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A Glimpse Of Designer Maria Cornejo: A Michelle Obama Favorite

Oct 18, 2009 | Updated May 25, 2011

For Maria Cornejo -- headstrong, fiercely independent, brilliant, beautiful -- not belonging has made her stronger. "It gave me energy, and liberated me from preconceived ideas of the way things should be," she says deliberately. Her words are fitting given that she has been an outsider for as long as she can remember. An 11 year-old girl exiled from Pinochet's Chile, Maria was sent to Peru to squat in a church with other refugees before seeking political asylum in Manchester, England, where her mother died two years after they were relocated. The harshness of her early life forced her to scrounge in bins for clothes and endure almost complete alienation because she didn't speak English. "I drew strength from these experiences," she recalls. "Being an outsider gives you your conviction and your identity. I didn't want to be like everybody else." And she certainly isn't.

As soon as Maria was old enough she escaped to a punk-crazed London. Suddenly noticed for her exotic beauty, she started hanging out in gay clubs and in creative circles, where she met her mentor and lover, the designer John Richmond, who introduced her into the prestigious Ravensbourne College of Design. "It was a time when anything felt possible," she remembers excitedly. Maria and John enjoyed near insta-success when they formed Richmond Cornejo, a line that had massive cult appeal among the Eighties club kids. She moved on to develop her signature collection, "Maria Cornejo," and assumed the helm of the French label Tehen before launching Zero + Maria Cornejo in 1998.

Maria didn't fully embrace her point of difference until she came to live in New York, a city that is largely comprised of foreigners and "is about being independent and finding one's way." By then she had married the eccentric photographer and poet Mark Borthwick, with whom she created a four-story Brooklyn townhouse sanctuary for musicians, artists, and other creative types who gladly occupy the fringes of society. "There are always so many people at our house, lots of music and chaos. We live life in a very colorful way."

In the ten years since Maria launched Zero + Maria Cornejo, she won the Smithsonian Cooper- Hewitt National Design Award, opened three stops in New York, and expanded her line to stores all over the world. She counts fashion icons as genuine fans, including Michelle Obama, Tilda Swinton and Sofia Coppola -- people who mirror Maria's commitment to authenticity. These are "brainy, strong women, not arm candy," insists Maria. "They buy my clothes to wear in real life, not just when they are getting photographed."

Despite her success, Maria feels that she "is just beginning to scratch the surface of things." In the future, she will continue with the simple geometric and organic shapes -- the circle, cube, triangle, butterfly--that are seminal to her aesthetic. She will also return to the concept behind Zero, which neither adds nor subtracts, but rather acts as a point of departure.