What’s the Secret to Going into Business with Your Friends?
You may get by with a little help from your friends, but should you go into business with them? How do you achieve corporate wellness without putting your relationship wellness at risk? We spoke to Maria Cornejo and Marysia Woroniecka, the pals-turned-partners behind Zero + Maria Cornejo, the label of choice for smart, chic women who mean serious business.
1. Whatever Happened to “Never Do Business with Friends”? According to Cornejo, ‘I’m not one for conventional wisdom. I founded my label in 1998, but after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, my Japanese backers pulled out and I couldn’t afford to produce the line myself. I needed fresh ideas from someone who understood technology, since that was the direction the business was going. Marysia had worked in fashion PR for years — that’s how we met — and had helped Prada and Gucci develop their e-commerce strategies. In the early ’90s, she was the only one in fashion who knew how to send an e-mail. I called her up and said, “I need you!”’ Woroniecka points out, ‘The Internet was completely revolutionizing retail. Maria’s designs resonated with a particular client — the intelligent, independent woman who needed clothes for the office and for socializing — but she was selling only from her boutique. We had to broaden distribution immediately.’
2. What Did You Do First? ‘We organized a small presentation in our downtown New York store to reintroduce our brand to key clients and the press,’ Woroniecka recalls. ‘We each corralled all the industry contacts we’d built up through the years to fill the room. We had to convince editors and buyers that our garments would actually arrive in stores, on time, ready for sale. We launched an e-commerce channel, opened a second New York store and one in Los Angeles, and developed a customer retail database to track who was shopping and what they were buying. Many of our staffers started as interns — we hired the best full-time.’ Cornejo adds, ‘We also increased personal appearances at shops around the country, to connect with women.’
3. How Does the Partnership Work? ‘I focus on operations,’ Woroniecka details. ‘Finances, sales and marketing, press and client outreach.’ Cornejo notes, ‘I’ve handled numbers before, but I can’t do that and design five collections a year. Sometimes I need to go for a walk for inspiration.’
4. What Happens When Disagreements Arise? Woroniecka admits, ‘Occasionally, I need to persuade Maria that, for example, the buyers love her harem pants but want us to remove some volume from the butt. I also insist on sleeves, because customers from the Midwest to the Middle East want them.’ Cornejo confesses, ‘Little criticisms can make me cranky, but I’m my own toughest customer. I’ll tweak a dress for hours on a mannequin, decide it’s better off bias-cut, and move seams around until I love it. I worked and worked on the black silk Mei dress from our resort collection. It has volume, but you can belt it; it fits everyone differently, but in a flattering way. It’s a best seller.’
5. Many CEOs of Established Fashion Brands are Men. Maria, Did You Think about Gender when You Brought in a Partner? ‘Marysia’s as tough as any man,’ Cornejo asserts. ‘But men can be competitive about success. Women share in the triumphs. And we multitask better.’
6. What’s the Biggest Drawback to Working with a Best Friend? Cornejo comments, ‘We’re so busy that we don’t get to just hang out. It’s hard not to talk business all the time. We try and fail.’ Woroniecka adds, ‘We actually look forward to taking business trips so we can relax, go swimming, and catch up — just the two of us.’