Willy Chavarria Makes Fashion “Great Again”

In an industry sometimes stiffened by traditions and gate keepers, Willy Chavarria – alongside a handful of emerging designers such as Puppets and Puppets or Palomo Spain, and more established ones such as Collina Strada and Telfar – represents a refreshing and necessary unconventionality. From realizing he wanted to be a fashion designer while working a part-time job at Joe Boxer to showing his S/S 2020 collection last week, outside the industry's official calendar, Chavarria has been steadily making his own path and moving at his own pace on the fringes of New York City's fashion. This has benefitted the California-born designer who, unlike brands mostly driven by bottom lines and market shares, has been able to independently grow and continually develop his brand while never compromising his vision, strategy, or, most importantly, the thought-provoking and emotive nature of his design.

Willy Chavaria at the finale of his Spring/Summer 2020 show in New York. Photo: Courtesy of PR.

Born into a Mexican-immigrant family of farm workers in Fresno and growing up within minority communities, Chavarria is all too familiar with societal ills such as xenophobia, discrimination, and gender inequality. Yet where numerous designers have unabashedly appropriated or copied the aesthetics of subcultures and marginalized communities, Chavarria, who launched his label in 2015, celebrates and represents these pockets of culture that have struggled to blossom on the edges of an often intolerant and exclusionary American mainstream; a sentiment which can be true of society as a whole but also of the fashion industry.

For his Spring/Summer 2020 collection, the designer showcased a fresh minimalist approach and carefully crafted streetwear looks he has become known for (and has termed ‘So-Cal Chicano minimalism’). Titled ‘Love Garage,’ the collection was largely inspired by those communities that – fostered by musical scenes – emerged during the 90s in San Francisco clubs like Groove Kitchen and the Love Garage, which Chavarria owned.

The show was orchestrated in two movements. While the first half embodied this sexy, libidinous, and free-spirited scene, the second saw a collaboration with athletic brand K-Swiss, a company the designer refers to as an aspirational brand when growing up in California.

Willy Chavaria Spring/Summer 2020 show in New York. Photos: Courtesy of PR.

Although few would disagree that the first portion of the runway was more memorable and ultimately slicker, some might miss that presenting the core collection and defining pieces first, followed by the collaborative pieces, may have been intentional even in its desired effect. By offering an option between higher priced garments – presumably targeting luxury consumers – and more accessible pieces, Chavarria broadened his audience as well as his price points, translating one of his core social messages as a designer into a commercial one: this is not an exclusive brand to be enjoyed by a minority but one that should be accessible to many.

Now taking a break after showcasing the release of his SS collection, Chavarria took time to talk to NowFashion about how limiting labels can be, the challenges he faces as an emerging brand, and why designing garments isn’t ever enough when addressing social injustice.

What piece would you say crystallizes the collection, and why?

Each piece is a word from the poem, so it is hard to choose. But I do love the Satin Kangaroo Bomber. It’s tough and sexy. It bares the “Big Willy Love Club” logo. This represents a bad ass club that fights to promote love. I like this summary of the collection.

The show was orchestrated in two movements. Tell us about why you chose this ‘format’ and what each portion represents?

The show was a story of the American Dream. The first act was drawn from the Love Garage which was a night club in San Francisco embracing the heavy and romantic house music which was coming out of New York. This was in the 1990s, and there was an intense emotional state of house music guided by DJ Aaron Olivares who created a world of pure love, sex, and glamor. A world far away from reality. Loaded with passion and freedom.

The second act was a story of the new American generation of Latino men. The models were guys I have met who are immigrants and first gen Mexicans and Central Americans who are a part of a new generation of talent, optimism, and love. My collaboration with K-Swiss includes an effort to raise money in support of KIND to protect the dignity of immigrant children.

Willy Chavaria Spring/Summer 2020 show in New York. Photos: Courtesy of PR.

This is not your first time working with jewelry designer Chris Habana; tell us a bit about how that relationship came to be. Did you collaborate on designing the pieces specifically for the show?

