In a week where President-elect Trump has appointed so-racist-he-couldn’t-be-confirmed-as-a-judge-30-years-ago Jeff Sessions as attorney general (this following the appointment of Breitbart exec and white nationalist Steve Bannon), agreed to pay $25 million to settle fraud cases surrounding Trump University, and aimed his Twitter rage at Hamilton for issuing a statement entreating him and VP-elect Mike Pence to acknowledge the many Americans “who are alarmed and anxious that your new administration will not protect us, our planet, our children, our parents, or defend us and uphold our inalienable rights,” it’s hard to muster up excitement for something that seems as frivolous as a fashion collaboration. Who could possibly care about fashion at a time like this?
Well, I do. Because fashion—the clothes we put on every day—serves as our first line of defense against a world that seems more terrifying every day. Fashion becomes armor, confidence, and comfort. Maria Cornejo, who has been designing considered, easy-to-wear, flattering staples for women since 1998, knows this. So when I learned that she’d collaborated with poet and activist Cleo Wade on a 15-piece collection (available exclusively at Barneys starting today) that incorporates Wade’s poetry, and gives back to The National Black Theater, I seized the opportunity to talk to them about why fashion and art matters, now more than ever.
Here, a candid conversation between Maria Cornejo and Cleo Wade.
Cleo Wade: We had wanted to collaborate basically since the minute we met, but we wanted to collaborate in a way that was different and new for fashion…like, let’s not just default to the traditional template of collaborations where I make something and you make something and we mash them together. So we thought, how interesting would it be to collaborate where I’m celebrating you and you’re celebrating me and then we also contribute to an organization, the National Black Theater, that is also run by another woman of color and celebrate what she’s doing in her community. So I made a print that was in dedication to her and she created a collection in dedication to my hometown, New Orleans.
Maria Cornejo: It’s women for women….I always feel like clothes—like you go out into the world and Cleo, your words make you feel positive and strong about being a woman, and I feel like the clothes do that. They feel good next to your body so you feel good about yourself.
Cleo Wade: Yeah, clothes are armor.
Maria Cornejo: I think [getting dressed] just makes you feel good and right now people need to feel good. I think there’s been such negativity and getting up every morning and getting dressed is just a bit of self-care. If you feel good about yourself, even putting a little bit of makeup—I don’t usually wear makeup, but you know, someone said to me, ‘Why don’t you spend that extra five minutes to make yourself feel good?’ And it’s just a bit of self-care so you can go out and face the world, and I think we need that right now.
Cleo Wade: I couldn’t agree more with what Maria said. I think that it’s also that we can’t neglect the small things, you know? It’s like that famous line that says, ‘You can’t let your inability to do everything get in the way of your ability to do something.’
There are so many simple corrections that we can make in our lives to become peacemakers and peacekeepers. The first thing you can correct is your energy and your mood, and if a dress is going to help you to correct your energy and your mood, then by all means, put the dress on! And if that’s just the first step you take to be in the world [and] to send off a better energy and a higher vibration, if that’s what helps you to smile more, which means that you’re smiling at your neighbor more—and listen, smiling at your neighbor is an act of peace—so if that’s gonna be part of your first steps and you can already know that and put that in your tool belt, then that’s amazing. It is not something that should be taken for granted or dismissed.
I wanted to shift a bit to ask you both about collaborating and making art in the wake of the election. Cleo, I know you wrote a poem right after.
Cleo Wade: Well you know, the most amazing thing about art is the way that it brings us into community with each other. And people being in community with each other, especially when they decide to activate themselves and organize why they’re in community with each other, that has always been the way that we’ve progressed and made change in our society. Like during the Civil Rights Movement, that didn’t come because the guys in Washington were like, ‘you know, this is just so unfair the way we’ve been treating these black folks all this time.’ It came because people organized. They got in community and they organized, you know?
I think that art is such a unifying thing, especially now when it’s so easily shareable so you can so easily connect with people. And listen, during times where it feels really dark, one of the easiest ways to get in a better mood is to put on your favorite dress, you know? And one of the easiest ways to know that you’re not alone is to read something that expresses the same sentiment of exactly how you’re feeling.
Maria Cornejo: I think everybody right now needs to come together and like Cleo said, it’s about community and bringing people in. I always say you can only change things from within. It’s all about energy. If it’s positive then—even like somebody you don’t like, saying hello to them one day just switches the conversation and instead of being angry I think it’s good. What I love about Cleo is that there’s always this positive reinforcement.
Cleo Wade: Staying positive is really fucking hard.
Maria Cornejo: Cleo, do you ever have shitty days?
Cleo Wade: Honestly, it all comes back to my self-care routine. It’s like, don’t you realize that the second you stop trying to be perfect you can finally be happy? So there are some days where I’m just like, Oh shoot, I did commit to this and I need to go to this but I’m also feeling so burned out and when I feel burned out I tend to feel really depressed or defeated or I’m too exhausted to really get my creative juices flowing in a way that I can make them make sense into anything—and that upsets me. So you know what? Maybe I can’t come through on this promise and I just can’t be perfect in that situation. And that has to be okay.
Sometimes I think, especially as women, we’re these huge multitasking forces and that’s why we keep the world and our communities together. But I think a lot of the time it’s about forgiving ourselves and not being perfect. So when I decided to give up on being perfect, I could finally know what it took to try to be in a good mood as much as I could be, you know? But it did come with disappointments—I’m canceling a dinner tonight.
Maria Cornejo: My shrink said to me once when I used to get really overwhelmed and super depressed because I was really run down between kids and the company and there was just so much going on—she said, ‘You know, you have to look after you in order for you to look after everybody else.’ And she said well, ‘You might not be able to take yourself on holiday when you want, but just take yourself out of the situation, go for a walk around the block, breathe some fresh air, give yourself ten minutes, just something.’ Because we keep doing it, we just keep adding to the plate and then all of a sudden you go, ‘Wow, what happened?’
Guys are not good under pressure. They’re just not good at multitasking, but on that note we should be a bit less good at enabling them to, you know? That’s a problem.
Cleo Wade: It’s so funny—I’ve never really been pro-the concept of women leaning in. I just don’t get that. Why aren’t men leaning in? Men should lean in. Every aspect of responsibility in the totality of how we live falls on women for everything. We lean in in ways that men don’t even look in the direction.
If a kid is sick or an elder is sick that responsibility has always landed on the mother or the female in the situation, and then you know, she also has to think about working and getting the kids together and housework and cooking. How much more are we supposed to lean in, you know? Men need to lean in to what it takes to care for people.