Having worked for Ralph Lauren and Kanye West, Willy Chavarria observed that men approach clothing “not as fashion but as a way to identify themselves.” His eponymous label, launched in 2015 and sold in Dover St Market and on Farfetch, is a culmination of three decades uniting career and life experience as a Latino gay man on the not-so-inclusive fashion stage. As a result he doesn’t shy away from addressing politics, uplifting the marginalized and critiquing the oppressor in his work. He considers the Willy Chavarria brand a complete expression of himself.
In a candid conversation as part of the Joe’s Blackbook Sessions, he revealed some of the sources of his inspiration: “I love how Cholos dress because it’s a beautiful, dignified way of making cheap workwear apparel as an expression of who people really are, and subcultures taking clothing and making it their own.”
Chavarria grew up in a small Mexican farming community in California’s San Joaquin Valley, far from the influences of fashion. But moving to a larger town exposed him to other cultures and he began to see the charm of mixing identities to nurture ideas: “Preppy with Chicano,” he muses. “I built a world in my head.”
The Joe’s Blackbook Sessions regularly attract among attendees fashion students eager for tidbits of insider knowledge from the diverse range of guest speakers, and ticket sales for the Chavarria event are to be divided between the Joe’s Blackbook Scholarship which awards one menswear and one womenswear student annually with 10,000 dollars towards their final collections and Creatives Want Change, an organization which cultivates Black creative talent from high school onwards. Chavarria whose career began in the 80s but whose contemporary output couldn’t be more relevant or youth-centered has this advice for today’s emerging talent: “Starting at the bottom is the best thing you can do.”
Successful Latino designer’s struggle for acceptance in corporate industry
Sketches completed during spare time at his first internship gained notice and he was tasked with cutting and pasting print designs together for faxing to factories in China. But he was also expected to empty his boss’s ashtrays. Of success, he says, “There’s a certain percentage of luck, and there’s this other percentage of will and drive.” His career has depended on a combination of both. While working in a West Coast cycling apparel firm during the 90s, he fulfilled contracted work for Ralph Lauren which led to the designer inviting Chavarria to NYC to work on the soon-to-be-launched RLX line. Although overwhelmed, he rose through the ranks to become responsible for all menswear print and pattern within the company.
“There is the fact that people of color have to work a little bit harder,” says Chavarria of this baptism of fire. He fought anxiety to convince himself that he belonged at Ralph Lauren and offers this counsel to today’s underrepresented creatives stepping into the corporate space: “Our place is just as valid as anyone else’s. The more challenges you want to take, the more anxiety you will have.”
Now based half the time in Copenhagen where he extols the benefits of that society’s model despite having to pay more in taxes, Chavarria has earned his stripes within the American corporate establishment. But the successes of the latter half of his career stem from exclusively following his instincts. “Working with Kanye came from me doing my own thing and him taking notice,” he says. “He reached out and it’s been fantastic.”
He considers it a privilege to be able to have a fashion business through which his voice can be heard. “If you’re not thinking politically, you’re really not thinking.”
Fashion editor Jackie Mallon is also an educator and author of Silk for the Feed Dogs, a novel set in the international fashion industry.