TOKYO — Maria Cornejo made her first trip to Japan in eight years to mark the 20th anniversary of her brand, meeting customers and signing copies of her book “Maria Cornejo: Zero” at the Roppongi branch of Barneys New York. But despite the break since her last visit, the designer has long had ties to the country.
“In the beginning when I was with Richmond Cornejo, I had this brand and we were backed by a Japanese company called Epoch 3, and basically they also backed Marc Jacobs and Joseph. So I used to come here like every six weeks and be here for about two weeks,” she said.
While the presence of her designs in Japan may not be what it once was — in its heyday, Richmond Cornejo had about 20 stores here — she said her collection has been doing very well at the retailers that sell it, including Barneys. At one Tokyo location of the high-end multibrand boutique Via Bus Stop, it is the top-selling brand. She said she would be interested in opening a store in Tokyo if she found the right local partner.
“I would love to do something here,” Cornejo said. “I think it’s changed enough, and the collection is totally different than what I used to be doing.”
But her visit was not only motivated by business reasons.
“I think Japan is also really inspiring, so I needed a different perspective as well,” Cornejo said.
One place she found herself being inspired was at her hotel in the city. The designer made the unconventional choice to stay at a luxury hotel that is slightly removed from the center of Tokyo, but surrounded by a beautiful Japanese garden, complete with a koi pond and three-level pagoda.
“It’s like a little mini Japan,” she said. She also mentioned that she had done lots of walking in the city, visiting neighborhoods including Nakameguro and Ginza.
The book she was signing, which was released in the U.S. in October, chronicles the first two decades of Cornejo’s brand. Cornejo said putting it together was a huge project.
“I think marking the 20 years with the book is so exciting because it’s also refocusing and finding the energy of 20 years ago as well for me, in a weird way,” she said. “I call it going back to the future. And I feel it’s more relevant now than ever. So it’s really going back in time, but also making it all new again.”
Looking forward, Cornejo’s goals for her brand are more noble than targeting a certain number of stores or a particular sales figure.
“Something very close to my heart, which has now become part of the company ethos, is sustainability. So with that, we’re trying every season to covert more of the collection to be more sustainable. So a lot of our core fabrics are sustainable now,” the designer said. “It’s really amazing to be able to make luxury product that’s sustainable. That’s my goal right now.”
Cornejo believes the industry is moving more toward sustainability, and she hopes it is not merely a trend. For her part, in addition to fabrics such as recycled cashmere, organic cotton and vegetable-dyed leather, she uses low-impact packaging and carbon neutral shipments for products purchased online. And 85 percent of her collections are produced in New York, further reducing the brand’s carbon footprint.
“My goal is to get creative with less and to eliminate processes,” she said. “I want to show people that luxury can also be sustainable.”