Willy Chavarria Wants Fashion To Mean Something

by Joshua Graham on 15 February 2023

The Mexican American designer has become a cult and industry favourite with his subversive take on menswear. Ahead of his A/W 23 show we caught up with the designer to discuss identity, community, and the change he wants to see in fashion.

The Mexican American designer has become a cult and industry favourite with his subversive take on menswear. Ahead of his A/W 23 show we caught up with the designer to discuss identity, community, and the change he wants to see in fashion.

These days the trajectory of a fashion designer feels increasingly fast-paced. The popular route, consisting of a few years at fashion school and a handful of internship stints before swiftly establishing an eponymous label, will ideally lead to a breakthrough collection (or at least a viral accessory), before landing a creative directorship at whatever megabrand needs a revamp at the time (today's career holy grail). Of course, we can probably blame the instantaneous nature of social media for that. Or perhaps it's the value we place on youth as the primary players in shaping the culture of tomorrow. Yet, this hasn't been the case with designer Willy Chavarria whose journey to becoming one of New York’s star menswear designers didn’t happen overnight. It’s precisely his slow burn laden with experiences that have shaped him as one of the most captivating and important voices in American fashion today.

Willy Chavarria S/S 23

Prior to establishing his eponymous label and securing the role of senior vice president of design at Calvin Klein, becoming a menswear designer wasn’t initially on Chavarria’s radar. ‘I didn’t plan on going into fashion,’ Chavarria tells me over Zoom ahead of his A/W 23 show taking place as part of New York Fashion Week. Hailing from the West Coast, the Mexican American designer was born in Fresno, California and grew up in a conservative immigrant community. Always inclined towards a creative field, he moved to San Francisco to attend the Academy of Art University where he studied graphic design.

Willy Chavarria by Carlos Jaramillo

Not taking the easy road to NYFW, his career in fashion began with a part-time job as part of Joe Boxer’s shipping department, before countless late nights spent sketching landed him an internship with the brand’s founder Nicholas Graham. From there he joined the design team at sportswear brand Voler before being plucked by the Ralph Lauren team as they were launching their own cycling diffusion line RLX. ‘That was my big break, you could say,’ he offers. The American megabrand and purveyor of preppy style moved Chavarria to New York City, which slowly became his new home. In 2015 Chavarria founded his eponymous label with early collections defined by his distinct subversion of masculinity that explored deeply personal narratives around his identity as a queer Latino. For his S/S 18 collection dubbed Cruising, Chavarria presented a reimagining of hyper-masculine archetypes, including the Chicano lowriders of Los Angeles and leather daddies of NYC at the infamous gay bar The Eagle.

Willy Chavarria S/S 18

Identity is a word that’s become synonymous with Chavarria’s work. He explains his bi-coastal experience is just one of the aspects of himself that informs what he does. ‘[New York City] is a tough, hard city. California is smooth and easy. The two of them together are gorgeous. It’s the perfect match. I’m creating this new human that’s both New York and California.’ A captivating storyteller, the real genius in Chavararria’s work is rooted in how he imbues sartorial staples with personal references and emotion that’s captivated not only a cult following but also the industry. In 2019 he was a finalist for both the Woolmark Prize and the CFDA American Menswear of the Year prize, and last year was the recipient of the National Design Award for Fashion Design from the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum.

‘For me, I have always liked the idea of really romanticising masculinity and really making it look almost more feminine so it does become more gentle.’ - Willy Chavarria

While his winding journey to become one of New York’s most exciting talents has brought him to the centre of the city's fashion scene, his Latino heritage plays the biggest role in defining his design language. ‘The closer I got to fashion, just through working jobs, I linked it to my perception of people growing up.’ he explains. ‘I was fascinated by the way people put themselves together to create an identity,’ he explains. ‘How a woman transforms herself from an apron, making tortillas in the kitchen, to the most glamorous thing: going to mass or going to a wedding or going out at night.’

It's the transformative quality of clothing that is most evident in his subversive take on menswear. From sportswear to workwear, Chavarria’s collections have been lauded for their ability to reframe hypermasculine archetypes. Rather than shying away from traditionally ‘tough’ aesthetics, his collections celebrate them while decontextualising negative associations of misogyny, violence and homophobia. ‘For me, I have always liked the idea of really romanticising masculinity and really making it look almost more feminine so it does become more gentle.’

