Issue 4 out now!

Fashion designer Maria Cornejo, founder of Zero + Maria Cornejo speaks out about the future of fashion and the role sustainability will, and should play in the industry.

By Maria Cornejo.

Fashion should be a reflection of our time and our society: We want to make positive change within it. I believe in “fashion positive”—that having a positive impact in the fashion industry is our duty to ourselves, the people we work with, our clients, our business, the planet, and our future. I started Zero + Maria Cornejo with this mind-set. As a company, being aware of the whole process of a piece of clothing tells us that we have to be conscious of what we’re putting out there at every step.

The experiences I had prior to starting my own business, both with the success of Richmond Cornejo and then as a design consultant at companies such as Joseph, Tehen, or Jigsaw back in the early ’90s, meant I saw such a disconnect in what the fashion industry was doing at the time. I would be flown halfway across the world and put up in a luxury hotel, just to nickel-and-dime a factory over the price of a button. To me, it was a false economy, and it didn’t seem right. I was really burnt out and felt disconnected.

I started my company, Zero + Maria Cornejo, in 1998, not only to reconnect with my ideas about cutting and construction and to connect with my consumers but to keep everything local as well. I wanted to know who was making my clothing, have a real relationship with them, and know they were being looked after properly. I started off by buying leftover fabrics by big companies because I’d witnessed firsthand the amount of waste fashion companies created in their sampling budgets. In the beginning, we cut each piece by hand, and you could see how pieces slotted together in a pattern and what the wastage was. I wanted to make only what was necessary, so things were made to order.

We’ve grown quite a bit since then, but we’ve maintained many of those same principles, making them our north star as we scale. Today, 84 percent of the collections are produced locally in New York City. We work with our factories to ensure they maximize pattern placements so as not to waste anything. We also find really creative ways to reuse yardage if we have leftovers. And we still only make to order—we don’t overproduce beyond what’s ordered at wholesale in order to discount the product later on. Part of our design ethos is that the designs have to be timeless to last beyond a season. We don’t design around trends, which is another way to ensure people invest in the clothing for a lifetime.

Maintaining integrity in what we do, every step of the way, is of course a continual work in progress, and I really don’t think we can all be picture-perfect the way the industry is set up right now. We are all trying our hardest to minimize waste and create responsibly, to make positive change little by little, day by day, wherever possible. It makes it more digestible and sustainable, to create a long-term impact in the fashion industry.

“I would be flown halfway across the world, put up in a luxury hotel, just to nickel-and- dime a factory over the price of a button.”

Knowing that fashion is one of the biggest polluters is enough incentive to continually review our practices and check ourselves. Recently, we’ve taken on the enormous task of converting to or bringing in more environmentally responsible textiles. We start each collection with those then fill in any gaps. “Responsibly created” means to us that the textile is in our “Eco” category, in which a significant portion of the process to create a textile is either gentle on the environment (water waste is considered; base materials are natural, such as silk or cotton, or the yarn comes from a renewable, certified source) or socially responsible (worker welfare is guaranteed, production supports small women-focused, entrepreneurial enterprises or there is certifiable transparency of production processes). We also want to keep everything as local as possible if we can’t produce it in NYC. So, that means nothing should be shipped all over the world a million times. If we create knitwear with a group of women in Bolivia, the organic yarn should come from Bolivia and it should be knitted in Bolivia, and when the garment is done, only then should it be shipped out.

Recently we decided that approaching sustainability via altruistic messaging or small, one-off novelty capsules wouldn’t translate to long-lasting, meaningful changes. We decided that by focusing on the textiles we use season after season and that represent the highest volume of our business we could truly start to make an impact. We began moving our textiles into defined categories to help assess what needed to change, be improved, or be removed altogether.

The categories are: “Eco,” meaning, as mentioned earlier, the process to create a garment is gentle on the environment, uses sustainable yarn, and/or is socially responsible; “Low-Impact,” meaning the base materials are natural fibers (e.g., silk or cotton) or recyclable, but the textile will require more work and research to move a significant portion of the process to more ecological methods (such as improving the dyeing process); and finally “Regular Fabrics”—anything that isn’t “Eco” or “Low-Impact.” We compared the quantities we produced in each group and started moving as many textiles into the “Eco” bucket and removing “Regular fabrics” where we could.

The best example of the work we’ve done is with our highest-volume fabric, a viscose we called Drape, which was used in every collection and in multiple styles (in 2016 alone, we used over 6,000 yards). Converting this single fabric into a more environmentally responsible version would have the greatest impact but also presented the greatest challenges to R&D, production, and our clients, as in 2016, Drape rep- resented 8 percent of our total wholesale sales. We worked directly with our mill to develop a new viscose 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 2017 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, aligning 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.

“We are all trying our hardest to minimize waste.”

For consumers, we created hangtags for the garments to share the ecological information with them, and our store teams
are educated with this information too. “Eco Drape” now represents 14 percent of total production, and that percentage keeps growing. We even wove the new viscose into a linen, creating a brand-new textile that’s taken off in the same way. All of the changes we made with this one textile have been a tremendous success from an innovation standpoint, but they have also positively affected our business. Talk about being sustainable in every way possible.

In the end, what matters most is being consistent, considerate, and positive in every way we design and do business.

Photos by Bibi Cornejo Borthwick.
Model Achok at DNA Models.