Zero + Maria Cornejo Pre-Fall 2018. All images by Bibi Cornejo Borthwick. Model Achok from DNA models.

Issue 3 out now!

Founder of luxury fashion house Zero + Maria Cornejo, Cornejo talks to Mission about the future of the brand and its goal to become increasingly sustainable.

By Natalie Pappas

An introduction…

I am a woman, mother, designer, proud immigrant, and American.

When did you first get interested in fashion and designing clothes?

I started knitting clothing for my dolls when I was younger. Initially I didn’t want to work in fashion—I wanted to be a marine biologist or a graphic designer—but I sort of gravitated towards design school when it came time to choose.

Were you always focused on sustainability and environmental awareness? Were these issues always a goal in your designs?

Yes, always, but it perhaps wasn’t so evident when I started out. At first I was either creating for my own line (Richmond Cornejo) or working as a consultant (Joseph, Tehen, etc.), and I started to witness the disconnect between budgets and wastage. I would be flown halfway across the world and put up in a fancy hotel just to nickel-and-dime the factories over the cost of a button. Or I would see how large a sampling budget was and how much fabric was wasted because of that.

All of these experiences helped me when I started Zero + Maria Cornejo. I was really aware of fabric wastage, and I wanted to keep every process as local as possible to NYC to eliminate processes that are redundant or wasteful of our time, energy, or the environment. Over time, these principles have remained yet evolved as the company grew. It’s a never-ending process!

How do you describe what you do?

I create luxury clothing for real women.

How has your brand developed since you started it in 1998? What are your goals for the future of the brand?

From something that started from an atelier, it’s grown into a much larger company. We’ve developed a shoe business, expanded our online presence, and grown our business internationally. We are in over 80 stores worldwide and have also opened two of our own stores. It’s been a wild ride.

Our goal is to be more and more sustainable with each collection. Every time we go into development, we push the needle on responsible design further and further.

Zero + Maria Cornejo Pre-Fall 2018.

What’s the current project you’re working on?

We’re working on Resort and Spring/Summer 2019 collections right now. The rest we have to keep a secret until it comes out, so wait and see!

What achievement are you most proud of? And the biggest hurdle you have overcome?

Personally, I am really proud that I won the Cooper Hewitt award for Fashion Design in 2006, and as a company, I’m so proud that we won one of the top three prizes in the CFDA/Lexus Fashion* Initiative award for sustainability in 2017. We all worked so hard throughout that entire process, and the fact that we did it together makes me so proud. To have a common goal as a company was the most important part of that competition: It became a unifying force and something we all strived for and believed in.

There have been endless recessions since I started the company. It’s tough being a self-financed company during these times.

Issue (something going on in the world) that is most important to you right now:

The enormous amount of plastic in the ocean.

Currently watching/reading/listening to (can be TV, film, novel, podcast, album, etc.):

Ozarks with Laura Linney. I love it! For mindless entertainment, I love The Voice.

When you’re not working on [career, activism, etc.], we can find you:

Cycling or walking around Brooklyn Bridge Park to clear my head. I always need to be by a body of water and in the city, this is my favorite escape.

Zero + Maria Cornejo Pre-Fall 2018.

Best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?

Be yourself.

Best piece of advice you’ve ever given?

There’s two:Whatever you do, do it with passion, and you’re only as good as your team.

How is your work making a difference? How do you plan on continuing to spread environmental consciousness in the future?

I really believe that little by little makes the biggest dent in the end. Making conscious changes to our daily practices, ensuring our customers and wholesalers are educated, staying a “squeaky wheel”… That all keeps pushing the point home, helps on board others, and keeps responsible design top of mind.

Who is a Woman of Empowerment in your life, a woman who inspires you?

I really look up to Michelle Obama as a mother and as a professional woman and human being. She’s mentor-in-chief to all of us women. She’s incredible.

Are there any other fashion designers or influencers who are promoting sustainability that inspire you?

I am always inspired by what Natalie Chanin from Alabama Chanin does. She’s got an incredible setup in Alabama, and her “zero-waste” movement is inspiring. I love how she engages her local community and really created a company on her own terms.

What trends in the fashion industry are you most inspired by or interested in?

I’m never inspired by “trends.” My inspiration comes from nature, architecture, art, or travels. I’m more inspired by the incredible women who wear the clothing, to be honest. How they wear the pieces, what their needs are, etc. Architects, lawyers, creatives, editors, stay-at-home mothers—they are such incredible women across so many different career paths! I keep each one in mind when I design.

Zero + Maria Cornejo Pre-Fall 2018.

Which design/collection of yours is your favorite? Why? What materials are used?

That’s like asking me to choose my favorite child! That’s a tough one, although I am very proud of the Spring/Summer 2017 collection because it really marked a line in the sand of the company jumping off from where we started initially and pushing ourselves even further in our responsible design efforts.

This runway collection was focused almost entirely on barefoot models wearing white outfits made from a newly developed viscose textile we call “Eco Drape.” While regular viscose uses more water and energy, this new viscose was developed using yarn manufactured from highest-quality legally forested, sustainable wood pulp from Sweden. The fabric is REACH compliant, FSC certified, and Oeko-Tex Standard 100 compliant, and its manufacture and dyeing don’t use forbidden chemicals.

It’s a gorgeous textile that takes color well, and we really invested in it. We designed more heavily into this textile, offering it in more collections in more style options, and the wholesale response was really positive. I sent out every look for the Spring/Summer 2018 runway collection during New York Fashion Week in this textile in white, and it forced the press and buyers to focus on what we were doing, align them with our message, and it really paid off. Vogue Runway,The Financial Times, Business of Fashion, WWD, Marie Claire, and many other outlets picked up the story directly after the show.

How are you a Woman of Empowerment?

I try my hardest to be! It’s tough out there. I feel really strongly that the world can be tough on women. There’s so much expected of us. No one is perfect, and I’m doing my best. I think leading by example in that way, as a working woman, business owner, mother, wife, friend, everything that comes with being a woman, is how I how I make my impact. I also try and support other women as much as I can. My incredible friend the artist and activist Cleo Wade said it best: “You shine on me and I’ll shine on you.” Women need to support and have empathy for one another.

My mission is…To make women feel good. I want to create clothing that functions as soft armor so women can go out and face the world. If you feel good about the way you look, it projects to the rest of the world. I want to give people a quiet confidence to flatter them, to be the best version of themselves, and to feel great about what they chose to wear.

Zero + Maria Cornejo Pre-Fall 2018.