Happy Birthday ZERO + and Maria Cornejo

Profile in Style | The Independent

WOMEN'S FASHION

By MAURA EGAN

FEBRUARY 8, 2014, 9:00 PM

For nearly 25 years, fashion designer Maria Cornejo has remained true to herself and her artful vision.

GETTING STARTED In 1980, Cornejo followed her boyfriend John Richmond from Manchester, England, to London to study fashion. After selling her senior thesis collection to a local boutique — Chrissie Hynde and Iggy Pop bought pieces — she and Richmond launched the Richmond Cornejo label. “The clothes were very urban-cowboy-punk,” the 51-year-old designer recalls. Soon, they had a fervent following in Japan, their designs were making the pages of i-D and The Face and they were regulars at buzzy spots like Taboo and the Wag. “I was very hip,” she says with a slight wince. In 1987, she and Richmond ended their relationship as well as their business partnership.

THE ETHOS BEHIND ZERO + MARIA CORNEJO After marrying the photographer Mark Borthwick and living with him in Paris for several years, the pair moved to New York in 1996. Cornejo wanted to create a couture T-shirt line because “every woman in the city wore jeans.” She was bored by the formulaic ways of corporate fashion so she only worked with easy shapes like triangles, squares and circles. She scissored out asymmetrical blouses, sculptural dresses and drapey trousers. The result was clothes that could appear tricky on the hanger but, once on, looked elegant and fluid. When she opened her first Zero + Maria Cornejo store in NoLIta in 1998, she displayed a few pieces in the window. “Our first day, we made $2,500 dollars. We thought it was a good sign,” she says. Her first fashion show wasn’t so auspicious. Instead of models she used friends. As Cornejo explains, “It went down like a ton of bricks.”

INSPIRATION Cornejo credits her husband, who is known for his ethereal, sun-drenched photographs, with teaching her to “find beauty in the unexpected.” “I’m a nervous nelly but Mark is very sky-is-the-limit, so I get a lot of joy from him,” she says. The designer frequently finds herself snapping iPhone photos and then manipulating the images onto her designs. (A candid shot of her son’s reflection in a pool evolved into an evil-eye print for a recent collection.) It’s no surprise that she also looks to artists for ideas, like the ceramicist John Pagliaro’s pottery and the paintings of Wengechi Mutu, which are “a clashing of colors and tribalism and women. All my favorite things.”

FAMILY LIFE While her 22-year-old daughter, Bibi, has turned into a talented photographer like her father, Cornejo’s 16-year-old son, Joey, is interested in following in his mother’s footsteps. “He likes the business side and the super-high-fashion brands, Balenciaga, Givenchy . . . ” she says. Borthwick uses their house as a location for many of his shoots for magazines like Purple Fashion and Self Service, while Cornejo likes to disconnect after office hours. “I come home and don’t want to think about fashion and then there’s a stylist and a rack of clothes in the corner,” she says. Borthwick, however, manages to prepare dinner for them most evenings. “He likes to cook and entertain and I like to clean, so it balances itself out.”