When I moved to New York by myself a decade ago, I developed this thing where I believed that seeing certain people, "celebrities" to me, was a sign of luck, and a sign that my life was on the right path. These were not the kinds of people who would be in the pages of Us Weekly but creatives whose work I admired, like the photographer Ellen von Unwerth or the graphic designer Stefan Sagmeister. Many years ago, while waiting to cross the street at Bleecker and Lafayette, I noticed the designer Maria Cornejo standing in front of me. I was a big fan of her minimal-but-not-boring aesthetic. I broke into a huge smile, and as we walked our separate ways, I thought: OK, everything is where it's supposed to be.
Cornejo's clothes exude an undeniable power, a sense of cool. Fashion loves to describe things as "effortless," but that is what her clothes are. Her dresses are architectural but not conceptual. They're made for a woman's body. A body with curves and bulges and muscles and life. It's no surprise then, the kind of women her clothes attract — women confident in their own skin, like artist Cindy Sherman and First Lady Michelle Obama.
A few years after I saw Maria on the street, I ended up working at her store in NoHo for about three years. That only made things a little weird when I sat with her a few weeks ago in the backyard of a restaurant not too far from her studio. I'd been a fan of her designs, but I also loved that she was Chilean. I felt like she was "my people." While I knew that she had left Chile for England after the civil unrest that developed in her home country in 1973, I did not realize what this actually meant for the luminous, peaceful woman that I got so used to seeing on my day-to-day.
It was difficult to hear her hardships, but I came away from our conversation feeling like Maria was almost superhuman, not so much because of the success she's had but because she is a person so filled with love that she immediately changes the energy of any room she walks into. I understood why her clothes are imbued with such a sense of power, and why when you put them on you feel like you can take on anything, because she already has.
Laia Garcia: I wanted to start with your childhood in Chile. How old were you when you left?
Maria Cornejo: I was 12.
LG: How much did you know about what was going on at the time politically?
MC: I remember that September the 11th [the day of the coup d'etat in Chile], it was teacher's day. I had prepared all these things for my teacher because we were supposed to do a little presentation. I remember going to school, and we could hear the American bomber jets bombing La Moneda [Chile's house of government] and the tanks rolling down. It was really scary. Then my parents lost their jobs. They both worked for the National Publishing Company, my dad in sales, my mom in the art department. They both got fired, so my dad went from being the head of sales to selling eggs at the market out of the back of a truck to put food on our table. It was really bad.
Even before the extreme right [took power] in Chile, there was no food. They were holding blockades. We had coupons to come buy food: to buy sugar, oil, anything. You could only get like four eggs a week or something. The right really wanted [President Salvador] Allende out, because he was the first-ever elected Socialist president anywhere in the world, and he was a good man. They were basically starving people to make them revolt and making them feel that it was the government's fault.
It was really scary. My parents, they were both Socialists, they were young — 30, 31. They were both successful career people. They had been teachers, and my dad spoke English. My parents came from very humble families. My grandfather had a construction business coming from farmland, and my grandmother could never read or write. We were very spoiled. We had a nice house, and then all of a sudden we had nothing. My grandfather had a little plot of land like three blocks from where he lived with a tiny, little house, basically like a hut. We went to live there right after the coup.
My mother got charged with treason. At the time I didn't know what was going on; she told us afterward. She was being judged, and the only reason she got away is because my godfather had been in the air force, and he was quite high up. He was dead, but the guy who used to clean his shoes was one of the judges at her court case, and he recognized her. They tortured people in front of her, but they let her go because he recognized her. He said, "I give you 24 hours to leave. You have to get out, 24 hours. I can't help you." We got taken out by the United Nations. We literally left with the clothes on our back and nothing else. Everything was gone.
We ended up in Peru for a year. We were sleeping on the floor of a church for half of it. Every Sunday when they had to do Mass, we had to clear the mattresses. Then we ended up in this house with all these refugees. Our parents seemed OK, so we felt like it was OK. Even though it was a crazy time, we felt that we were safe, so that fear of getting out was already done.
LG: How long was it before your family left for England?
MC: It was a year. Basically my dad had to apply [for a country to take us in]. His first choice was Cuba, and then it was England and Canada because he spoke English. You had to wait, and every day they would come and get people. Like, the Cuban embassy would say, "OK, we have five seats on the plane," you never knew what was going to happen. I remember that day we'd gone to the beach, and the Cuban embassy came, so we missed the boat, and so we go back to the bottom of the list. The next one that came out was England. So we ended up in England, in a house in Shepherd's Bush. I remember arriving. It was the middle of winter. All I knew about England was Sherlock Holmes films. I imagined that it was just going to be dark and foggy. I didn't speak a word of English.
