2019 Great Immigrants Recipient

Maria Cornejo
Fashion Designer and Founder, Zero + Maria Cornejo
Born in:

Maria Cornejo’s childhood memories include seeing bombs fall on her home city of Santiago, Chile, seeking refuge with her family in a church in Peru, and being taunted by kids in Britain, where her family was granted political asylum after fleeing the brutal Pinochet dictatorship. “I drew strength from these experiences. Being an outsider gives you your conviction and your identity,” Cornejo told the Huffington Post. After a career in London, Milan, Paris, and Tokyo, which included the design partnership Richmond Cornejo and work for the Italian fashion brand Fiorucci, she moved to New York City in 1996. Just two years later Cornejo opened the first Zero + Maria Cornejo store in Manhattan’s NoLita neighborhood. She is known for the simplicity and geometry of her designs, featuring garments cut from a single piece of fabric with very few seams — work that earned her the 2006 Fashion Prize at the Smithsonian Cooper-Hewitt National Design Awards. Today her clothes are sold in more than 80 retail venues globally and are worn by some of the world’s most influential women, from former First Lady Michelle Obama to celebrities like Tilda Swinton. Cornejo is committed to contributing to the American economy and produces most of her collection in New York City’s Garment District. Her longstanding leadership in bringing eco-friendly practices to the fashion industry was recognized in 2018 when she won the Sustainability Award from Fashion Group International. A U.S. citizen for almost a decade, Cornejo believes that her family’s persecution by the Pinochet regime gave her an early “appreciation of the power of democracy.” As she wrote in W magazine, “Freely voicing our different opinions is part of our rights as U.S. citizens and it’s something I don’t take for granted given my life experiences. Freedom of speech is an incredible gift and that’s one of the many things I love about America.”