Choppin' It Up With Willy Chavarria

Choppin' It Up With Willy Chavarria

Choppin' It Up With Willy Chavarria

In this exclusive interview, the Mexican-American designer opens up about the real issues he faces as a Latinx designer in the fashion industry and we chat about his latest collection that would make any Chicano proud

In this exclusive interview, the Mexican-American designer opens up about the real issues he faces as a Latinx designer in the fashion industry and we chat about his latest collection that would make any Chicano proud

Text: Michelle Diaz

To understand the man behind the label and who holds the esteemed position of Creative Director at Calvin Klein, you must first know his origin story and the community that helped shape who he is today as a designer. Willy Chavarria is a first-generation American raised in the agricultural part of Fresno in San Joaquin Valley, California surrounded by Mexican immigrants, identifying as a half-breed with Sinaloa roots from his father’s side fused with his mother’s Irish descent. 

Chavarria’s life is very far removed from the one he once knew growing up in a working-class Mexican town overrun by crops and farms to now residing in NYC and being personally invited by Anna Wintour to the Met Gala. Yet it is the part of his life that has influenced him the most as he reminisces of his childhood consumed with nothing but gratitude. Being half-breed, queer, and an only child with a touch of oddness, Chavarria felt like an outsider in that world. With no fashion scene anywhere near him and his imagination running wild, Chavarria’s perspective on fashion developed from personal style and how people characterized themselves, being simply what they were. 

Today, Chavarria is the Latinx designer to be reckoned with. His name might not yet carry the weight of some of his peers, but Chavarria is ranked at the top of the tier of Latinx creatives who currently work within the American fashion industry. In his exploration of giving silhouettes and fabrications a new definition as a means of expression since 2015 with his eponymous label, Calvin Klein appointed him as Senior Vice President of Design for Calvin Klein North America Apparel and Global Essentials/Standards, Men’s. 

We spoke with Chavarria over Zoom to discuss his latest collection titled, ‘Cut Deep’, as the designer speaks his truth on embracing his Chicano culture despite identifying as queer, the community that made him who he is today, and the weight he carries as a designer that comes from an underrepresented community within the fashion industry. 

Willy Chavarria at his Cut Deep SS22 Runway Show in NYC.

VMAN: As a Latina, it’s an honor to talk to a Latinx designer I admire so much. Tell me about your background, the community you came from, and your experience growing up in the U.S. as a Latino.

Willy Chavarria: I always felt like a bit of a spectator. I used to draw a lot actually, that was my thing. I would like just draw draw draw draw my imagination go wild. As I got older, I began to realize that I wanted to be in the art world of some kind where I could express and I can involve myself in the arts. So I eventually left the town that I grew up in Fresno and studied graphic art in San Francisco. Eventually I got a job at Joe Boxer while I was going to school, and Joe Boxer was just like starting at the time, it was really cool. Actually. It was there where I really started to fall in love with merging artistic expression with apparel. And I was also heavily involved in the nightclub scene at the time, it was the 90s, which was very much about fashion. So I was super in it. And that kind of shaped me to pursue that. And then the simple fact I think that my upbringing, and my parents having been a part of the Civil Rights Movement, and having experienced so much racism in California, that was always at the top of my mind. Once I started working for corporations and really getting kind of my schooling, I knew that I wanted to do something that was going to give back. And because I’m in fashion and I’m good at it, I use that as my platform. So that’s my story.

VM: Do you identify as Latino or Latinx? This is a huge conversation/controversy now within the community, which one would you consider to best represent yourself?

WC: I mean, now, I think it’s like Latinx. At first I thought that it was divisive, like another way to divide people and not that many people were using the term. Still not that many people are, but then I later learned to love it. I grew to love it. I grew up being Chicano, so that was a term that was kind of taken by brown people in the U.S. and it was kind of given a new name, a new identity. I felt that way about Latinx and I love that it’s more inclusive of sexualities and genders. I feel like it covers the spectrum of brown people where there seems like a tendency to use the word Latinos to cover it like a blanket. It kind of also pairs with stereotypes, like they’re the most finite stereotypes that cover this giant spectrum of brown people, you know, the Cubans, Dominicans, like all these different levels of people, and I feel like Latinx kind of embraces the full spectrum. 

VM: How was it like for you growing up as a gay man in the Latinx community, a culture that is filled with toxic masculinity and frowns upon the LGBTQIA2S+ community? Take me through that process as you as a young man.

