Why First Lady Michelle Obama is one of this designer's biggest fans

Why First Lady Michelle Obama is one of this designer's biggest fans
Marisa Tomei, left, and Maria Cornejo. (Zero + Maria Cornejo)

What do First Lady Michelle Obama, actress Tilda Swinton and artist Cindy Sherman have in common? New York-based fashion designer Maria Cornejo.

Cornejo's demo is artsy and intellectual and her aesthetic minimalist but feminine and friendly. The consummate indie designer, without a luxury conglomerate behind her, Cornejo makes clothes to be worn, not just to fill up magazine editorials and prop up accessory sales.


For the Record

July 13, 3:44 p.m.: This article incorrectly says Maria Cornejo won the 2005 Smithsonian Cooper Hewitt Design Award. She won the 2006 award.


“I want to feel youthful and relevant, but I don’t want to dress like a 15-year-old,” Cornejo, 52, says during a recent trip to L.A. to celebrate five years of her Melrose Place boutique, Zero + Maria Cornejo.

The designer’s relaxed draped dresses and jumpsuits in geometric-inspired cuts cocoon the body, concealing what needs concealing and highlighting the rest, while lightweight, V-neck tops with cutout details over the shoulders, asymmetrically cut tunic tops and elastic waist trousers have the ease of pajamas, folding down to practically nothing for travel. Prints are often abstracted versions of photographs she takes anywhere and everywhere.

Looks from the Zero + Maria Cornejo pre-fall 2015 collection. (Zero + Maria Cornejo)

“You don’t have to have a perfect body. It really is about the woman who puts them on and how they drape on her,” Cornejo says about her clothing, which goes up to a size 14. “Very few things are tailored or super-straight. The whole idea is that the clothes become more about the person in them.”

Casual day wear ranges from about $300 for a jersey top to $900 for a jersey dress; silk jumpsuits and dresses range from $800 to $1,800, and outerwear from $895 for a tweedy striped poncho to $4,000 for a shearling coat.

Cornejo was born in Chile, started her career in London, and launched her business in her first retail store in New York City in 1998. She has won a number of accolades since then, including the 2005 Smithsonian Cooper Hewitt Design Award. She opened the L.A. store after early success at wholesale here, selling to Mameg, Barneys New York and Amaree’s, all of which still carry the collection.

“We realized there was a demand,” she says. “And we were developing an amazing client base here. Marisa Tomei [who hosted a cocktail party at the L.A. store on June 19 to celebrate the five-year anniversary] has been a client since 1998.”

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Looks from the Zero + Maria Cornejo pre-fall 2015 collection. (Zero + Maria Cornejo)

Her company had its best year in 2014, and is projecting $10 million in sales in 2015. Accessories are a growing part of Cornejo’s business, including chunky heeled sandal booties, flat sling-back Menorcan sandals, reversible leather tote bags, wide belts and tassel necklaces. Swimwear is another strong category for the designer, who has mastered the sexy but full-coverage one piece, using artful cutouts and color blocking.

A non-driver living in Brooklyn, Cornejo is a New Yorker through and through, producing 70% of her collection in the city. But it was the Southern Californian desert landscape of Joshua Tree that inspired her pre-fall collection in store now.

“It’s basically the corner of a rock,” she says, pointing to the Yellowstone print sleeveless dress she’s wearing, with craggy-looking rocks dotted with wildflowers.

“I was here a year ago and on my one free day, I went to Joshua Tree with my design assistant. He was just walking, but with me, I’m always looking. This morning on my walk from Sunset Tower, I took pictures of paving stones on Flores [Street]. Finding shapes and patterns is the way my eyes look at things.”

Cornejo enjoys spending time in L.A., especially now that her daughter Bibi Cornejo Borthwick, a photographer, has moved into a house in Echo Park. “We have a lot of friends here, so it really feels like home,” she says, singling out chef Nina Clemente, the artists Alejandro Cardenas and Mike Mills among her L.A. circle, and hiking Runyon Canyon, Thai food at Night + Market Song and sushi at Sugarfish among her L.A. faves.

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Yellostone print dress, inspired by Joshua Tree, from the Zero +Maria Cornejo pre-fall 2015 collection. (Zero + Maria Cornejo)

“I’m also crazy about the plant life here,” she adds, noting that she needs to visit the Huntington Gardens. “I’m Latin, I love the sun, the weather and the nature.”

She’s got loads of L.A. photos on her iPhone to prove it. But you won’t see her posting them online. “There’s too much information out there already,” Cornejo says. “I don’t feel the need to share my inspiration ahead of time because I think it’s quite nice to have some surprises.”

Here, here.

Zero + Maria Cornejo, 8408 Melrose Place, Los Angeles, (323) 782-4915. 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Saturday; noon to 6 p.m. Sunday.