Chris and I met as fans of one another. All the collections we do are very collaborative and specific to a theme. Chris made one collection which is pure luxury – leather layered chains, cuffs, key chains, and headbands. The other collection is made of barbed wire and crucifixes to symbolize the difficult passage across the desert and through the barbed wire between the Mexican and US border. Chris is genius. These collections are also available for sale.

How did the collaboration with K-Swiss come about? How did it fit into this collection?

I grew up with K-Swiss in the 90s. The “Classic” tennis shoe was a status symbol worn with popped Polo collars and cropped 501 jeans. It was the iconic preppy sneaker. I knew I wanted to make a public statement showing brown-skinned immigrants as strong and inspiring. So it was perfect to work with K-Swiss which was always an aspirational brand for me. It is such an honor for me to do this with them.

You skipped the Fall 2019 season – do you prefer to take your time working on collections or was it not all that necessary?

Doing shows for me and my team is about promoting human dignity as much as it is about sharing beauty. Shows are very personal for us. We only do them when they feel right. This season felt right. And necessary. We need to fill the air with strong positive messaging.

This was about love, happiness, and possibly discovery; yet, it was also slicker and more somber than some of your previous collections. Was this intended to be a paradox of sorts, or are you reflecting a larger societal mood?

My collections always take the mood of society, redesign it, and then deliver it back to the world with a more elegant and inspiring message. The somber aspect of this collection is absolutely reflective of today's mood. But I also show the love that beams through it. Marco Castro is a genius make-up artist. He added scars to the models’ faces and arms to represent the brutality we face daily. And through this, I asked the models to smile and flirt with the audience. To feel alive and full of hope.

How would you define gender fluidity?

I'm tired of all the extensive labels which define and categorize our many different aspects of being. I think the term gender fluid has reduced our perspective to being what we wear and what typically masculine or feminine behavioral characteristics we exhibit. I think gender fluidity is a personal way in which one can relate to a gender that is not your own. It can come in the form of love or a dream or a fantasy or a feeling of power. I think it is much deeper than what we wear or how we behave. We are all gender fluid.

It’s been four years since the brand launched. What is one of the greatest challenges you’ve faced, and what has been the most rewarding?

The greatest challenge has been growing the wholesale business with buyers focusing more and more on the top few mega brands. The most rewarding moment for me is seeing my clothes being worn and interpreted into someone else’s personal style. It is so fulfilling. It makes all the struggle worthwhile.

Your work, in some instances more directly than others, echoes current events and more specifically themes like immigration or social injustice. Do you believe fashion can foster or spark tangible social or political change?

I think that telling a story of our need for social justice cannot just be garments that hang on a rack. There needs to be an interaction with the people. The goal of my designs is both to inspire and to take action by supporting organizations that do something for the goodness of the world. I want my clothes to be worn by all people. Not just someone who can afford a $500 shirt. It's one reason I love my collaborations with Hummel and with K-Swiss. Both of the collaborations reach a wider range of customers who can connect with the message. 

It's not a Miss America speech, it’s the way things need to be. People will be sick of clothes that cater only to greed and vanity. We all want to look amazing but we are more substantive than just that.

I recently read a piece stating that one of your “most notable strength rests in (your) calibration of queerness and masculinity.” Is that a conscious or active part of your creative process?

I think that the trend of gender fluidity has exhausted itself in fashion. It's no longer inspiring. I think I've been the only designer to embrace masculinity as beautiful while showing it as non-judgmental and unafraid. Just because a guy likes to look and feel like a tough dude, doesn’t mean he can’t carry a purse or make love to another man.

Willy Chavaria Spring/Summer 2020 show in New York. Photos: Courtesy of PR.

Your themes and designs feel personal, even emotional in nature. Has this always been something prevalent in your work? Do you feel this is possible given the political climate we live in?

Since childhood, I always knew that I wanted to do something in the creative arts. When I had learned what I needed to become a fashion designer, I decided it was not enough to make cool looking clothes. So my work must be expressive and connect with people emotionally. I don't ever expect to censor my work. It will always be something I hope moves the needle and inspires positive change.