“This place is crazy,” says American designer
Little wonder, then, that NYC was named as a point of inspiration for his latest collection, shown in the East Village as part of Fashion Week this past September. In the first physical outing for his label since the pandemic started, Chavarria took over Astor Place Hairstylists, a subterranean barber shop on Broadway, open since 1947 and home to a culturally diverse workforce from around the world (with the salon’s traffic down 90 per cent since the pandemic and on the verge of closure, the location held a particular resonance). As usual, the boys themselves were streetcast, comprising a mix of labourers, athletes and one backstage photographer who was asked to walk on the afternoon of the show. All were reflective of Chavarria’s heritage as the mixed-race son of an Irish-American mother and Mexican-American father.
“The theme of the show was very much about endurance,” Chavarria says over Zoom from his office in New York. He’s sitting in front of a wall of inspirational images which include old black-and-white Calvin Klein advertisements from the 1990s. “The endurance not only of people through Covid, but of so many marginalised people – specifically Chicanos, Latinx and Latino people in New York, or in big cities across the US. The collection is about celebrating that endurance and the beauty that emerges through it.”
With beauty in mind, Chavarria looked towards photographs of mid-century Parisian couture, linking the generosity and abundance of Christian
Case in point, the opening four looks: four vast pairs of high-waisted chino trousers, their proportions akin to ball gowns, worn with nothing but a pair of satin boxer shorts pulled above the waistband and a long webbing belt, like those popularised by skaters in the early 2000s. Chavarria, with a smile, calls the trousers “extreme” and says that their nexus came from melding that abundance of couture. There is an undeniable richness to their sheer weight and size, with something grounded in what he calls the “grit” of New York, of the people who populate his own city block, of the DoorDash delivery men he’d been watching dart around the streets in front of his apartment.
“It’s really just working the silhouettes over, appreciating the way those things are styled by these people and then translating that into a more fashion vision,” he says. “With this show in particular, I wanted to be very true to the identity of the people that have brought these styles into the world.” Since the founding of his label, Chavarria has created much of his clothing from such observations, drawn from both the present and his formative teenage years growing up in California’s San Joaquin Valley. (A love of fashion came early; as a child, he mistook an address book bought by his mum for “a dress book” and promptly drew one on every page.) “I was obsessed with how people in my hometown would dress in certain ways to connect with a certain group, or tell others they were part of that group. I thought a lot about why people wore what they wore.”
These formative obsessions lend his clothes a distinctly American feel and Chavarria notes that he has always been fascinated with the trappings of Americana. The precursor to Willy Chavarria the label was Palmer Trading Company, a store in Manhattan’s Soho. It sold an amalgam of vintage clothing, American workwear – Filson, Tellason and Dickies among them – and, eventually, his own clothing (then titled ‘New York Willy’) in its cabin-like wood-panelled interior. His collections since have riffed on American archetypes: in his first collection, the Coors logo was refigured into ‘Cares’ and printed on to a baggy jersey boiler suit, while cowboy leather, raw denim and riffs on athletic-wear make regular appearances in his work. An oversized sweater – decorated with an upside-down American flag, its stars falling away like snow – recently appeared as part of In America: A Lexicon of Fashion, the Met’s latest Costume Institute exhibition.
All that said, Chavarria balks at being labelled an ‘American designer’. “I’m absolutely not a part of the fashion world here,” he says. “How can I be graceful about this? There’s this underlying commercial reality here in the United States. It’s so capitalistic. You really don’t see a lot of creativity that blows your mind. And, listen, fashion parties I hate.”
Sometime in the mid 1990s, Chavarria exited a San Francisco nightclub at six in the morning – wearing white jeans, black chaps and a silver lamé shirt – and got straight on a plane to Seattle with no plans. “It had gotten really crazy,” he says. “These were the rave days. I was living in the club scene and not really going to school any more. I got very ill. I’d just had enough.”
In Seattle, he “chilled out” before moving back to California, albeit to the sleepy beachside town of Grover Beach, on the state’s central coast. He took up biking, swimming and running, and found a job as a designer at Voler, which produces triathlon apparel – “my little quiet life”. In San Francisco, Chavarria had studied graphic design at the Academy of Art University, while also undertaking a job at Joe Boxer, a culty men’s basics label whose underwear famously read ‘Change Daily’ and were often imprinted with the brand’s logo, a yellow smiley face with its tongue stuck out sideways. He worked his way from the stockroom to become an intern and, finally, a designer, fastidiously learning the minutiae of what it takes to run a label. “Before that I thought I was gonna work for a magazine,” he says. “That’s the moment I discovered that this was what I wanted to do.”
