By  on June 3, 2008

Six architects, a fashion designer and two bespectacled artists walk into a bar.

This might sound like the set-up of a joke, but it's the scenario that happened this spring when Pecha Kucha, a forum for creative types, held a gathering at the downtown Manhattan club Element. Among the presenters were architect Iñaki Abalos, who spoke about a sea anemone-shaped skyscraper project, and Rob Oden, whose company EcoSecurities deals in reducing greenhouse gas emissions. And then there was designer Maria Cornejo who talked of, well, fashion stuff.

It's not the first time the woman behind Zero + Maria Cornejo has been placed on such a brainy platform. In 2006, she won a Cooper-Hewitt National Design Award and found herself in the company of fellow honorees including architect Paolo Soleri and product designer Bill Stumpf, maker of the famous Aeron office chair. "I always feel silly being the fashion person," she says. But there's a reason Cornejo often gets lumped in with eggheads. Her mind tinkers with more abstract concepts. And she doesn't design for a Talitha Getty type or some tony glamourpuss. Her Zero line is about shapes — the circle, triangle and square. Her sensibility, to that end, is simple, sculptural and clean: a curved hem on a sweater, a cocoon shape on a coat.

Tomorrow, to celebrate her 10th anniversary, Cornejo will give her customers a glimpse at what makes her tick, with a retrospective at her new Bleecker Street space. The exhibit will feature a number of her signature looks from over the years, 10 of which will be reissued as part of her resort lineup. "They're dresses that I love," Cornejo notes. "I think they're still relevant and valid." The rest of the resort collection, meanwhile, skews less graphic than in previous seasons. For example, she renders her typically easy wares in gentle dégradés — a first for her.

Still, Cornejo's kept a steady course. Her 1998 circle top — literally, a disk shape with three holes — wouldn't look that out of place on her fall runway. "I'm very predictable," she says with a laugh. "Giant seam allowances, something drapy with something stiff, masculine and feminine, geometry of construction." Her atelier is even putting together a hanging mobile installation of the key geometric forms to underscore their importance in her work. "They're building blocks," she says.The retrospective will also feature the work of her husband, photographer Mark Borthwick. There will be a showcase of prints they've done together, along with photographs she's used in her business, some that come with their own quirky anecdotes. Her fall 2008 invitation, for instance, used an image of a figure standing in water. Cornejo thought it was her son but it turned out to be her friend Tilda Swinton's daughter. "I e-mailed Tilda saying, by the way, I hope you don't mind, but we've used a picture of your kid for the invite," she says. A book featuring the couple's work will come out during New York Fashion Week in the fall.

Of course, those who are familiar with Cornejo's work prior to launching Zero in 1998 might remember a very different designer. After graduating from London's Ravensbourne College in 1984, she began a line with classmate John Richmond. They called it Richmond Cornejo, and created pure punk and street gear — quintessential Eighties London fashion. In 1996 she relocated to New York and two years later launched Zero + Maria Cornejo. "Zero was about starting from scratch and stripping away everything I knew," Cornejo says.

That mind-set hasn't changed in the past decade, but her business has. Now, she has a second store in the West Village in addition to her Mott Street flagship and, come fall, the latter will relocate to the larger Bleecker Street space currently housing the retrospective. Her Zero collection, meanwhile, includes handbags and footwear (done in collaboration with Eileen Shields) and has its own celebrity following: Swinton, Cindy Sherman, Thelma Golden.

Still, for all her arty inclinations, Cornejo has a few things she'd like to clarify. "People think I'm really serious," she notes. "Yes, my designs may start from an intellectual point, but it's always taken to a real level." For Cornejo, "real" means "wearable." "I want things I can wear to take my kids to the park — hanging-out-in-Brooklyn clothes."

PHOTOS BY JOHN AQUINO AND KYLE ERICKSEN

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