In the years we’ve known designer Maria Cornejo we’d actually never seen her in a pair of jeans. She is, for good reason, always wearing clothes from her own collection, Zero + Maria Cornejo, dearly loved by women for its artful, often cocooning dresses and separates made of almost every exquisite and innovative fabric on the planet…but denim. Had Maria ever worn or worked with it, we wondered, half-testing the premise of this site (everyone has a jean story, don’t they?), half-hoping she had just so we could chat with her in the more personal manner in which we do our interviews. If yes, amazing. Because we love Maria. Even if she really never, ever wears jeans.
As it turns out, though, not only did Maria once make lots of things in denim and other indigo fabrics – see the waistcoat and men’s shirt she wore for our shoot – she also does have jeans and some great stories, many of which are connected to her daughter, Bibi Cornejo Borthwick. Bibi, a photographer who is launching a non-profit called Tu Sisi in the fall, wears A.P.C.s that once belonged to her dad, photographer Mark Borthwick, every single day. One of many pairs that she inherited – and that Maria used to wear, too – Bibi’s skinny French pedigrees are the opposite of Maria’s $5 sailors. But it’s how these women clash, in the best, most loving way imaginable, that makes their story so revealing and wonderful.
Featuring a guest appearance from Maria’s son and Bibi’s brother, Joey, who wore Acnes held up by an old Helmut Lang belt made of superwashed denim that once belonged to Mark (or did it belong to Maria? Probably both), our afternoon at the Cornejo Borthwick home in Brooklyn was missing only Mark. But good genes and good jeans, as eclectic and personal as any we’ve seen, were aplenty.
Bibi, do you know when your dad got the jeans you’re wearing now?
Bibi [To her mom]: You would probably know better than I do.
Maria: We moved to New York in ’96 so they’re probably that old, at least. I used to wear them as well, so maybe ’95.
Maria, you wore them too?
Yeah. They’re like a 29-inch waist…and I don’t have much of a waist, so they fit me bigger than they fit Bibi.
But, Bibi, you altered them?
I had them taken in in the legs. I have a few pairs of his and I get them all altered that way. I like old jeans more. I feel like denim is supposed to be worn in, not new and crispy.
Maria, what about yours?
Maria: My jeans I think I got them at a uniform supply store about five years ago for $5. They’re men’s 70s jeans, and I bought them because I like the shape. They’re a little belled. I like the fact that they’re really high-waisted. They were superlong and so I had to cut eight inches off the hem. And I just cut them.
And on top?
Maria: On top I’m wearing a shirt from the men’s collection I did years ago, it’s in a Japanese indigo fabric. The waistcoat is from the collection from the 90s…I think it’s ’98. Roughly when I opened the store. I could get away with things like this waistcoat back in those days. I used to like making things that were a bit odd in denim. I love this jacket, but it’s oddly shaped; the sleeves curve. I like the fabric, I like the feel. But I think in general, with denim, people just want a pair of jeans.
Click on an image to see the slideshow…
What’s the first word that comes to mind when you think about your jeans?
What do you need your jeans to be always?
Maria: Flattering. Comfortable.
Bibi: The right length because I’m so short.
If your jeans could talk what would they say about you?
Bibi: Give me some room to breathe! [laughs]
Maria: Don’t eat so much! [laughs]
Maybe that’s what they would tell you…but what do you think they would they say about you?
Bibi: Probably that I love them a lot because I wear them every day.
Maria: That I don’t wear them often enough.
Bibi: You never wear jeans.
Maria: Not very often, no.
Actually, we don’t think we’ve seen you in jeans ever, Maria. But we knew you must have designed something in denim at some point in your career – and look, you did!
Maria: The reality is that if I’m at work, I have to wear the clothes I’ve just made and I have to get everybody going. It makes the people I work with think, you know. My job is to keep pushing people on. But when I’m designing, I start wearing a uniform, like a pair of nothing pants or things that look really average – that’s when I clear my palette, and get myself to think that I don’t have anything anymore. It’s a weird sort of dynamic in my head where I have to get to a place in my mind where I’m bored with everything – I just start wearing something that is so not anything, and it makes me want to design again.
What’s the most memorable place that your jeans have been?
Bibi: Africa. In Swaziland. My Dad and I were there for a job for Pop magazine. We were also working at an AIDS camp. That’s the area where my nonprofit is going to be based out of. The trip kind of changed my life.
How long were you there?
Bibi: Three weeks.
Maria: Yeah. It was about four years ago, three years ago. You were 18. That was a big trip for you.
And you wore those exact jeans?
