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.