WC: Yeah, so that’s a good question, because I think that is one of the things that made me feel a bit isolated inside myself. I felt like I didn’t belong, sometimes I would feel like I didn’t belong in my own culture. And I know a lot of other queer Latino guys that say the same thing. They felt like, in many ways, they don’t feel accepted by their own culture. And I guess I did feel rejected in many ways, and I felt like it was hard for me to really be embraced, because I knew that there was something a little off about me. And it wasn’t until much later that first of all, it wasn’t until much later that I like, even came to terms with that myself, and realized, like ok yea I’m the queer person. And then it wasn’t until much later that I was able to forgive my culture and be proud of all of the things that made me who I am. That’s one reason I embrace my culture so much is because I think it’s important for me to really identify with who I really am.

CUT DEEP // WILLY CHAVARRIA SS22

CUT DEEP // WILLY CHAVARRIA SS22

VM: What led you to the start of your design career? What was that moment where you were like, okay, this is what I want to do for the rest of my life?

WC: I have always operated in this way that I just followed my instincts. So there wasn’t really a moment like that for me, it was just like, I gotta do this. I gotta take this opportunity. I got to do this because I see this as a way to make money and also be happy doing what I’m doing. But it was after working for corporations like Ralph Lauren, American Eagle Outfitters, for a while, that I realized I had to basically my own line, my own label, that would be a full expression of what I really wanted to convey. Artistically, visually, and publicly. I felt like it was something that I couldn’t die without doing. After having worked all those places, I knew that I was willing to do it. I took that leap. The first few seasons, it was very tough financially, making it happen. It still never gets easy. Never gets easy, but it is something that I love building. I feel great about the product we do and I feel great about how the product resonates. I’m at the point where now I’m able to take a job at Calvin Klein and do something else where I feel I’ve been given an opportunity to have an impact that I can do with my own brand on a much larger scale. I know that’s why I was hired here.

VM: Now as the Creative Director at Calvin Klein and owning your own label, do you ever feel the weight and responsibility of representing the Latinx community or do you see it more as you’re acting for your own beneficiaries?

WC: That’s a great question because it’s something I’ve thought about quite a bit. Sometimes, I’m like, wow, I better not mess this up and other times I’ve been like, why me?. I’m certainly not the ideal role model of the greatest Latino, but at the same time, I realized that I’ve been given this great opportunity and I feel that I’m also surrounded by white people, and mostly white men at the top and I feel like I wouldn’t be true to myself, or my family, or my parents, or the world if I wasn’t really representing.

VM: How do you, as a Chicano, feel when you see other designers or brands appropriating the Chicano style or the culture?

WC: Well, I do think it’s cool to see a lot of Latinx brands that are coming out of mostly streetwear brands and I’m really excited to see that. I think it’s really cool because as part of their fashion, they’re incorporating their culture. I don’t think we’ve ever seen that before. It’s always been like, Mr. Cartoon tattoos and things like that. So I love that, but then when it comes to appropriating, I just think it’s tiring but it’s not surprising because it’s been, how it’s been forever. I mean, even like, you know, baggy khakis. When skate culture got all the credit for that and all the money off that, when, in fact, it was the Cholos that started the whole thing. It goes all the way back to the Pachucos wearing baggy clothes. So it’s kind of like whatever to me. It’s more exciting for me to focus on this new uprising of Latinx culture, like these new designers, artists, and photographers. Just with my own brand, the creatives that we work with, like in LA all over the United States. It’s amazing how much talent is coming up and there’s so many people now that see the possibility of their future creative outlets that they’re used to seeing in other people.

CUT DEEP // WILLY CHAVARRIA SS22

VM: What Latinx designers did you admire growing up?

WC: OMG growing up! That’s a tough one. I might have to text you back on that. I mean Oscar de la Renta was like the only one I really knew of. But now I admire other designers in the fashion scene. I tend to admire designers or creative people, period, that don’t necessarily subscribe to the traditional. 

VM: Would you consider yourself both an activist and a designer? Some of your previous collections were very politically driven and sent a direct message.

WC: Yeah, definitely. I feel like I have to live activism. I think we all kind of do, to whatever degree we can. It’s almost like breathing, it’s like you have to. If you’re not aware of politics, or what’s going on in the world, then something is really wrong with you. [laughs out loud] You kind of have to be aware of it, whether it’s including more diverse people in our own workplace and that’s what I do with my own brand, that’s what I’m doing here. This is how I do my business. It’s about who you work and partner with, it’s what our mission is, and our mission is ultimately to make people think and feel with a new perspective. I really like to take the reality of what’s out there, take it all in, interpret it and give it back in a way to help us see ourselves as beautiful as we are.

