Loyalists Hit Closets

Staff Writer
Columbus Monthly

c.2014 New York Times News Service

NEW YORK — To her fans, she is an artist’s artist. Maria Cornejo has been dressing stars of the art, film and music worlds since she introduced her label, Zero & Maria Cornejo, in the late 1990s.

The other week, the fans returned the favor, turning up at Barneys New York on Madison Avenue for a cocktail party celebrating the collection’s 15th anniversary. Guests including the singer Karen O, the night-life impresario Susanne Bartsch, the actress Emily Mortimer and the photographer Cindy Sherman (who documented the evening on Instagram) arrived dressed in reissued versions of their most cherished Zero pieces in homage to the woman who, through instinct or sagacity, has fathomed their quirks and whims.

“Her clothes are like cool armor,” the installation artist Tara Donovan said. “I put them on and feel sexy and tough. Sometimes I think my entire wardrobe is Maria.”

The artist Paula Hayes called Cornejo’s designs — like the scarlet drop-waist evening dress or fluid midnight-blue jumpsuit on view at Barneys the other night — sculptural.

“That’s why artists love her,” Hayes said, adding that she owned more than 100 Zero designs. “I would say that I’m monogamous.”

What commands that sort of loyalty? The tenacity, for one thing, that impelled the Chilean-born designer to carry on despite early setbacks. When her Japanese backer pulled out in the wake of 9/11, Cornejo bounced back, teaming with her friend and now partner Marysia Woroniecka to revamp her stores and develop an e-commerce strategy.

That resilience and a maverick streak are the engines that drive her.

“I get my confidence and conviction from being an outsider,” said the designer, whose family, exiled from Chile during the Pinochet years, moved to England when she was 11. “Not belonging has always made me stronger.”

A self-described realist, she maintains that women ought to look sexy and streamlined, not showy. Her artfully reined-in geometric cuts accommodate a range of body types.

“I’m very practical,” Cornejo said. “I’m trying to bridge the disparity between what is being photographed and what people actually wear.”

Hers is an individual voice, said Mark Lee, Barneys’ chief executive. Yet “her clothes take on the personality of the wearer.”

Barneys’ commitment to Cornejo has not wavered in the 15 years since the store persuaded her to wholesale the pieces she was selling exclusively in her own stores. Lee did not provide sales figures, but he allowed as he eyed the densely packed floor, “We wouldn’t be doing all of this if she weren’t important to us.”

Barneys’ timing is telling, coming as it does amid signs that Cornejo has extended her reach. In addition to her stores on Mott Street in Manhattan and on Melrose Place in Los Angeles, she woos customers at high-style outposts like Colette in Paris and Ikram in Chicago, where Michelle Obama discovered her.

The first lady’s choices over time — the violet Zero suit she wore for one of her first official events, a White House Council on Women and Girls, and a black jersey dress she wore during the last presidential campaign — have had a ripple effect, Cornejo acknowledged. They gave those women who once eyed her designs tentatively implicit permission to wear them.

Business in the namesake stores increased by 50 percent last year, Woroniecka said, and web sales are up 80 percent. The line, carried in some 80 locations worldwide, has picked up 10 retail clients in the past year.

“Bit by bit, people are becoming much more aware of the label,” she said.

Known for her vivid prints, Cornejo will explore a more zenlike feeling in a collection she will unveil Monday.

“We’re going to play up texture and luxury rather than color,” she said. “We’re craving things that have substance, rather than being just eye candy.”