Before brands and publications (including ours) found their political voice a few short years ago, Willy Chavarria was a designer unafraid to tackle political and social messages in his work. Through unconventional fashion shows featuring models who varied in race and age to drawing on his Mexican-American heritage as major themes in his work, Chavarria quickly became a favorite among industry insiders.
But his point of view isn't the only thing that sets him apart. His clothes are the kind every NYC downtown kid dreams of wearing, which came to life in a shoot we did featuring adidas' Superstar, a shoe celebrating 50 years this year (yet still looks impossibly modern juxtaposed against 'fits by Chavarria). As part of its 50-year anniversary, we partnered with adidas to spotlight trailblazing creatives.
We spoke to the designer, who took the call from Copenhagen where he resides, about his career arc, building a politically-conscious brand, and what his advice is for emerging creatives.
Tell me a little bit about your background and how you got into fashion.
My background in fashion is mostly just working from the ground up. I literally took a job years ago in San Francisco with Joe Boxer, which was kind of... it was a new, cool brand emerging in San Francisco and it was underwear. I was working in the stock room, so I just started packing and shipping, and then eventually got to know Nick Graham, the designer, and started designing for Joe Boxer. And then I went on to design for Ralph Lauren and then I was later recruited by American Eagle Outfitters as the design director.
After a couple of years at American Eagle Outfitters, I decided to open my own retail store, which was Palmer Trading Company, and it was like a multi-brand store. From there, I launched my own brand, Willy Chavarria, and it got picked up. Before I started doing wholesale it got picked up by the Japanese, so the Japanese started selling it, and then it eventually just felt like my true calling. So the store turned into Willy Chavarria and I started doing the wholesale for it, and now that's pretty much what I do.
When did you make the move to Copenhagen?
I've been out here for almost over four years now. My husband and I had been living in New York forever, and we were both working and it was very stressful. And then the new Trump presidency came about, and we just started putting out the vibe that we wanted to try living in Europe, because we'd never lived in Europe before. And he got a job opportunity here almost right away. He took the job and then we moved out here, and it turns out it's really nice.
Speaking of politics, I've attended quite a few of your fashion shows in New York City. There's always a story behind them that touches on identity, on politics. It really speaks to your own background – can you share some of your story with our readers?
Yeah, my own background is Mexican-American from California. I grew up in a very, very agricultural area in the San Joaquin Valley and I'm from a family of farm workers. So all of the people in my family were working in the fields and harvesting the food that everyone in the world eats. I grew up very far removed from fashion of any kind; I grew up with a strong feeling about more so style than actual fashion, because I was fascinated with the way people would take clothes that you'd buy at Walmart or Kmart, like work clothes, and then turn them out into extreme personal style and still look great. I was always heavily influenced by that.
I also had parents that were very involved in the civil rights movement. So, in my heart I always knew that whatever it was I did I wanted to put human rights at the forefront of that. When I started the brand, that was always a thing that I told my team, like, "We're really driving the ideas of human equality and human dignity behind what we do, even though the core of what we do is making beautiful clothes."
It’s important to me and my brand to share the beauty of people – especially those who don’t normally get the light. My own personal sexual as well as racial identity plays a part in this, but it is a message for all people of all forms. The future is precious and it is dependent on the way we navigate the present. I think it is important for our cumulative creative vision to help us see ourselves as beautiful. “Street wear” began with brown-skinned people in the U.S. Let us not forget that without this great influence we wouldn’t have the fashion we enjoy today.
Was including political and social commentary in your work challenging? Did you think fashion would be an effective platform for that? And how did people react?
When I did my own line, it was very important to not be like everybody else at the time. I wanted to make sure that the tasks that I was doing had... either it was a wakeup call to people that made people just think a little bit differently or it highlighted the beauty in people who normally don't get highlighted. That was something I always wanted to do. And, Sachin, actually my timing was perfect because I was able to do that. The world was in a place where we were ready for that. If I had done it in the '50s it wouldn't have worked. I think we were very fortunate that it was embraced the way it was and people were ready for it.
I would say you were ahead of the curve. This was pre-Trump when you were already communicating messages about diversity and inclusivity. And then after Trump was inaugurated we saw media companies and fashion brands suddenly finding their political voice. In that sense, I think you really were ahead of the curve. What are your thoughts on this newfound fixation on diversity and inclusivity that's omnipresent in the fashion industry. Do you think it's sincere?
It made sense for my brand and it was very sincere. I wasn't going to do anything without it. On the one hand it's beautiful and fantastic; on the other, it's a little cliché and sometimes it's really not done the right way. What I see happening in marketing seems very trend oriented, but in the grand scheme of things, it's better to see more inclusivity in fashion than it is to have the opposite of that taking place.
I think that one of the things [for brands] is to be sure that what you're professing is also integrated into your own work and your own business. So, it’s important and it's necessary to have your infrastructure be made up of a diverse cast of people. That's really the only way you can get a sincere projection of what you're doing because it's the heart of everybody who's creating whatever the output is that will be translated into the vision. And I think that's really at the core of it.
Shifting gears, I’m curious about your connection to adidas' Superstar, a shoe that's democratic, accessible, and celebrating 50 years this year. It also happens to be the shoe we styled with your collection for this shoot. Do you have any fond memories of adidas?
Yeah. Well, like we were just saying, that style and street style always emerges from minority cultures. That Superstar is straight from the hood. It's straight from street culture and Run DMC and the emergence of that. Back then it was that shoe and everyone put different laces on it or you did your tricks to make it amazing. But that shoe always resonated as the shoe for the kids in the hood. And it's amazing to see where that is, where it's come to now. I love that shoe.
What are some challenges you see young creatives facing today? And what’s your advice on overcoming them?
It's like everyone is a creative nowadays and the battlefield of making it is a lot tougher than it used to be, so I think some of the challenges are financial and building your creative vision. It's extremely important to partner where you can with people who are a little farther along than you are or a partner with more successful entities that could be businesses or even other designers that may be able to shed some light or kind of help push you along with your project.
What’s your advice for emerging creatives today, whether they’re pursuing fashion design or just trying to find their creative voices?
I get asked often from young people for advice and on how to become a great designer and my answer is always, "You need to work your ass off. And pay your dues." Especially now with the speed at which the world moves with the information age and all of this. I'm older, so I have the privilege of having seen things develop over time. And I've noticed that with the speed of information, the younger generations often feel dismayed when their career doesn't happen immediately for them.
People are expecting it to happen over night.
It doesn't. It really doesn't, and if it does happen over night it's not always the best thing. But the best way to succeed is to actually work very hard in all different facets of your business. Have patience, do things that you feel are maybe a little bit of a waste of your time for a while, if necessary. Internships. It's extremely important to learn every facet of the business so that by the time you're ready you really are a master at it. And that, along with keeping a vision, a very strong vision of what you want in the future. Those two together are the key.