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Style Maria Cornejo on designing for a sustainable future

Chilean-born designer Maria Cornejo.


In 1998, Chilean-born designer Maria Cornejo revamped a raw space in New York’s NoLIta neighborhood into her atelier and called her new label Zero+Maria Cornejo (a number to act as a starting point. That it neither adds waste to the planet nor subtracts from the environment is part of her underlying ethos.) Since then she has stealthily developed a sustainable brand with its own boutiques in New York and Los Angeles and online, and retail clients such as Tokokaelo, Barneys and Nordstrom.

A new book featuring photos from Cornejo's husband Mark Borthwick marks the brand's recent anniversary.

Cornejo’s signature is wearable, artful, minimalist pieces that are ingeniously cut and sewn at unusual yet flattering angles. It’s easy to see why personalities as varied as Tracee Ellis Ross, Mindy Kaling, Tilda Swinton and Michelle Obama are devotees of the distinctive label. After all, it’s still about creating desirable clothes, because “without demand there’s no future for an ecological impact.” (The brand’s recent anniversary was observed with a book featuring its style muses such as artist Cindy Sherman captured by Cornejo’s fashion-photographer husband Mark Borthwick).

True to its environmentally friendly ethos, the label is still designed and produced in New York using innovative textiles. Cornejo is also a founding member of the Council of Fashion Designer of America Sustainability Committee and at the upcoming Fashion Group International fall gala she will receive the Sustainability Award. Past honorees having tended to be international behemoths such as H&M and Kering, so it’s refreshing to see the award go to an independent, female-owned business with modest resources that has nevertheless had a hand in changing the industry. Eco Drape, for example, is a version of viscose that was developed especially for Cornejo using yarn manufactured from wood pulp and is compliant with REACH (the European Union regulation that aims to protect people and the environment from potential risks from chemicals.) The collection also uses Eco Cashmere made from fibers usually discarded during the production process that are gathered and re-spun into recycled cashmere yarn with a transparent supply chain.

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Cornejo spoke with me about why keeping production local is part of the sustainability equation, and what it means to design with the next 20 years in mind.

While regular viscose uses higher water consumption and energy, the version used for this Eco Drape textile was developed using a yarn manufactured from wood pulp.

Courtesy oif Zero+Maria Cornejo

One of Zero’s taglines is “luxury fashion with a conscience.” What does that mean for you?

It’s being very mindful of what’s going on in the world, be it politically or women’s issues or also sustainability. I’m not designing blindly – we try to adhere to best practices wherever we can in the company as a whole. The more the company’s grown, one of my key goals has been to keep everybody on track [with the company’s sustainability goals]. Every time someone joins the company they don’t know so it’s a whole process of brainwashing again! It’s become part of everybody’s thinking now: how to become less wasteful, how to be more sustainable, every season. How do we push the needle even further? It’s something you either care about or you don’t as a designer, as a company.

When you originally studied fashion and textiles in early 1980s London, was that in any way in the consciousness or curriculum?

No. It was when I worked for bigger companies and after travelling across the world, I’d see the waste and things being flown all around the world – I mean just even the carbon footprint. Something like bamboo might be grown fine, but then dyed in China [where the textile dying process is more water-intensive], which is not great. It’s a minefield so I think we have to pick the lesser of the evils and design smartly. Sometimes you order something from somewhere and you think it’s from Italy and it arrives shipped from China [which has an opaque supply chain and a bigger carbon footprint.] At the moment because of everything that’s going on in the world it’s getting very hard to trust your sources. We have to check.

How does working with sustainable materials affect your design aesthetic?

Now I sketch after playing with draping the fabric for a while because the fabrics really dictate the shape. Eco fabrics drape differently than traditional ones, and if it’s one with regenerated cellulose fibers such as cupro, yes, definitely.

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And I hear you still use up leftover fabric, like you did in the beginning.

It can be good for your bottom line! It’s part of that bigger equation, where responsible design is not hard of you’re mindful. Recently, we had skins left over from our footwear and rather than wasting them or selling them to a jobber we re-cut them into little purses for the store to go with the shoes.

Maria Cornejo: Zero features sketches and runway shots that chronicle the designer's process.

Has it gotten easier to get more complex, certified and low-impact fabrics?

We have a more of spending power now and with some of our suppliers so we can ask them for things, whereas before we were buying from stock. What I see happening now is more and more mills have components in their collection that are sustainable – a section of recycled polyester or more fashion fabrics. It’s very hard for these large mills to change overnight, but it’s changing little by little. And we work with Schoeller [the Swiss manufacturer of upcycled Econyl fabrics] who have been sustainable for 30 years. They’re the people who got Nike into the whole sustainable thing.

How have you seen the rest of the clothing industry adapt to responsible design concerns over the years?

I was asked to talk to Nike’s design team last year about sustainability and it was really insightful because they’d been trying to do it with recycled yarns made of plastics from the ocean and the reality is that there is progress happening. And I remember going to a talk at the United Nations a few years ago when Bionic Yarns started working on material innovation with Adidas. It’s happening, it’s just not available to smaller companies like me – yet.

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What else would you like to see change?

I would like to see people consuming less but more smartly. Less in trend, because that is so wasteful. If you have a great piece of clothing it lasts, but the whole trend thing is just going to go into the trash can, eventually.

Does designing without much trend come at a cost? One of my all-time favourite red carpet moments was seeing actress Sunrise Coigney, who is married to Mark Ruffalo, in one of your gowns on the Academy Awards red carpet. I’ll often spot Laura Linney or Tracee Ellis Ross wearing Zero day to day, but fewer of the big Golden Globes or Oscar moments that seem like important marketing opportunities.

I suppose so – but I don’t know if red carpet dressing sells clothes, to be honest. We sell more through women wearing the clothes and other women bringing people to the collection. Like Sunrise brought Julianne Moore to the store – and that wasn’t because of press, it’s because she saw Sunrise wearing something of mine she liked. It’s more organic and it’s more real. I think also that I design for real women who have lives and are not into trends.

I’ve written that article many times, the “Here are the bestselling beloved clothes you never see in fashion magazines because they aren’t big advertisers” piece. Do you think that social media levels the playing field at all?

I think the fact that we can tap into amazing clients and have them be the stars does, and I always say ‘Let’s be cool by association.’ Our clothes have amazing lives because of the women that they dress, like Cleo Wade or Christy Turlington Burns – and we’re not paying them to endorse the brand. That’s more interesting to me. An interview with Christy just came out in InStyle and she mentions wearing my clothes. That’s just organic and it’s real. It’s what they really do. It’s not just about a season, and that means a lot more.

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This interview has been condensed and edited.

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