Willy Chavarria S/S 23

Softening the edges of otherwise traumatic themes (or in the case of his S/S 23 show, traumatic institutions) is at the core of the brand’s ethos. Last season’s cinematic presentation dubbed Please Rise, showcased all the beauty and community associated with Catholicism, while grappling with notions of guilt and shame felt by the queer community raised within the church. While not Latino myself, being a queer Filipino and raised Catholic made the collection an all-too-sentimental affair. With femininity traditionally shunned, Chavarria reimagined Sunday’s best attire by pairing chino shorts with sharp-shouldered blazers, and clergy capes with soft satins and wide-leg trousers exaggerated to the point of resembling skirts.

While it feels more in vogue than ever to tackle gender identity in fashion, for Chavarria the idea is nothing new. ‘It’s funny because I’ve always thought this way but now with all the amazing new forms of gender expression it seems more and more natural for gender identity to be much more of a blur.’ Yet, that doesn't leave him jaded about the work he creates. ‘It’s something new and special to observe masculinity through a new lens, for queer people, non-queer people or whatever, that really promotes a more loving, compassionate side to masculinity.’

Willy Chavarria S/S 23

As for his wide-leg trousers that have quickly become a signature of his, it’s the zoot suit that is his primary reference. An important cultural symbol within the Chicano community, the silhouette defined by wide lapels, wide padded shoulders and high-waisted, wide-legged trousers was popularised by African and Mexican American youths during the early 1940s. Viewed as unpatriotic due to the World War II rations in place at the time, racial tensions culminated with the 1943 zoot suit riots in Los Angeles where white Americans stripped youths of their garments. For his S/S 22 collection, Chavarria reimagined the style as the height of high fashion with the ‘Ball Room’ trousers, exaggerating the iconic to become reminiscent of classic couture silhouettes.

Willy Chavarria S/S 22

‘My parents were very much involved in the civil rights movement because I was born and raised around that time. So my values have always been linked in doing what's right for people and being aware of the prejudices and difficulties in the world that we have going against us,’ he tells me. This history permeates throughout all the work that he does, making fashion his medium of choice for driving social change. ‘I would make sure everything I did was a catalyst for positive change. I don’t know if it’s the best catalyst, but I feel like it’s mine.’

It’s a mentality that Chavarria wishes more of the industry would apply to their work. ‘I think [fashion] has to change, because it's going nowhere fast. We need to start producing less, and giving more. Fashion has to start meaning more to the world than just more clothes. I think that's the most important thing.’ For his upcoming collection, this means reflecting on the times we find ourselves in. ‘With the political climate and all the ugliness, I started with the idea of loving one another and protecting one another. Protecting the young.’

Willy Chavarria A/W 24

He tells me the starting point for his A/W 23 collection was This Mortal Coil’s 1984 cover of Big Star’s Kangaroo. The melodic tune tinged with melancholy offers some insight into what we can expect when the show is presented on Wednesday. ‘It's a real story about love and kindness during dark times.’ A story he promises to tell through his signature oversized outerwear and tailoring rendered in an array of fine fabrics, including silk and velvet.

As Chavarria continues to expand his brand and further develop his design language, he isn’t losing sight of his values. It’s his authenticity in representing himself and his community that should have even the most cynical of the fashion pack eagerly anticipating his next endeavour. With a deep understanding of the power that fashion has at reflecting the complexities of identity and the times we find ourselves in, Chavarria’s point of view as a queer POC designer speaks for the outcasts that grace his runway giving a platform to the underrepresented that have long been pushed aside by the industry. ‘I design for a much wider range of people, but I know the actual base following of the brand are queer people, people of colour, people who are down with the brand message.’



Is Menswear Entering Its Daddy Era?

13 July 2022
Tom of Finland’s legacy was felt throughout the S/S 23 shows that were rife with denim, leather, and a touch of kink.

Standing Ground Wants Fashion To Slow Down

10 October 2022
As one of Fashion East's newest additions, designer Michael Stewart is setting himself a part from his peers with his considered approach to craft.

Louis-Gabriel Nouchi Dissects The Horrors Of Queer Desire

20 January 2023
Inspired by the 1991 novel American Psycho, Parisian designer Louis-Gabriel Nouchi reframes the tales dark themes that feel just as relevant today.
Back to top