As the driving force behind Zero + Maria Cornejo, a fashion line founded in 1998 that often features the geometric cutting and shaping of fabrics, Maria Cornejo sees wine as a tool for building relationships and alleviating stress. It’s also a tie to her native Chile, a source of both fond and heartbreaking memories. Having dressed the likes of Michelle Obama and Tilda Swinton, this Brooklyn-based globetrotter reflects on her roots, favorite wines and a new color for her upcoming fall/winter collection.
Before we talk about wine, tell us a little about your tumultuous early years in Chile.
I am originally from Concepción. My parents were artists who worked in publishing and were not supporters of the right-wing [Pinochet] government. In 1974, just before I turned 12, we were forced to leave the country for England. That’s where my journey outside Chile began.
“I lived and worked in Paris, Italy and Japan before coming to the U.S. more than 20 years ago, and the food-and-wine cultures in those places are evolved.”
Do you have any childhood memories from Chile that include wine?
I recall my grandfather drinking what we called pipeños [rustic wines made mostly from the País grape]. My parents were young, political, social and artsy. There were a lot of parties and drinking. As kids, my siblings, cousins and I would finish off the nearly empty wine glasses of our parents. I remember a lot of seafood and white wine.
Describe your present-day affinity for wine.
I know my tastes. I like super-dry white wines and rosés, things like Bandol and Grüner Veltliner. I lived and worked in Paris, Italy and Japan before coming to the U.S. more than 20 years ago, and the food-and-wine cultures in those places are evolved. I also know the historical Chilean wineries, names like Cousiño-Macul and Concha y Toro that have been around longer than me.
Having left Chile during the worst of times, have you been back to see how much progress the country has made over the past quarter century?
Sadly, most of my trips back have been for funerals. My cousins, aunts, uncles and grandparents never left. But I went in 2013 to show a collection, and I realized that Chile has everything. We are like the nerdy Swiss of South America. I can’t wait to go back. I want to take my family to Pucón [a volcano near Lake Villarrica].
What parts of the country did you visit in 2013?
The show was in Santiago, but my sister and I escaped to the Elqui Valley up north. We saw vineyards at the base of pink-colored mountains. We tasted wines and rode bikes. We did some stargazing and ate local food like cazuela (a type of stew) and pastel del choclo (corn pie). It reminded me of my grandmother’s food.
How much is wine a part of the fashion world?
It’s everywhere, really. At every show and every event, wine is present. When we celebrated our 15th anniversary at Barneys, there was so much wine that I think we blew their budget for the year.
Does wine influence your work?
It’s part of our culture. We chill out with wine quite a bit. But it’s more for lubrication than inspiration. That said, for the first time we have a color called “Merlot” that will be part of the next fall/winter collection.
Who in the fashion industry do you enjoy drinking wine with?
Pretty much everyone, but two people who come to mind are [designers] Vicky Bartlett and Narciso Rodríguez. There is always good wine at their parties. Champagne, too.
Do you have a favorite New York City haunt for food and wine?
I still love the original Il Buco [on Bond Street]. It’s close to our offices and I’ve been going there since my first days in New York 20 years ago. Give me a cozy table and a glass of Falanghina, and I’m happy.