Maria Cornejo Transforms Hyundai Factory Waste Into Sculptural Garments

The newly appointed CFDA board member takes her ethical design process a step further

Sustainability is one of the fashion industry’s most abused words. Much like “edgy” in the early aughts or “journey” circa 2013, it often amounts to little more than a PR-spin on minimal effort. For Maria Cornejo—the veteran Chilean-American designer who was recently appointed to the board of the CFDA—sustainability is about clearly defined imperatives. Measurable metrics including levels of dye toxicity, carbon footprint, water usage in factories, and the biodegradability of materials inform her tight-knit design team’s sourcing and production decisions. This season, the NoHo-based designer pushed her environmentally-conscious approach a step further by looking at waste as a resource.

In partnership with Hyundai Motors, Cornejo released a fifteen-look, co-ed capsule collection dubbed “ReStyle.” Wrought with scrap leather from the Korean automotive company’s factories and up-cycled materials from the Zero + Maria Cornejo studio, the line was conceived and produced within a month. “I was surprised that we got it together so quickly,” Cornejo exclaimed with a hint of disbelief at the presentation held at Public Kitchen in the East Village. “It was like a giant jigsaw puzzle. We had to carefully consider the size and the shape of the pieces and figure out where we could slot them in.”

Cuts of perforated leather leftover from car seat upholstery were fashioned into accents including extended cuffs, belts with refined, swivel closures, and deep patch pockets, as well as anchor styles like a zip-front corset and a midi-skirt with an asymmetrical panel. As opposed to obscuring the cutting-floor leftovers, Cornejo allowed their existing shapes to guide her. “It was really exciting to get creative with less and give things that have had a life before, a new life,” she mused. “It was also interesting to figure out what kind of fabrics would work with the car leather because it’s quite thick.”

Cradle To Cradle-certified denim made entirely of organic cotton, an abstract jacquard punctuated by an acidic splatter motif, and crinkled cotton ticking were enlisted to support the scrap leather. The tactile materials coalesced in Cornejo’s favored shapes, including a roomy jumpsuit flanked by the designer’s signature, three-quarter-length “cuadro” sleeves with a bias-cut cuff, sinuous culottes, and a pragmatic, yet artful apron dress. “The spirit had to be the same as the main collection,” she affirmed. “This was an opportunity for us to show that sustainability doesn’t have to be boring.” In fact, Cornejo proves that it has the ability to seduce and captivate.

Defined by sustainable values, sculptural, yet comforting shapes, and textural richness, Cornejo’s distinct design vernacular has garnered a high-profile following that includes actor Julianne Moore, supermodel Christy Turlington, and artist Simone Leigh. Like Zero + Maria Cornejo’s conscious community, “Restyle” approaches fashion holistically: materials, process, labor, and environmental impact are just as important aesthetics.

Images courtesy of Zero + Maria Cornejo