Before it was fashionable to be environmentally minded, designer Maria Cornejo was using reclaimed textiles and making her elegantly draped designs locally. "I was using leftover stock, dead stock, when big designers would buy too much fabric and didn't use it up," she says of her first collections. Since 1998, when she opened her Zero + Maria Cornejo atelier in Manhattan, she's manufactured in the city, which she does predominantly to this day. "Eighty to 85 percent of the collection, depending on the season, is still produced in New York," Cornejo says.
Last year, Cornejo won Fashion Group International's Sustainability Award for revolutionizing her industry with her fabrication, innovation and production practices. She is a founding member of the CFDA's Sustainability Committee and the first winner of its Lexus Eco Fashion Challenge. Individual entrepreneurs like Cornejo laid the groundwork for fashion to gradually—too slowly for many—go green. "I think the biggest obstacle was the lack of interest before," she says about the industry's move toward sustainability. "Now there seems to be a lot of interest."
Even before there was customer demand, Cornejo was continually evolving the eco-consciousness of her brand. "Every season we try to turn one more section of the collection into a more sustainable version of itself," she explains. "Every season I sort of start the conversation with the team, 'OK, I don't want to look at anything unless it's sustainable.' We start with that, and if we can't find something that we're looking for, then we start approaching factories to make something for us wherever possible, especially now that there's more recycled yarns available."
For this spring, the Zero + Maria Cornejo Eco Denim collection is 100 percent organic, Cradle to Cradle Certified™ Gold Dylan fabric. "It's a very hard certification to get," explains Cornejo. "It covers material health, material reutilization, renewable energy, carbon management, water, social fairness." There is also a linen drape made from environmentally responsible viscose sourced from sustainable forests in Domsjö, Sweden, and a natural jersey that's actually biodegradable. "Our base fabrics are now all sustainable," she says. "We also have a bio-cotton sweater that is organic knit, and we do that with a women's cooperative in Bolivia. This enables women to work from home while supporting themselves and their children," she continues. "They're keeping the craft alive, and in this age of mass production it's really amazing to be able to support people that are doing that."
As her heady, sophisticated collections would lead you to believe, Cornejo is thoughtful, an intellectual who reads books in Italian, speaks four languages, visits art galleries and takes leisurely walks in Brooklyn Bridge Park on the weekends. "Everybody has become too desensitized to nature because we're just behind our screens all the time. Once you reconnect with nature you feel you're a part of something bigger," she says of her recreational time. She spent her youth in Chile, migrating to London after the coup d'état in 1974. "I grew up in Santiago, which is the capital, but on the weekends, we would go to Isla Negra, which is where Pablo Neruda had a house. It’s all pine trees and wild seas."
She attributes her conservational inclination to her grandparents' habits. "I was brought up in Chile where my grandparents went to the corner store to refill glass bottles with oil," she recalls. "I think, sadly, America became really consumeristic, but in a wrong way—all the packaging. You know, there are lots of ways to consume consciously. We should get back to that model where you save the things that you really want, and things have value because you pass them on as heirlooms. It's a less disposable mindset, which is a bit old-fashioned."
Although she values tradition and preservation, Cornejo is far from reactionary. Her business is built around luxury and experimentation. As such, she's constantly finding knowledge and inspiration in the world around her. "I just saw a beautiful exhibition in Paris at the Pompidou on bio design and technology. All the advances that are happening—whether it's leather from mushrooms or whatever—the possibilities are endless. And they're being explored, so as the wastefulness goes away, hopefully there'll be a new wave of correctness and things being grown biologically and organically correctly. And that's really good. That's inspiring."