Willy Chavarria: The Shapeshifter

Willy Chavarria is whipping around New York in a cab when we speak, heading from a business meeting in downtown Manhattan to his studio in Brooklyn. His hair is slicked-back, giving precedent to his signature, gold-framed aviator specs and chiselled ’tache.

He’s wearing a gold crucifix around his neck, with his wedding ring on his fourth finger (“It was designed for me and made in India; it’s white platinum with a diamond set in it”) and a version of his daily uniform: black jeans from his own brand, a black vintage T-shirt and either loafers or trainers. Chavarria was due to present his AW24 collection the following Friday.

What was slated? “More power,” he says. I ask him to elaborate. “I’ve been putting more of my heart into things and have shifted into a much more personal, sensitive approach to my work.” This means that instead of “rushing to get a full 60-look collection ready for fashion week,” Chavarria, 56, decided to do a “very small, tight collection that we will offer for sales”. It wasn’t poised to be a big, traditional runway either. Going against the grain, he wanted to do something more intimate.

‘Griselda’: cardigan by CHRISTOPHER JOHN ROGERS

Configured as a candid supper club experience, the show took place in Greenpoint in the same building as his studio. (It’s avast, historic warehouse space, situated along the banks of the East River between Manhattan and Brooklyn. Before Chavarria moved his brand in, the repository functioned as a manufacturer of aircraft carriers.) Once his models completed their walks and arranged themselves behind a long, white, cloth-draped table set with an altar and votive candles – a high-glam Last Supper– his plan was to put the collection on view publicly for the rest of the evening via a short film that he dubbed Safe From Harm. The democratic nature of it was meant to be “like a gift to New York City,” says the CFDA Menswear Designer of the Year Award winner. “Just sharing [the collection] with the whole of the city that supported me throughout the growth of my career.” For the pages of this issue, creative director and multimedia artist Jess Cuevas conceptualised the shoot, alongside Chavarria, to capture his “many faces”. Like a well-dressed chameleon, the designer shapeshifts into 12 quirky, campy characters. With a single tear dripping down his cheek, Willy is ‘Sad Papi’; he wears a long flannel shirt with baggy slacks and holds a white cowboy-style ranchero with red roses along its brim in his hand.

from left: ‘Executive Realness’: shirt, blazer, skirt and bag by WILLY CHAVARRIA; ‘Cholumbiano’: shirt and trousers by WILLY CHAVARRIA

Wearing a dressing robe with classic black pumps while waving around a lit cigarette and newspaper, emphatically smiling with slept-in hair and an afterglow, he’s the embodiment of the ‘Morning After’. In a sharp-shouldered overcoat, Chavarria channels ‘Executive Realness’ with the same stark professionalism he injected into the AW24 show and, in a sequinned dress, faux-fur coat, fluffy high heels and smudged make-up, he takes on the disorderly role of ‘Aunt Charlie’. The one where he’s wearing an azure button-up jumper and bug-eye sunglasses they’ve aptly named ‘Griselda’ after “the Godmother” of Miami’s drug empire. Tapping into Chavarria’s Latinx side, ‘Cholombiano’ – an ode to the Mexican subculture of the same name, it means ‘Colombians’ in Spanish –shows him in a flannel shirt tucked into wide-legged jeans and carrying a bouquet of red roses. ‘Latinaire’ wears a plum-coloured leather jacket and a tartan skirt. The creative pair even link back to the designer’s Californian upbringing with ‘Fresno Dad’, a man sporting a Dickies jacket and dirty-looking dungarees while he chugs a ‘chill’ beer. Decked in biker leathers he is ‘Oh Daddy’, while ‘Dykes on Bikes’ depicts Chavarria in a classic white tank top, admiring his biceps, and then, another audacious character, ‘Y2K Club Promoter’, wears monograph MCM jeans with a snakeskin bomber jacket and rave-ready sunglasses. His favourite, and the penultimate one of the ‘faces’, is ‘Walter Mercado’. Wearing a multi-hued and crystal-embellished alb, a religious robe, Chavarria embodies the late Puerto Rican astrologer and actor that the character is named after with a unique, high fashion flair.

from left: ‘Dykes on Bikes’: top by PRO CLUB, trousers by WILLY CHAVARRIA; ‘Morning After’: robe and sunglasses by VERSACE

Chavarria lives in Tribeca with his husband David Ramirez, a VP at Danish jewellery company Pandora, and Chester, a street dog they rescued from Portugal. The ground-floor house, which sits on a street corner, used to be a furrier back in the 1930s.Through its wide windows, Chavarria is privy to the comings and goings of the bustling street immediately outside. “I love it. I can see New York all around me all day long; it’s a constant source of inspiration. It’s like I’m on the street making my coffee with people walking by on their way to work.”

Chavarria arrives at his studio, so we hop off the call for a moment while he finds his bearings. When he returns, he talks me through his tattoo sleeves. “On this arm I have [the archangel St Michael, but he’s portrayed as my father. He’s on the horse and he’s stabbing a wolf who is the devil, then the wolf falls back into the flames of hell.” On the other arm is a portrait of Mary Magdalene, his favourite, as well as St Francis of Assisi – the gay saint – who holds the Lamb of God, his other hand resting on a “ferocious tiger”. There is a “soft little bunny rabbit” beneath it, as a “sign of peace”.

