the burgeoning punk scene. Two years after arriving, Cornejo’s mother died. She filled the void caring for her brothers and then decamped to London to study fashion at Ravensbourne College.

She formed her first brand, Richmond/Cornejo, with her then boyfriend John Richmond the year she graduated in 1984. The clothes reflected the U.K. youthquake, with elements of punkabilly, New Romantic, and other percolating subcultures. Indie magazine coverage led to over 20 boutiques Japan and a following in Italy. When their relationship dissolved, so did the line. She went on to consult for High Street brands.

Maria Cornejo in the experimental Mott Street store in 1999 when it had an installation of Jordan Tinker plaster-encased teddy bears. Courtesy of Zero + Maria Cornejo.

Maria Cornejo in the experimental Mott Street store in 1999 when it featured an installation of  plaster-encased teddy bears by Jordan Tinker. Courtesy of Zero + Maria Cornejo.

After meeting Borthwick, the pair lived in Paris before moving to New York in 1996. “I got this garage space on Mott Street,” she said. “It was an exciting time to be in New York. AsFour were zooming around on their bicycles and Liquid Sky was around the corner. Downtown felt exciting. I had a very naïve, idealistic view. We were going to host friends who were artists and paint T-shirts or make cushions or whatever. It was going to be an experimental, creative space.”

But Cornejo had a very personal detour. “My dad was dying of cancer, so I ended up being in England a lot and heavily pregnant,” she said. “I had a weird, magical year—the extremes of life and death. I had to stop for a year, not go to work and not react, and just be present for my dad, family, kids, and marriage. And I formulated what I was gonna do in the space. It was a way to reconnect to my creative roots and just sort of figure out a way of making a living, making things that were interesting that weren’t mom jeans.”

The first Zero store, atelier, and art space, 225 Mott Street, 1998. Courtesy of Zero + Maria Cornejo.

The first Zero store, atelier, and art space, at 225 Mott Street, 1998. Courtesy of Zero + Maria Cornejo.

The new venture would be a creative rebirth. “I called it Zero because I wanted people to look at it from a point of view that it was just about what they saw, no history attached to it, no name,” Cornejo explained. “I’d already had a career in England and in Japan. It was like starting again. And it felt fresh.”

At first, Cornejo made everything herself. “A lot of the pieces were based on five geometric shapes,” she said. “I had been working for other people and I thought everything was becoming so formulaic, so I wanted to reconnect with the art of designing again.”

Fall 2000's The Pod Shrug and Back Tuck skirt. This piece is in the Fashion Institute of Technology's permanent collection. Courtesy of Zero + Maria Cornejo.

The Pod shrug with Back Tuck skirt, fall 2000, in the Fashion Institute of Technology’s permanent collection. Courtesy of Zero + Maria Cornejo.

Cornejo maintained her punk and DIY ethos, but she was no ingenue. Her aesthetic had broadened and matured. Her sophisticated take on minimalism set her apart from her downtown brethren and a stateside cult following was almost immediate.

Devotees never knew what to expect. In the store, the interiors shifted as dramatically as the stock. It might be a hydroponic garden one week and a bare, padded room the next. “Now I have to ask permission before I can even change a mannequin,” she said.

Cornejo is well aware that the era in which Zero was founded is long over. “What I hate is the whole brand content creation,” she said. “Having to sell your private life and your soul to the devil to sell a piece of clothing.”

Maria Cornejo in 2012 and the designer’s sketches. Photo: Bibi Cornejo Borthwick, courtesy of Zero + Maria Cornejo.

But she is continually inspired and sees the anniversary collection as “a reset button.” She recently relocated to Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn.

“I get energy from seeing people looking really cool in the streets again,” she said, “seeing these kids looking half-dressed in sheer tops and mixing it all up. There’s energy there, which I love because I feel like Manhattan doesn’t have that energy anymore. But Bed-Stuy does, and some of the clubs in Bushwick. You see all sorts.”

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