For the past 14 years, designer Maria Cornejo has been doing things her own way. Bucking trends and collaborating with artisan makers, not to mention making flattering clothes, has brought the attention of equally iconoclastic women—including Tilda Swinton and Michelle Obama. Her most recent collections have showed off this individualistic spirit beautifully. Instead of looking to fashion’s past to inspire her work, the Chilean-born designer uses that most modern of tools, the iPhone camera, to collect the artifacts that later become her prints. In Toronto recently to show the latest collection for her label, Zero + Maria Cornejo, at Holt Renfrew, the designer brought along a dress printed with a snap from an old movie she caught on television. Other pieces featured abstract shots of a moving escalator, or were printed with the reflection of the pool where Cornejo was watching her son swim. Such personal clothes elicit a personal response from clients. At a recent charity event in Denver, women made a point of telling the designer where they’d worn their Zero pieces, and how good they felt wearing them. “I kept saying, god if these dresses could talk, they’d have pretty amazing lives.”
You’ve been using iPhone photos to create the prints in your last few collections. How did that start?
“I had this Mexican purse I liked that used to make me very happy, and I just started taking pictures, and we ended up using it for print, and then it just became sort of automatic. So I’m forever taking pictures.”
What is it about the iPhone photos that attracts you?
“I think the fact is that the iPhone is so fun. You’re a lot freer with it, whereas with a camera, you’re more aware that it’s a camera. So the pictures are not instantaneous or not a joyful as they could be. They end up being a bit more contrived, I think.”
Your husband, Mark Borthwick, is a photographer. Does he ever give his input?
“He’s forever trying to give me pictures to use as prints. And I always feel bad, because I don’t want to manipulate his images. And he says, “Oh it doesn’t matter,” of course it does matter. But I do love having his pictures around. In the store we have his big blow-ups, and they’re beautiful images. He’s more of an artist, really”
You work with a lot of artists and artisans, such as the women’s co-op in Bolivia who knits alpaca pieces for you. Would you ever want to do a collaboration with a big brand?
“It depends who it is, you know. I’m open. I just always say to never say never, because it depends on the situation, and what the promises are. And you always come out of [collaborations] with a new experience, or an evolution of what you’re designing. I think it’s a good thing”
You’ve mentioned in the past that you’re more about wardrobe building, as opposed to reinventing the wheel every season. How do you balance that with doing four collections a year?
“Well, everything’s new and it isn’t, you know? There are new shapes, but it’s a soft evolution. And I don’t like to dictate people; I just think it’s a quiet revolution.”
Do you ever feel pressure to go with the trends?
“Oh yes. The many times where we’re not in trend, and you know we don’t get used in a story or something. You know, I take pride in it. Someone said to me you make trends, you don’t follow them. I saw all these dresses in a magazine and they had a water print—I did that two years ago on one collection. I think you just have to be honest with yourself; you can’t pretend to be something you’re not.”
Your clients include Tilda Swinton and Cindy Sherman. Is there anyone you’re not dressing right now who you’d like to be?
“Hundreds of women. I think all women are interesting. Every time I meet somebody in the store. I think that’s the thing about being open to people: You don’t have to be a celebrity to be interesting, you know?”