All that religious iconography is a pillar of the work he does for his brand. His collections are made up of pieces to wear again and again, often placed in divine context. His signature pussy-bow blouses and billowing wide-leg trousers – an ’80s-inspired silhouette – and deftly cut workwear that subtly subvert masculine codes in a way that feels romantic, poetic even, waltz with ornamental roses and rosaries, gold escapularios, crucifixes and robes. Chavarria was raised Catholic and still “observes a lot of the messages of the scripture”, but he’s quite flexible with it, and understands the misinterpretation and omnistic coding of every sect. Lately, he’s been engaging with the philosophy of reincarnation.

‘Oh Daddy’: jacket, top and vest WILLY CHAVARRIA, trousers by VERSACE

Growing up as a Mexican American in an agricultural sector of the San Joaquin Valley of California – Huron, Fresno County – his parents were farm workers. On the newsstands, there was no Vogue or other glossies; what he had access to were Spanish periodicals, boxing titles and Mexican magazines (possibly ¡Alarma!) which published graphic death photos. “They’re awful, like car accidents and decapitations, they’re sick…” There were these little soap story novellas too, but fashion? Well, that came to Chavarria much later.

“Style came to me first,” he says, recalling how he’d admired the way his cousins and other locals would dress. They wore creased khakis with pressed white T-shirts and “super clean, slicked-back hair”. Women wore bold red lipstick. “All of that was and still is such an elegant look to me.” He was fascinated with the way people presented themselves, especially how subcultures could create such distinct aesthetics. And he’s still predominantly inspired by people on the streets or those he knew from his childhood.

At one point, those people were the hedonist partygoers at sticky-floored raves. “When rave culture started in San Francisco back in 1992, I was heavily involved. That’s when I really discovered to what extent fashion can drive an aesthetic, because that was the days of club kids and all that was very extreme.” Once he’d had enough of the Day-Glo lights and booming basslines, he moved to Pismo Beach to “chill out, clean up and get super athletic” (the designer was completing triathlons on the reg) while working for a cycling apparel company. Then Ralph Lauren launched its RLX line, which produced its apparel in the same seaside oasis, so Chavarria hopped on the account. He was soon scooped up by the house and charged with the creation of textiles, print and pattern for all its divisions. He’s lived in New York ever since.

from left: ‘Aunt Charlie’: coat by ICEBERG, dress by FORTE FORTE; ‘Sad Papi’: shirt and trousers by FB COUNTY, hat by WILLY CHAVARRIA

Bringing it back to his upbringing, Chavarria tells me how, even as a child, he’d always been hyper-aware of politics. His parents had been involved in the civil rights movement and had a close connection with labour leader and activist Cesar Chavez, who co-founded the National Farm Workers Association (NFWA). “I was brought up to know the difference between right and wrong,” he says. “When I left Ralph Lauren and decided, eventually, to do my own brand, I made a conscious decision that it was going to be something that was positive for the world and would move the needle, driving change in the right direction.”

from left: ‘Y2K Club Promoter’: jacket by ICEBERG, shirt by WILLY CHAVARRIA, jeans by FUBU, shoes by MCM, sunglasses by PRADA; ‘Latinaire’: jacket by ICEBERG, trousers by WILLY CHAVARRIA

When it comes to casting, Chavarria has become synonymous with the ever-increasing-in-popularity concept of street casting. His shows eschew the “teeny tiny [conventional] box” that’s typically considered beautiful. “There’s just so much beauty, so much hotness, in the world and I’m down to share it all,” he says.“It’s very important for me to show people that haven’t been recognised as beautiful for a very long time, or people who have been marginalised for a very long time, on a platform that makes them look and feel as regal and gorgeous as they deserve to be.”

Going forward, the brand is poised to continue its exploration of “fine tailoring and couture dressing”, which can easily give into skyscraping price points and rife exclusivity, but that’s of little interest to the designer. “I want to deliver a wide range of price points by continuing with some of the collabs I’ve done in the past like Dickies, FB County or PacSun stores, where I did some $29 [£23] T-shirts and hoodies, but at the same time still have, like, $7,000 dresses at Bergdorf [Goodman].

His thoughts on the current evolution of luxury menswear? “I haven’t really paid much attention to it because my head’s been up my own ass,” he jokes. “But what I do see, I haven’t really been excited by. There isn’t a lot of newness or soul.

Aside from his own brand, it seems his sights are set on the big leagues. Perhaps he’d like a creative directorship at a major house? “I honestly feel like I need to go and work for one of the high fashion labels in Europe to wake them up. What I offer is very valuable,” he says. “They need me.” Willy’s reign is just getting started.

Issue 59 of 10 Men – PRECISION, CRAFT, LUXURY – is out NOW. Order your copy here.


 ‘Fresno dad’: jacket by DICKIES, coveralls by LU’U DAN, hat by WILLY CHAVARRIA


Photographer DIEGO BENDEZU
Fashion Editor and Talent WILLY CHAVARRIA
Creative Director JESS CUEVAS
Hair JOEY GEORDE at Streeters using Oribe Hair Care
Make-up MARCO CASTRO using Marco Castro and MAC Cosmetics
Hair assistant SOLIS GARCIA
Special thanks to CAROLYN BATISTA

Jewellery throughout by WILLY CHAVARRIA 

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