01.09.2020 Culture

A Moment With Maria Cornejo

Marie Salcido
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On a sunny autumn afternoon in San Francisco’s Lower Haight, a newly-opened shop hosted the party of the season, exuding a refreshing dose of girl power into the city of silicon and start-ups.

Brunch, imagined by a particularly of-the-moment Mexico City chef, Gabriela Camara (who just published her first cookbook and opened a restaurant in LA), meant passed plates of melt-in-your-mouth tuna tostadas and avocado-topped sopes alongside mezcal margaritas and pours of rosé made by a mother-daughter duo in Lodi. The white-washed walls and dreamy backyard of the shoe-shop-meets-community-space, Sabah, teemed with earnest conversation and feminine energy. For an otherwise sleepy Saturday, the air was undeniably electric.

The well-dressed women (and their male compatriots) buzzing about were gathered for delicious bites and stylish leather footwear, but the heart of the celebration was the visiting collection of Zero + Maria Cornejo, a rare, two-day pop-up during the New York-based designer’s short-but-sweet visit to San Francisco.

In a sunlit corner of Sabah’s plant-filled back room, Maria took a pause from the hubbub to share a bit about the beginnings of the collection and her vision for sustainable fashion in a world of recycled trends and transient tastes.

“Clothes are expensive, so you want things you’re not going to be disposing of after a season — items that are well-made, looked after, and loved,” explains the designer. “I don’t like trends because nobody buys a whole wardrobe every season. [My collection] is meant to add pieces to as you go along.”

Chilean-born and London-raised, Cornejo’s first studio, a loft-like space in New York’s charming Nolita neighborhood, was originally meant to be a creative space for her and her then-husband to share with friends and artists. Eventually, she says, “it turned out to be more about what I could create.” 

In her career’s earlier years of both design consulting and creating her first line, Richmond Cornejo, she started to witness the disconnect between budgets and waste at big companies.

“I was really aware of fabric wastage and wanted to keep every process as local as possible to NYC to eliminate processes that are redundant or wasteful to our time, energy, or the environment,” she shares.

In imagining a streamlined wardrobe built bit-by-bit with timeless pieces, Zero by Maria Cornejo was born, marking the beginning of a fresh slate and new design approach.

“I was starting from scratch and going back to the beginning, and because I had a career before, I didn’t want people to have an idea of what this collection was going to be like,” she recalls. “The fabrics drive the collection, we start with them and things I find inspiring first, and then we build through draping and color stories and it goes along,” says the designer. 

Over the years, Cornejo has continued experimenting with fabrics and silhouettes, always with a focus on long-term wear rather than short-term tastes. Oozing elegance and worldliness, petite in stature and with smiling eyes, her commitment to practicality, luxury, fashion, and environmental ethics blend seamlessly into the palette of luxurious textures, soothing neutrals, and warm pops of color she weaves from season to season.

While the price tags are considerable, each piece is an investment, literally designed to be loved and lived in throughout the seasons of the year as well as the seasons of life. Alongside A-list clientele (ahem, Michelle Obama), Cornejo says her collection is designed for real women.

“I love seeing women of all ages and body types in the clothes,” she remarks of the kind of woman who inspires the line. “She’s independent, intelligent, a free thinker. Whether she’s a politician, an actress, a writer, an architect, an artist, or director… what I love is that they are all doing their own thing.”

Not unlike herself. While she considers Brooklyn home, Cornejo is a woman of the world. Her Chilean roots, British upbringing, decades living in New York City, and travels across the globe (the week before San Francisco, she’d been attending a conference in Saudi Arabia), all influence the flair of the clothes themselves. 

“There’s a little bit of English eccentricity and always a sense of humor; Paris brought a level of chic to my designs; I worked in Japan, so my work can be quite minimal; and I love vibrant color, which I suppose is from my Latin American roots,” Cornejo explains. “I don’t look for these influences, but I’m sure they’re all in there somewhere, and my brain is constantly sorting them.”

Zero by Maria Cornejo represents “a point of departure” — both for the clothing itself, and a new take on style that lasts far longer than any season. 

Marie Salcido is a freelance writer based between Mexico City and San Francisco. Raised in Cincinnati, Ohio, as the middle of seven children, family has always been a top priority, though her appetite for new places has pulled her far from her Midwestern roots. Whether posted in her home cities or exploring new locales, Marie’s keen interest in people has accompanied her throughout her travels — reaffirming her belief that the more you see of the world, the smaller it gets. Find her on Instagram at @mdsalcido.

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