We ended up in this big house full of refugees. You had to share rooms with everybody. They had this damp room full of clothes, like bedding and clothes, and you just had to pick through. It's one of the reasons why I'm not so keen on vintage, just having somebody else's clothes ... I have a hard time, just the smell of it. It's funny, I had the same conversation with Hussein Chalayan (who had to flee his native Cyprus for England after civil unrest), and he feels the same way.
LG: How long did it take for you to feel normal in this new life?
MC: It's hard to say. We stayed in London for about six months, and then we got sent to Manchester, because they had a certain amount of refugees locked into the city. So we ended up in Manchester, which was ... I don't know if I felt normal? I mean, when did I feel normal? I think I'm just beginning to feel normal, you know. I'm an American now.
It took like a year before I could really understand English, to feel like I wasn't a fish out of water. I remember having this great feeling of frustration because I couldn't say the word crisp because it's such not a Latin sound. Crisp. I remember I had such a thing when I actually could say it. My mom died soon after that, so it was sad. She died in '77, two years after we got to England.
LG: Were you always a creative person, or was there something specific in England that led you into more creative pursuits?
MC: I was into clothes. I made clothes with my grandmother, hand-knitted. I made clothes because she made clothes. My aunt made stuff, my mom was creative, so I was surrounded by that. When I moved to England, it was '75, and everything was happening. My whole teenage life is England, glam rock, and David Bowie, and Sex Pistols, and Iggy Pop, all that stuff.
LG: What started your interest in fashion as a career?
MC: I remember doing my A-levels, at the time I was doing pretty well in chemistry and science, but I was always doubting myself, because I kept going to the teacher like, I think this is wrong. It's too easy for me to figure this out. My art teacher was really encouraging me, because he really liked that I could draw. I felt very torn. At that time I had to pick one, and I felt much more confident in the arts than I did in chemistry. My big thing was that I actually wanted to be like Jacques Cousteau.
MC: That was my aspiration in life! Except I couldn't swim. Then when I could swim, I was a shit swimmer, and I realized I hated being underwater anyway, so I changed the plans. When I went to art school, I just really enjoyed being creative. I realized that there was something really special about it. It was a special time in England as well. It was never about money, it was just more about being creative. When I went to college it was right after punk, and there was this feeling of possibility.
After being quite shy, for me it was a real awakening. Clothes became a form of self-expression, a way of dealing with being an alien. I mean, I was an alien. Especially being Chilean — when I moved to Manchester, the kids were evil. They literally used to scream at me down the street, "You fucking Paki!," because it was a really rough area; they thought I was Pakistani or Indian. So for me, it was almost like trying to camouflage. I would say clothes are like camouflage. They give you confidence, they give you that sense of power.
LG: So how did your first line, Richmond-Cornejo, come about?
MC: I met John [Richmond, her partner on the label] in a gay club on New Year in the early '80s. Then I decided I was going to go to London for college. At the time, my father didn't want me to leave Manchester. I was helping him with my two brothers, and I was 18 or 19. After doing it for four years, I was going to have a nervous breakdown. I had to leave. I said to him, "I'm not their mother, I'm not your wife." It was a really hard separation. I did graphics for a year at Stockport College, then I decided to do fashion in London, so I moved there.
I grew up in the public eye, from the minute that John and I did that first collection, my college collection I sold to Joseph [an important designer store]. I sold my menswear to Jim Kerr from the Simple Minds, Chrissy Hynde had my stuff, Iggy Pop — it was very full-on. It was all too much, too, and I was bulimic. I was 21, and everyone was saying how well we were doing, and I was bulimic. I was so miserable, and we were going to Japan every four weeks, and Italy. I was never really in London that much; I was traveling all the time. John and I just ended up from being like a love story to it just not working out.
I did all my growing up, all my mistakes, with my own money, with my own time. It was very public, my and John's split was very public. It just felt toxic. After being in the spotlight, you can understand why people sort of go a little loopy. It's almost too much and too young. We had like 20-odd stores in Japan; people had me signing the back of their jackets. We had a scarf with my face and John's on it. It was the best-selling thing out of the collection. It was weird.
LG: Incredible. So when you started your current line, Zero+Maria Cornejo, you knew everything that you didn't want to do, because you already had lived through it.
MC: Yeah, and so that probably has been the conflict, especially in the last ten years. I think you have to do things that sit well with you, because life's too short. It's hard to live with yourself if you're not happy with what you're doing, or the way you're doing things. I think that's one of the things for me, is losing everything so young, and then losing my mother so young, and then losing my dad.
People are important: the way you treat people, the way you behave with people. That's one of the lessons I learned. I don't want to work with people I don't like. I don't want to be in situations that I don't feel comfortable in. Life's too short. So you try and find like-minded people, and you surround yourself with them. That's how our company is built. I'm 53 now; my dad died when he was 55. I'm thinking, God, I've got two years, what am I going to do with the next two years? What is going to happen? Got to make a difference, got to do something. All of a sudden you face it, and you think: Well, actually this is why I'm doing it.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
Laia Garcia is Lenny's deputy editor.