Bibi: I remember having these with me, yeah. It actually rained the whole time. We were there in October, so it was rainy season. The last two days we were there the sun came out, though.
What’s the weirdest place your jeans have been?
Bibi: I’m not sure what I’d think is that weird, especially in this family. [laughs]
Maria: We’re an odd lot.
Was there ever a pair that got away?
Maria: Many. Because I’ve changed weight and sizes in my life I’ve given away a lot of jeans over the years. I used to have a pair of Lees that I used to love. When I was younger I used to wear a lot more denim, especially when I lived in Paris and I wasn’t designing for myself. I was the design director for Tehen, then I worked as a consultant for Jigsaw. And I used to have a lot of A.P.C., Lee, Wrangler. My favorites were these Lees that I had. They were just ripped to bits. I think I threw them away in the end. There are certain things I can give Bibi, but we’re not the same fit. She’s more shapely than I am. I’m more boyish and I have no waist. A lot of things that fit me don’t really fit her, and vice versa. We don’t share pants.
Bibi: Only loose ones.
Maria with her son Joey, in Acne Studios jeans, and Bibi, at home in Brooklyn.
Bibi, did you ever have a pair that got away?
Bibi: Yeah, recently I put my favorite A.P.C.s in the dryer and I can barely get them over my knees now. There’s no stretch in them at all. And they’re so ripped up that if I try and pull them on they’ll just rip more.
Maria: Yeah, I put [my son] Joey’s jeans in the washing machine and he nearly killed me. Bibi used to have all these very cute A.P.C. jeans when she was little. Because we lived in Paris. That’s all I used to wear, because, at the time, I was so tiny, and it was the only brand that would fit me. Then I would get Bibi these little jeans…like the little jeans with an elastic waistband. It was 1991. They were really cute.
Bibi: I don’t remember those, but I remember when Joey was born – I was six at the time and so jealous – he had these baby denim jeans with fleece inside. I was like, These are the best invention ever! I used to be so jealous.
Maria: Back in those days you had to pioneer to get anything decent for a kid, you know. In ’91, honestly…I mean there was Agnes B. But all Bibi had were these stripey body suits and A.P.C. jeans. We used to dress her like a boy. And that was it. There was nothing. It was either that or really traditional, nasty, girly stuff.
So were the A.P.C.s for babies made of raw denim, too?
Maria: Yeah. You’d wash them, and you’d buy them bigger – there was elastic on the back so that you could keep adjusting them. I think I have them somewhere. I don’t have anything really from when I was a kid, because I was a political refugee [from Pinochet’s Chile]. But Mark’s mum is very good about keeping everything; she’s amazing. So I kept both of my kids’ jeans and clothes in a bag with their favorite toys from when they were babies. And I threw everything else away.
Bibi: There are some baby shoes in there…
Maria: Bibi was given the first pair of baby Nikes by a friend who’s a shoe designer, so I kept them. Things like that.
Was there a pair you should have broken up with sooner?
Bibi: Yeah, for sure. I went through a really bad phase in junior high school where I was all about channeling J. Lo.
Maria: She was doing her own thing. It was her way of rebelling against me and Mark.
Bibi: At least I wasn’t on drugs [laughs]. But that was the look I should have broken up with, is all. Like jeggings, but before jeggings existed. Channeling a hip-hop music video.
Maria: Her way of rebelling was to do hip-hop or J. Lo because that’s not what we’re into. I love a J. Lo movie, but maybe not her music. Bibi was trying to find her roots. I’m Latin, but I’m not really Latin. The other day, one of the sales people at the store said to me, You need to do more sexy. I said, well the sexy gene missed me, so, this is what you get [laughs].
Maria, did you ever have a pair you should have broken up with sooner?
Maria: No. No regrets.
Bibi: But you do regret the J.Lo period of my life…
Maria: I don’t regret it, I just didn’t understand it.
Bibi: I can probably think of a pair of jeans you had that I didn’t understand.
Maria: Ok, which ones?!
Bibi: I have to think about it….You have these very Mom jeans that I don’t like.
Maria: Which ones? Which ones are my Mom jeans?
Bibi: I’m trying to visualize them to explain them. They’re just like Old Navy Mom jeans.
Maria: I don’t have any Old Navy jeans.
Bibi: You have jeans that look like that though.
Maria: What? Like ugly jeans?
Bibi: I remember! I found a picture of you in them the other day. You were wearing them when we released the ducks. So, it was a long time ago…
Maria: When we had Lilo & Stitch?
Who are Lilo & Stitch?