By the end of 1999, Chavarria had left Voler to move to New York, headhunted by
So when, in early 2021, Calvin Klein approached Chavarria to become senior vice president of menswear design, it was something of a full-circle moment. “It immediately felt like the right thing to do,” he says. “It felt like the company needed me. Since Calvin left there have been so many transitions and I think it needs to get grounded again. We’ve got a new path forward as to what this brand is going to look like – based on that original identity, but very future-thinking. I think the way I do my label, my own identity, and what I’ve been through with other brands is very valuable to them.”
What Calvin Klein understood was the libidinal pull of fashion: the way it feels to desire, and be desired. As James Kaplan wrote in a 1995 profile of the designer for New York magazine, “what made Calvin a superstar was not our conscious – need underwear, must get good underwear – but our unconscious… Sex sells, the cliché says, but it was the genius of Klein, and those who worked with him, to realise that sex without context merely draws attention to itself.”
In July of 2017 – two years after founding his eponymous label – Chavarria held a presentation at Eagle NYC, an infamous queer leather bar which opened in 1970. (In 2001, it relocated to West 28th Street: “The mood is still dark and sleazy, the music is still heart-pounding and the studs are still coming,” its website promises.) Against the black-painted walls, Chavarria showed a collection titled Cruising, which he said melded the machismo of “California low-rider romantics” – low-riding referring to the souped-up low-to-the-road cars driven by the Mexican- American community in cities like Los Angeles – with “New York’s dark leather scene”. It was a heady amalgam: tattoo-like prints reading “How Can I Tell My Mom and Dad”, crucifixes and giant leather jackets, buttoned-up polo shirts and 1980s-tinged tracksuits, and Tom of Finland-esque baker boy hats in leather.
Chavarria called the Cruising collection “a vision to provoke the idea of converging identities”. “What happens when two cultures that are not in the same picture at all come together?” the designer asked Out magazine at the time. “Because that’s what I am, really: half-white, half-Mexican, gay. I’m all these different things.” Looking back on the collection now, Chavarria says, “I grew up in this very macho household and, in that type of community, it was so important to hold this piece of masculinity with you. I think that’s something you inherit growing up as a Latino.”
In a video of the show on
Chavarria is now 54. He admits his career has been something of a slow burn, but he likes the way he did it. He bears no ill will towards those who have gained success overnight, or those who weigh achievement by Instagram followers. “I do find that people who do it the longer way, though, have a deeper connection with what they’re doing, and why they are doing it,” he says.
In a more recent video uploaded to the designer’s YouTube channel, Chavarria documents the run-up to the Met Gala. It is his first time going; he tells his studio team he’s been invited, and asks them what they think. “It’s sooo over the top,” says one of them. “Oh, you think?” Chavarria shoots back sarcastically. “It reminds me of The Hunger Games.” The day of the Gala, traffic is bad. You watch as he gets out of the taxi, places his phone on the floor and does up his trousers on the street. Inside, he speaks to the camera. “It’s a little bit much for me, to tell you the truth,” he says. Behind him, people are bedecked in towering layers of ruffles and flowers; he wears a boxy suit and white vest. The film ends in the back of the taxi: “I escaped with this wandering woman named Pat McGrath,” Chavarria says, as he and the renowned make-up artist descend into laughter. “This is what you call realness. A Mexican and a Black woman leaving the Met Gala.”
Age has a way of prioritising things. Chavarria is at the peak of success – with his role at Calvin Klein, he’s now arguably part of the fashion establishment – but the industry’s worn-out hierarchies, and the perks which come with them, matter to him less than ever. “I want to be more of a voice for the people, than, you know, a voice for Anna Wintour,” he says. It comes back to his own conception of beauty, of style. “I think being beautiful is really being honest and true to who you are. Beauty for me is when things are raw and real, pure and honest. That is what I want to convey in my work.”
Taken from Issue 55 of 10 Men – FUTURE, BALANCE, HEALING – out NOW. Order your copy
WILLY CHAVARRIA: BIG WILLY STYLE
Photographer TIMOTHY ROSADO
Fashion Editor CORNELIUS LAFAYETTE
Text JACK MOSS
Hair NELSON VERCHER using Rita Hazan shine balm
Make-up MARCO CASTRO at B&A
Models DANIEL AGUILERA at Next Los Angeles, ERIK ‘CHACHI’ MARTINEZ at Next New York, ANDY at Joseph Charles Viola,
JOEL VIZUETE, ELIAS ZEPEDA, MARCUS CORREA and WILLY CHAVARRIA
Photographer’s assistant ARACELY AROCHO
Fashion assistants CHERNISSE BUTCHER and ABENA ASANTEWAH-BONSU