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Maria Cornejo

Published on 20 Sep 2021

Maria Cornejo - The sustainable fashion designer who takes her inspiration from art, nature & design.

Orior

Where do you live?

Maria Cornejo

I am in an apartment in Brooklyn, with a beautiful back yard, but I am in the process of buying a small house.

Orior

Do you live with any family heirlooms?

Maria Cornejo

I left Chile basically with the clothes on my back so I don't have heirlooms from my parents – they died when I was quite young. So I have my own heirlooms, things from when we lived in Paris. I do have a four-foot-tall Virgin [Mary] from Paris that I bought at the market at Clignancourt. I’m not religious but I love her face, she stands here and is very peaceful. And I have a French daybed that my daughter used to sleep on in Paris.

Orior

What architects, interior or product designers do you admire, and why?

Maria Cornejo

There are so many. Because I have lived a lot of lives, I don't limit myself to one type of design, I am quite open to things. I love E15 -- I like things that are organic but modern. I don't like cold design, you know? I feel like that's like my clothes. They're organic and about design but they're not cold. For classics, I love Knoll. And I really like Stephen Burks, I remember hosting him in the store years ago for design week, he covered some chairs with tape, and I've followed his career. He worked with Haitian craftsmen and done global projects that incorporate weaving. I like that. I also love [lighting designer] Lindsey Adelman. I don't have the ceilings to have one of her pieces but I love what she does.

Orior

What city or cities has influenced and/or inspired you the most?

Maria Cornejo

My most influential city would have to be London because I went to art school there so all my formative years were in London. I went to the Ravensbourne College of Art & Design, it’s where David Bowie went. It was on a beautiful campus in Bromley, but now it’s in a modern building in the city. But when I was there it was so interesting - my teachers encouraged me to mix with people from other practices, not just fashion people or just art people. For me that was really interesting. I never get inspired by fashion - I get inspired by art or nature or design.

But I've worked in Japan and Milan and Paris, which were also influential, and of course New York.

What I like about New York is that I have been able to do my thing, to work on designing a collection that is also about real life. New York has always been about reality, think of all the energy from the streets, in that way it is quite similar to London. And the cultures. You're basically in a city where you can speak 4 or 5 languages in a day if you want to, or you walk by a bodega and you're listening to Spanish music and you go by another one and it's Jamaican music or Middle Eastern. I can hear the mosque here some weekends, depending on how the wind is blowing, I can hear the call to prayer. To me, those sounds and smells, it is sort of like traveling without actually traveling.

And the sense of possibility, that you can reinvent your story. When I came to New York there weren't any independent fashion stores. I opened a store at the end of 1997. There is opportunity, it doesn't guarantee success, but you can try. Go ahead, try at least.

"The idea of craftsmanship and having somebody make things with care, and take pride in the work, and passing on craftsmanship to me is really interesting and important because that is dying off."

Maria Cornejo

Orior

Why did you choose the Bianca chair? What about it appealed?

Maria Cornejo

I feel it's very me -- it's very organic, it looks good, and it's super comfortable. I love the design of it, it feels warm. It looks beautiful as an object but also when you sit in it, it's like a cocoon. I like the wood, I like the leather and also I think the leather as it ages will get better and better.

Orior

Where does this piece live now?

Maria Cornejo

It’s at my archive in the Navy Yards right now but when I move it into my house the cats will be on it because they will love it.

Orior

Your Bianca hair took 45 hours from start to finish to make, often by someone who has been with the company since its early days. What is the importance, to you, of making things by hand?

Maria Cornejo

The idea of craftsmanship and having somebody make things with care, and take pride in the work, and passing on craftsmanship to me is really interesting and important because that is dying off. We work with a women's co-op that do all the hand knits and alpaca and I get them to sign every piece because I want them to feel pride in the work. The love and patience that goes into something made by hand, and hours of work and dedication. We make 85% of our collection in New York.

Orior

Do you make anything by hand?

Maria Cornejo

I knit still a little bit -- nothing major. I've been knitting scarves. Now I've been knitting for my niece's baby. I haven't finished it, I sort of chickened out because now you can buy such beautiful baby stuff.

Orior

What are some things or people you make time for?

Maria Cornejo

I have a backyard and I have a lot of plants. I have a little fig tree, a jasmine, a passion flower. I have sage, lavender. A geranium. That's one of the things that brings me the most pleasure, gardening, to be honest. It is very meditative. It is also about editing. You are giving new life. I always say people are like plants, you have to give them TLC every day otherwise it reflects.

Reading also, I do but only on holiday. I read a book by somebody who used to work for me, Sarah Kasbeer it was really touching. I also just started to read a book in Spanish that I took from a place where I was staying. I decided I wanted to read in my own language again and reconnect with that. I didn't finish it while on holiday so I brought it home with me and left one there in its place.

Text by Rima Suqi
Photography by Jonathan Hokklo