CUT DEEP // WILLY CHAVARRIA SS22

CUT DEEP // WILLY CHAVARRIA SS22

VM: Do you think owning a business now as a member of the Latinx community is more beneficial or challenging for you?

WC: I think it’s both. It has been incredibly challenging. But you know, it’s like life. It’s like living in New York, super hard, but it’s highly beneficial. I wouldn’t have it any other way. My brand has ignited the interest of many celebrities or very senior leaders in the fashion industry. The brand enabled me to do exactly what my greatest dream was, which is to create art through expression, whether it’s fashion or whatever else that connects with people and can actually move the needle that makes things better in the world. The brand is always evolving, it’s never exactly where I want it to be. It still needs to grow and bigger and all those things, but I’m ecstatic about where it is right now.

VM: Tell me how it is like working as a Latinx designer within an industry that’s predominantly white? How many obstacles have you run into due to your ethnicity?

WC: Yeah, I think that being Latinx always posed an obstacle in my entire career, it was always an obstacle. It was always something that was in the room, you know? It was always something that was considered, until I went off and did my own brand and really started to be accredited for my work. Then, people started coming to me. Then I didn’t have to go to people to try to work. I didn’t have to try to be accepted by such and such executive vice president in order to get a job. There’s still discrimination, always, but at least now I’m really able to set the tone of what I’m doing, and I can have people come to me. 

VM: Speaking of being accredited for your work, how does it feel to be recognized by the CFDA as one of the top emerging designers, especially since there are not too many of us in the fashion industry that are recognized?

WC: It’s amazing, it’s really amazing. I think it’s amazing that the CFDA did what they did this time, really recognizing people of color and that’s something very special about the CFDA. That is something that exists in the U.S., in New York. Very, very proud of that. I also do realize it’s completely reciprocal. I’m super grateful for what CFDA has given me also, knowing that they need me to be the CFDA.

VM: For your collection, Cut Deep, did it feel almost natural to you to do a project that is based around a barbershop since it is a pillar in the Latinx community?

WC: Oh, yeah, completely. It’s funny because we were looking and considering venues, all of a sudden, I was just like, OMG, why don’t we just do it in like the most iconic barbershop there is and it made perfect sense. It’s like, it all just hit at once. Okay, we’re calling it Cut Deep, it’s in a barbershop, it’s got to be Astor Place, and my hair’s long right now, but I used to shave it once a week at Astor Place. It came full circle. But yeah, it’s like all brown people that work there. It’s super Latino and Black customer based, the energy in there is sick. It felt great to do it there especially paired with the collection, and the story of the collection, where the clothes are very true to Latino styling, but super amplified in the fashion sense.

VM: I know the designs that you’ve become so famous for are usually very minimalistic featuring larger silhouettes. You were once quoted saying it’s “very Mexican with a sorrowful expression”. Is that going to be your trademark or do you see yourself evolving from that?

WC: Oh completely. I absolutely do not think that my fashion will always be one specific aesthetic. Just because I did a show now going into a hardcore kind of introspective of the many different styles of Latinos that I’ve seen in my lifetime. That was just one moment. That was one story. My next collection will be something completely different.

CUT DEEP // WILLY CHAVARRIA SS22

CUT DEEP // WILLY CHAVARRIA SS22

VM: The cast and crew you hired were all people of color. Is it extremely important for you to incorporate our people in your shows? Why do you think there’s such a lack of representation of us like on the runways and even within the fashion industry overall?

WC: It all goes back to what opportunity is offered, the closer you get to the money, the whiter it becomes. There’s still a lot of racism in the industry, in all industries, you know, and for me and my brand and my label it’s very important for me to give opportunity to people like us. That’s why my entire crew and cast are mostly my friends and street cast people that we know, it’s very important to give opportunity to those people. Like I mentioned earlier, there’s so much talent, there’s so much talent in our people. We’re so rich and have so much story and we’re cool. We have a lot to offer. I find that connection and find that in people that I work with, I only work with the best people and they all just happen to be brown and black. We have a wide range of people, it’s just like inclusive, super inclusive.

VM: What is your message to up-and-coming Latinx designers or creatives who are trying to break into the fashion industry?

WC: My message to them is to persevere and have faith in yourself. The reason I say this is because I find that among our people so many of us don’t question the fact that we can do more. It’s a lot of settling for less and a lot of times it’s because they’re afraid to believe in themselves. You just have to believe in yourself. 

 

 

Credits: Photos taken by Brent Chua

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