Bibi: We had these two ducks called Lilo & Stitch that we saved from this place where restaurants order them to eat them. They came as newborn chicks and we raised them for six months and then set them free. They lived with us in the house. They would, like, sit at the table and have breakfast with us.
Maria: When they were tiny and cute, they were sweet. But as they got older, they would poop all over the garden. And they stank! And it was not nice for them to be cooped up, so we released them upstate after six months.
Six months isn’t a very long time.
Maria: Put some ducks in your house, as well as kids and a messy husband. It’s a recipe for a nervous breakdown when you’re the one cleaning all the time.
So you released them upstate and…
Bibi: And Mom was wearing these jeans that I don’t like. They have no shape whatsoever. [To Maria] I think you look so cute when you wear things that are a little bit fitted because you have a really cute shape.
Maria: That’s nice.
Bibi: Besides, you haven’t worn them recently. So it’s okay.
Click on an image to see the slideshow
Maria, what were the first jeans you remember having?
Lee. A pair of Lees, in England. I got them in Manchester when I lived there. Lee was fashionable in the late 70s. They were it, they were cool. And Fiorucci. You know, in those days, they didn’t really shape jeans properly for women, so they were a bit straight and not very flattering. That’s all I can remember about them to be honest.
What do your jeans reveal about the way you live on a daily basis?
Bibi: I like being comfortable. I don’t really like dressing up that much. And they’re practical. I like being able to throw on a pair of heels if I have to go out, but keep my jeans on.
Maria: I don’t wear my jeans on a daily basis. I wear them on my time off, when I’m not working. To me they’re leisure. It’s what I wear on the weekends. I have another pair like this that are like old white jeans, and they’re big flares from the seventies and I really like them. They don’t reflect anything I design, and they’re things I don’t own already. If I want to clear the palette in a way, that’s when I wear them.
I also have a very ugly pair of denim shorts I wear on holiday religiously.
Bibi: True. They’re Target ones.
Maria: Yeah, they’re Target. They’re really ugly. But I’ve had them for years, and I’ve never had the energy or the mindset to go out shopping for another pair of jean shorts so I end up wearing the same ones when I’m on holiday.
Describe them for us.
Maria: They’ve just got little pockets on the back, they’re kind of hipster, they’re just kind of beach shorts. They’re not ripped and frayed, they’re finished at the bottom….really bad.
If you had to swap jeans with something else, what would it be?
Maria: I have these pants that I wear all the time, the Gabi pant. They’re the most comfortable pants ever. That’s why I find it hard with denim, because I’ve designed very comfortable pants. Denim is a commitment. I was saying to the guys today – I realized that everything I own either has an elastic waist or is in silky fabric…or it doesn’t have a waist. I feel comfortable, you know. It’s a different thing. It’s a commitment for me at my age to wear denim.
So have you ever worn a skinny jean?
Maria: Oh yeah! I used to wear them. But I tried them on the other day and I looked really stupid in them. I decided I’ve got to start wearing flares. I won’t even wear leather leggings very often anymore. I’ll wear leather pants. I don’t mind leggings or skinny jeans if I’m wearing something over them, but as I get older I feel that it’s not age-appropriate to be wearing skinny jeans. Is that crazy?
Bibi: I think you look cute in skinny jeans.
Maria: Do you?
Maria: I’m very old-fashioned. I tend to think that if Bibi’s wearing it, I shouldn’t. But that’s my stuff, it’s just me. I just feel weird. When I was young I was very small, and I would wear leather shorts and tights and boots and big sweaters. That was my look. You know, like little shorts. But even shorts I don’t wear anymore because I feel like they are not really age appropriate…unless I’m on holiday. All the cute shorts, I had to give up.
Where’d they go?
Maria: They’re in my cupboard.
Bibi: What shorts?
Maria: All the shorts I used to have. Like little culottes and things I used to wear with big sweaters from the collection. I have a bunch of them. Now I feel like there are these things in the collection I can’t wear anymore. But I used to love it! I used to have thigh-high boots, wooly tights, shorts… And I’d wear them with big, roll-neck sweaters. That was my look.
That’s a good look.
Maria: Yeah, I thought it was good.
Ok, fill in the blank. Without my jeans, I am ____________.
Maria: Without my jeans I am…it depends. It means I’m on. For me, if I’m not wearing jeans, I’m on. Off-duty is jeans. I’m on, like full-on, without my jeans.
Bibi: Without my jeans I am impractical.
And in my jeans I am __________________.
Bibi: Yeah. I wear them everyday.
Maria: Yeah. That’s true.