As a child growing up in Santiago, Chile, Maria Cornejo was always making doll clothes and knitting. It wasn't until her family was exiled and moved to London as refugees that she discovered the real world of fashion. "I had no idea that there was such a thing as fashion designers," Cornejo, 47, says with a laugh, sitting in her studio space on New York City's Bleecker Street. "I had seen Funny Face, and I thought those jobs were just in the movies." She studied graphic design in Manchester, England, and eventually moved to London at 18 to study fashion design and textiles at Ravensbourne. Frequenting London clubs like Taboo and the Wag, she met her first husband and business partner, John Richmond, and they started the hip '80s label Richmond Cornejo.
By 1987, Cornejo had grown tired of the London scene, and she and Richmond split up. "We were in 23 stores in Japan by the time I was 23," she says. "It was just too much too soon." She moved to Paris and then to New York City, where she remarried and had two kids. She dipped her toe back into fashion, opening a small shop in the then unknown NoLIta neighborhood. "It was really supposed to be more of a family space, something to do while I raised my two young kids," she says. "I didn't want to get back into fashion, but I was suddenly right back in the middle of it." Cornejo still tries to keep things small, working in the back of her store with a staff of 12. But her following of loyal customers, including Tilda Swinton and Michelle Obama, keeps her on her toes.