As an independent designer, Maria Cornejo is weathering the pandemic on many fronts, but she can’t help but wonder, “What else?”

Like many in the fashion industry, the founder of Zero + Maria Cornejo is navigating this time of great upheaval as best she can. She recently brought back furloughed workers, closed her Los Angeles boutique, reopened her New York store with reduced hours, received a PPP business loan, and is considering a virtual walk-through for a September presentation, as well as in-person ones. Have we mentioned that she personally recovered from a case of COVID-19?

“It’s been intense. Fashion was already a tough business. Luckily, I believe in it. I believe in our clients. We, as a team, are figuring out things. But it’s exhausting. There are many a day, when you think, ‘What else is coming down the pipeline?’” she said. “I would love to have a sugar daddy right now or an investor. As a self-owned business, we have no real cushion. It’s very much what we bring in — a cash flow system. We’re not like the Kerings or the LVMHs.”

While major retailers are struggling and some small specialty store clients have gone out of business, the designer noted that finding new clients isn’t easy, since most aren’t willing to take any risks right now. She and her team are moving ahead and will ship pre-fall in a few weeks and the fall collection in October. Being more in line to when shoppers are looking for in-season items is something that the designer has been striving toward for a while. “The reality is people need to stay in the present, shop for things they need and not shop in advance. Most of the designers I’ve talked to from around the world are of the same feeling,” she said.

Cornejo continued, “It’s not easy and it’s just beginning. The domino effect of this will be felt for a long time. The last recession in 2008 took us five to seven years [to recover]. Now what does it look like? Do we all hold on for that amount of time?”

Despite those concerns, Cornejo saw some glimmers of positivity at a trunk show at Matriark in Sag Harbor last weekend. About 30 styles were sold with eco-friendly denim, jersey and linen styles being winning looks, as well as Bolivian knits. Well aware that many of her New York clients left the city in March and will be gone for the foreseeable future, the New York-based designer is planning more trunk shows this summer.

The masked and social-distancing shoppers in the Hamptons spent between $400 to nearly $2,000 for items. Lisa Perry and her husband were among the supporters. Cornejo said, “It’s called ‘retail therapy’ for a reason. Everybody wants to see other people and chat. It was lovely.”

The designer may return to Matriark in a few weeks for another trunk show and is considering holding other ones in upstate New York and Brooklyn. “There is business online but it’s not the same as bringing the collection, trying things on and getting that energy — while social distancing,” she said.

Two weeks ago the company reopened its downtown Manhattan store with reduced hours. So far there have been 10 shoppers, but further reducing hours may be chancy. Cornejo explained, “The reality is people don’t leave their houses all the time. We can do more reduced hours but you don’t want to miss out on that one person, who may be going to dinner or around the corner.“

In late June, Cornejo closed her L.A. boutique shortly after it had reopened. “We reopened for one day, then there were demonstrations. The next day the store got looted. In the end, we just closed,” she said. “The landlord had doubled the rent four years ago. It’s been incredibly difficult. A lot of our clients there were international and they weren’t traveling to America. With our lovely president, they were getting hassled at immigration [in the airport].”

After seeing signs of positivity in terms of sales in stores in Austin, Dallas, Denver and Chicago, Cornejo said some of the locations have temporarily closed again, due to spikes in coronavirus cases.

The designer started offering virtual appointments in March, and stores in Japan and London were the first to do so. With many reluctant to travel due to the pandemic, the plan is to offer more digital options. Encouraged by last weekend’s sales, Cornejo said, “People can shop around online to get deals, but I don’t design on a computer. It’s not that. If they want something special, they will shop.”

While Cornejo described her New York City landlord as lovely, she said others are not as fortunate. “Manhattan is a mess right now. Unless the landlords help the retailers, they’re not going to survive. And the city has to help. It’s desolate,” Cornejo said. “We live in Brooklyn. I dread going in because the energy is weird. There are a lot of homeless people. They’re getting desperate because there are fewer people to beg from. The energy has really changed.”

Having battled COVID-19 off and on for a month, Cornejo said she understands people’s concerns about getting sick and the anxiety that fear causes. Her business partner Marysia Woroniecka also had a bout with the coronavirus, as did the company’s financial officer. “We have to look after ourselves and connect even if it is on Zoom,” she said. “It’s beginning to feel that life goes on, especially after being out east. We have to be mindful that life goes on. We can’t just hide in a box forever.”



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