Maria Cornejo - Fashion and the First Lady

How Manchester became the inspiration behind one of Michelle Obama's favourite designers

Who would have thought that the discos and boutiques of  Manchester in the 1980s would provide the inspiration for the career of a designer who now dresses some of the most famous women in the world - including America’s First Lady Michelle Obama?

Maria Cornejo is one of the most respected designers in the world, with a client list that also includes Tilda Swinton and Cindy Sherman and a lifestyle that most people would envy.  But as a youngster growing up in Newton Heath and on Dickenson Road, a political refugee from Chile, she, like other teenagers enjoyed all that the city had to offer.

‘We were sent to Manchester as political refugees and I lived in Manchester from the age of 12 to 18, so I have many memories from my teenage years; Factory Records, the Punk scene, PIPS The Bowie Room,’  reveals the former Abraham Moss pupil.

‘At the time I shopped at Oxfam, the Salvation Army, Miss Selfridge, Chelsea Girl, Elle and Fiorucci. Growing up here really influenced me. I think a lot of the kitchy elements and sense of humour in my collection stem from growing up in England.’

Although she now lives in New York, Maria has had more of a presence in the city of late, as her clothes are amongst the prestigious labels being stocked at the recently-opened Hervia Bazaar boutique in Manchester’s city centre.

‘We’ve been in London for quite some time now but we really wanted to reach more potential clients in the UK. I’m excited that we’ll be represented in the city where I grew up, Manchester the place where it all started for me in my teenage years….’ She says.

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Maria is friends with Oscar Pinto, the Chilean-born owner of the glossy Spring Gardens store, who she met when she was growing up in the city. She also maintains a further connection with Manchester as her older sister still lives here in Burnage. Nights out are spent at her sister and husband Rafa’s city centre restaurant El Rincon.

‘I am happy that the collection is being carried in Manchester, the place where my early inspiration to become a fashion designer stemmed from,’ she declares.

‘It’s carrying really strong collections and that’s why we decided to sell to Hervia Bazaar. It can be risky to open in new stores but you have trust your instincts and this felt right.’

Maria has always been on the fashion radar; however it was the Michelle Obama connection which has given her an amazing profile. In fact, the president’s wife hit the headlines last month by her repeat wear of a  Zero + Maria Cornejo patterned dress she first wore at the G-20 Summit in September 2009 (pictured right).

‘Flattered’ is Maria’s response to the fact that she is a favourite of the ultra-stylish wife of the U.S president.

‘I think she likes the clothes because they flatter her shape and they’re comfortable,’ she explains.

‘That’s the main thing people always say - that they put them on and they forget they’ve got them on. I think when women feel good, when they’re wearing something that’s comfortable, that makes them look good - they look more sensual, they have more confidence. It’s very empowering. I call it ‘urban camouflage’.’

And in case we need an excuse to dash out and buy ourselves something a bit nice she says encouragingly: ‘ I think everyone deserves to have well-designed clothing!’

She continues: ‘I design for women of all ages and see them all look great in the clothes. It’s great to see moms and daughters come to shop in our store together. Our staff has women of all ages and body types and they each wear the collection in a very individual way. I love that. I think my approach to design is very personal and accessible to a wide range of women and now, men. I like that everyone can find something that they can feel strong and attractive in.’

What are the worst things about the fashion industry? ‘The concept of being ‘in’ or ‘out’,’ she admits.

‘I hate seeing waste. The concept of trends encourages this habit. I like clothes that can still look new and fresh in ten years. I’m always pulling out clothes from my closet from five years ago and I get compliments on them as though they’re from that season!’Hervia Bazaar: 40, Spring Gardens, Manchester.  Tel: 0161 835 2777, or visit www.herviabazaar.com

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