August 29 2014

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Big Small Business:
Maria Cornejo Talks Staying Small


Better known are its compatriots Black Friday (11/25) and Cyber Monday (11/28), the two bookends that begin the holiday-shopping season. But American Express’ Small Business Saturday (11/26), which returns for its second iteration this year to bring awareness (and hopefully, customers) to local businesses, may be the weekend’s best shopping bet. American Express is offering Rewards Points to its customers who shop small on Saturday; and many retailers are offering promotions of their own to sweeten the deal. One is Maria Cornejo, who is planning a gift for those who shake off the post-Thanksgiving haze to make it into one of her stores in New York or L.A. Spend $500 on your Amex card, and receive her hair-print (above) or book-print silk scarf. Small business is at the heart of Cornejo’s operation. The designer spoke with about the challenges and rewards of staying small.

How important is it to you to be a small business?
It’s important for me, for my own creativity, to have our own point of view in the whole market. Being a small business, you’re offering a different a point of view that hasn’t been offered everywhere else. Having a so-called small business allows us to move quickly and respond to clients and what they need, rather than by trends. When things get too homogenized, everything [becomes] very corporate. You can find the same store in every major capital in the world.

By contrast, your three Zero stores don’t follow that corporate-store model.
Every [Zero] store looks different. The same elements are at play, but it’s not a standard shop-fit, like corporate companies have. It’s much more about fitting the area and having something that’s more personal to that space. Right now, people want a more personal experience, rather than something that looks…too standardized, especially our clientele. We compete by being more niche and more special. That’s our standpoint in the whole fashion business. To be quite honest, there’s 20 million collections out there—how do you differentiate yourself right now? That’s the only way we can: by being original.

But I imagine it’s more difficult to be a small businesswoman.
It’s tough. You’re putting yourself out there every season and there’s no security blanket. But that’s half the thing that keeps it interesting and keeps it challenging. When collections become formulaic, they die very quickly. They have their moment in the sun and they’re gone. When you have your own business, you’re constantly evolving.

Have you considered giving up some of that independence to a corporate partner?
There have been talks. We’re open to things, but it hasn’t been the right combination. It has to be the right marriage. There are certain people who get it. I think you have to do what feels right. If someone’s willing to let me do my thing, of course I’d be open to it. But a lot of these packages come with a lot of strings attached.

You mentioned your business is growing. What are you working on now?
We’re launching the shoe collection, it’s a small collection made in Italy. And bags too. When it comes to bags you can’t really fake it anywhere else [than Italy]. I like keeping things local, wherever possible. I like to keep things where they’re meant to be.

Like the clothing, which is largely made in New York.
We made 70 percent of the collection in New York, like The Row. We have the same factories. For a certain level of customer, that’s really important. It’s a luxury. To have something genuinely made and know who made it, that’s a real luxury. And to know there’s not 2,000 of it flying around the world. It means a lot to me to go to a factory and see how things are made. I think people appreciate that.

That strikes me as being distinctive about small businesses like yours. I’m not surprised to hear that customers appreciate it.
Especially in hard times, we rely on our clients. Loyalty is key. We got through the last recession with client loyalty. People came into the store and said, we know you’re a small business, and we support you.

Photo: Courtesy of Zero + Maria Cornejo