The designer Willy Chavarria’s rapid ascent in the fashion world is more than merited, and goes far beyond clothing. Known for his voluminous silhouettes and minimalistic workwear pieces, the California native has proven that his label represents home to his many devoted fans. The industry has taken notice, too—in the span of just one year, Chavarria was nominated for the CFDA’s American Menswear Designer of the Year award, and won the Cooper Hewitt National Design Award in 2022. Accolades aside, Chavarria’s brand ethos uplifts its community in a way that feels authentic and true. It was one of the reasons I first gravitated toward his company, years ago.
I discovered Willy Chavarria during a time in my life when I sought to understand what it meant to be Mexican. For so long, I had run away from my culture; I carried a looming shame that I couldn’t seem to shake. But I realized I would never be able to fully come into myself if I didn’t embrace who I am and where I come from. A few months into this realization, I came across Willy Chavarria; I was drawn toward the Chicano-esque clothing itself, but also intrigued by a culture and story that felt familiar. Similar to my grandfather, who worked in a grape field in Northern California to provide for my mom and her family, Chavarria’s father worked as a lettuce picker in the San Joaquin Valley. “The whole reason our families immigrate here is to create better lives,” Chavarria told me during a recent interview. “Everyone who comes here wants their kids to do better.”
The subject of immigration, along with religion, were two of the most important themes addressed in Chavarria’s latest show, “Please Rise,” held last month during New York Fashion Week. The designer’s show was a family affair, produced and surrounded by the Chavarria community. Witnessing this collection served as a great reminder that your heritage is never a source of shame. Instead, there is a great power that lies in embracing it—and an even greater power when you celebrate it among family and friends.
Below, Chavarria reflects on how his spring 2023 collection came about, why his casting is so important, and what values he strives to uphold through his namesake brand.
Congratulations on being one of the CFDA’s American Menswear Designer of the year nominees. How did you react when the news broke?
It’s such a great honor. You know, it’s funny, because they sent an e-mail to us ahead of time to let us know, but they sent it on the day of our last show—so we were nowhere near our e-mails. I ended up finding out through someone sending it to me and I was like, “What.. are you kidding?” I have so much respect for the other nominees, like my friend, Jerry Lorenzo.
It’s also a great honor for a brown person to be getting an award like this. I grew up with a very serious awareness of human rights issues, and after working for a lot of larger companies where I didn’t feel like I was on the right path, I decided when I started my own brand that I would make sure it was going to be about the people. I wanted to really uplift them which, at the time, was quite the risk. It’s amazing now to see how, even with that being the underlying message of the brand, it has resonated to such a degree that I could still be recognized for my talent.
Spring 2023 was arguably your best collection to date, and one of the strongest shows of NYFW. In what ways do you think this collection differs from the rest, and what elements still feel true to the Willy Chavarria house codes?
I think it’s definitely my best collection yet. And one of the reasons is because it’s the first collection where I’m doing fine tailoring, working with an atelier. A lot of the pieces in the show are actually made to order, which is something I started in the last two seasons. This collection feels like growth on that. It’s more couture, being that it’s made 60 percent by hand and 40 percent or less by machine. I love the idea of also having pieces in my collection like a Pro Club collaboration $40 t-shirt, you know? I never wanted the brand to be about elitism, but at the same time, it’s important as a Latino designer to do the very best and be appreciated as the best. I want to create high-end items while still offering pieces that are more attainable for people like my family.
What was your favorite look?
My favorite look was worn by a model named Ibby who was wearing the really fitted suit with the white shirt and big black rose. Some of those looks still give me chills because of how well-made they are.
This show, which you titled, Please Rise, was held in the breathtaking Marble Collegiate Church in Midtown Manhattan, which is a non-denominational church. What made you choose this specific church over the others?
Before I had a location or designed the full collection, the first piece in the collection was what I called the “Altar Boy Cape,” which was that black shoulder piece. I had that on a mannequin for a long time as I was pulling the collection together. In that way, I will often start with a theme and then the collection will evolve from there. The collection was actually going to be much darker at the onset, but then it started to become a story of good and evil. There was this thought of a lack of godliness in the world right now—but the more I was designing, the more I realized I had this belief that good always wins over evil, which I think I got from my religion. Ideally, my collections are about making us realize that we are the best, that we are beautiful, that we are good. As far as the church itself, I actually love it because they do a lot of work for immigrants, especially Latino immigrants, who need places to stay, in addition to a lot of LGBTQ+ work.
This was the first time you had a group of Latinas walk one of your shows. Being a Mexican woman myself, seeing all four ladies standing on the altar was simultaneously powerful and inspiring. Why did you decide this season to include them in the presentation? Is there anything that made this season feel different and more conducive to their inclusion?
I had just done a shoot in L.A. with a close friend of mine, Jess Cuevas, and it was such a great moment. All those girls are from L.A. They are all from the hood. They are so real and so beautiful that I just really wanted them to be in the show. I thought about it a lot, because I haven't designed a full women’s collection yet, but I also don’t consider my clothing gendered. I thought they looked great in it and I just wanted to feature brown women. Just the way they looked was so strong on the stage. During rehearsal, I was just like, Oh god, they’re so beautiful.
In each of your shows, there is such a strong presence of family and friends. How does community feel like a reflection of yourself and your culture?
I spent so much of my life as an outsider believing that I might have to conform in order to be successful. To just know that I can be true to my family, true to who I am, true to my culture, and still be a great success, means everything in the world to me. The whole reason our families immigrate here is to create better lives. Everyone who comes here wants their kids to do better.
What is it like being one of the few Latino designers to show during NYFW? Is there a message you hope to convey to the younger Hispanic generation?
It feels great, but there are also other great Latino designers that I love and respect: Raul from Luar, Victor from Barragán, Rio from Gypsy Sport. Those guys are my homies, and I am really happy for all of us. We live in a time when we have the ability to lift each other up and carve out paths for future Latinos. This is actually part of my brand ethos. Many of the people on my creative team are young Latinos or Latinas that just want to be a part of it and learn.
Your casting seems to be an integral part of what makes your shows special. How do you decide which friends and family members should be casted? Have you ever had to turn anyone away?
Casting is key, of course. My casting does evolve slightly and has had great influence on the way other people cast. What’s amazing is a lot of the guys that I’ve cast have ended up walking for Gucci or Givenchy later, so it’s an amazing opportunity for people. And you know, if somebody comes to me and wants to walk, but they don’t work for that particular show or that particular message or those particular looks, they’ll usually end up doing something else to be part of it somehow. I know that no matter how big we get as a company, we will always be casting people from the streets.
In what ways do you think casting makes your brand identity stronger?
It’s funny, because my team and I spoke about that a lot as we were putting together the show. We have seen a strong rise in Mexican-American and Chicanx trends in fashion and beauty. Because we have been literal in the past about the inspiration, it was important for us to keep elevating the collections so that I’m not just delivering one message or one specific look over and over again. It’s important to just keep rising, rising up.