What is it about a fashion secret that can make two powerful women cross a room to introduce themselves, bonding instantly? If you wear Zero + Maria Cornejo to, say, the White House, a Cindy Sherman opening, a Tilda Swinton premiere, or the Cooper-Hewitt design awards, you’d better bring business cards. “Michelle Obama went up to a woman at the White House wearing Zero and said, ‘I have that dress!’” Cornejo says with a laugh. “And someone e-mailed me the day after Cindy Sherman’s show and told me that half the gallery was wearing Zero—Cindy included.”
Cornejo is hardly a hot new up-and-comer who has suddenly become all the rage; in fact, her path to success has been just the opposite. Over the past 12 years, the Chilean-born, London-educated designer has been steadily engaging sophisticated women who appreciate cerebral clothes at reasonable prices. Her business, which started in a NoLIta boutique—where the clothes were sewn in the back and Cornejo had after-school picnics on the floor with her children—has expanded to two new locations in Manhattan and one in Los Angeles. The label gained momentum in 2005, when Marysia Woroniecka, a London publicist who represented Vivienne Westwood and the Antwerp Six (as well as Cornejo) early in their careers, came on as partner. “We’re in it for the same reasons,” says Woroniecka, a regal lioness in an asymmetrical dress. “Not to swan around being part of the fashion business, but to actually make cool clothes and get them to cool people.”
Together they have grown the label organically, introducing a men’s line inspired in part by Cornejo’s husband, photographer Mark Borthwick; jewelry designed by her stylist (and former store employee) Victoria Simes; sunglasses with Phosphorescence; swimwear; and footwear collaborations with George Esquivel and Eileen Shields. This spring there’s a micro-collection of Italian-made handbags.
Even if her clothes are found in the first lady’s closet, Cornejo’s core clientele remains the artists, writers, architects, and actors who are drawn to the off-kilter charm of her designs—what she calls “minimalism with a heart.” The word-of-mouth factor has been key. “It’s built on the fact that women trust other women,” she says. “They let them in on their little secret if something fits well or works for them.”
But is it sexy? “A lot of fashion now is about impressing people, like driving a muscle car,” says illustrator Jean-Philippe Delhomme, who met Cornejo and Borthwick in 2009 while shopping at the Brooklyn Flea and asked to sketch them. “What Maria does is completely different. It’s not about power; it’s about poetry and art. To me, it makes a woman seem much more attractive than when she wears a muscle car.”