Willy Chavarria is a New York-based streetwear designer, infusing his love for '90s-inspired menswear with an ongoing campaign for social justice. He personifies his desire for social equality through statement slogan jumpers and rugged, military-like silhouettes. Casting straight from the street, Willy Chavarria’s self-titled label is all about showing the real America, the real streets where trouble, racism and inequalities thrive. We discuss Chavarria’s strive for sustainability before it’s too late, the importance of making an accessible brand, fond memories of the '90s and how the industry is going to survive for the next 50 years – change is coming.
Alongside producing state of the art streetwear, you also infuse elements of politics and social justice into your garments and the runway shows, largely due to your own personal experiences growing up – was the social justice/activism element of Willy Chavarria always part of your brand vision, or was this a more personal matter that infused itself into the brand as it progressed?
It was important to me and my team at the onset of the Willy label creation that we incorporate a great respect for human dignity in our messaging and partnerships. It has always been an important part of beauty for us. Real beauty is in who we are and what we do, so much more so than what we wear. And it makes our work feel much more valuable.
I understand you started out in Joe Boxer and moved to Ralph Lauren before creating your self-titled label, has the experience in these stores/areas of the industry help you to form Willy Chavarria in the way it is today? What is the most important thing you’ve taken with you into your own brand?
I started at Joe Boxer in the shipping department packing and shipping wholesale orders. I was very committed to learning as much I could and eventually was designing underwear for them. That was my entrée into apparel design. I realised there was a way to connect emotionally with people through what we wear. That’s what I love most about fashion. At Ralph Lauren, I was fortunate to learn about luxury design and was introduced to the mass market. Through all of this, I learned the importance of a strong singular vision and a sharp work ethic.
I am aware that you often street cast the models for your runway shows – do you find this brings a more authentic experience for both model and audience, knowing the models have been organically assigned to clothes that they would wear in their daily life?
Street casting is very important to me. There are so many really great looking people in the world. I take so much personality into account when dressing our cast. I need the clothes to feel right on the guy wearing them. Otherwise, I might as well get a coat hanger and show the clothes on that.
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Your most recent collection Eulogy collection for Fall/Winter 2020 features 100% sustainably-made garments from discarded plastic/general waste left by us and I admire that you are holding humans and the industry accountable for our damage to the environment. The entire vision of the collection is genius from the title to the conception, the sombre, rigid, procession like silhouettes create a depressingly regretful tone for what we have caused ourselves – what inspired you to design this type of collection, and why now?
Thank you for the compliment. You are too kind. That season was not a time for colour or laughter or opulence for me. Or anybody else in the world for that matter. I think we all realise the dyer importance of trying to sustain life on the planet. I wanted to show the possibility of making a full collection using entirely recycled, repurposed and naturally organic materials while at the same time reminding us that we are at great risk of ending our own human life on earth.
Sustainability had gained traction in the fashion world in the last year, but do you think it’s too late for the fast-fashion brand/consumer to erase their footprint on the world?
Gosh, the more I learn about the ability to sustain human life on earth, the more I see that it doesn’t look so hopeful. I think its more about human resilience to the future of the planet than it is about sustainability. Capitalism has led to enormous consumption and consumption has led to the depletion of our resources. We will have to come up with other means of life if we want to survive.
The Love Garage is my favourite collection of yours – it is reminiscent of '90s fashion in mannerism and silhouette, even accessories in the fingerless leather gloves. The collection and corresponding runway takes the audience back to simpler times in the music scene of the 1990s and celebrates love, was this a significant time for you personally? Can you describe this collection in three words?
Love, sex and house music. I love this collection too. I wanted to recreate a moment in time when New York and Chicago House Music was hitting the West coast. It was a moment when the nightlife was a huge part of moving culture and fashion-forward. The movement prided itself by opening its doors to anyone who wanted to feel the love. It was also quite glamorous.
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All of your garments feature a ‘capitalism is heartless’ patch on the fabric – this has become a signature on any WC piece and personifies the message behind your brand and who the customer is, did you receive any controversy from this? Or was it openly accepted by your customer.
That’s such a good question. Surprisingly, there has never been any controversy over that statement. I’ve had friends challenge me on the idea that I’m selling clothes to make money, so there is some irony in the statement. And we have seen Demna Gvasalia take notes in some of his works as well. Capitalism exists and we survive in a world that is entrenched in it. The challenge is to use it to our benefit. But important to realise that it is indeed heartless.
Do you think fashion is able to create a more equal society through the marketing industry or price point perhaps, or is this a bigger, governmental level inequality?
I believe that everything we do has an effect on the way others think. Fashion and art have always played a significant role in both the reflection of culture and the creation of culture. I do believe that world leaders play the most significant role in creating just and equal societies. I also think it's wonderful to use fashion and art to connect with the heart of people and make them think.
Our presentations have always been highly charged with opinions on social issues. Sometimes controversial, but always with the promotion of love and human dignity. It’s been great to see the larger brands starting to have the same courage.
How important is it to you as a designer to appeal to everyday society as opposed to exclusively high-end fashion buyers? Do you find that varying price point of your garment’s makers the brand more accessible as a whole?
My goal with Willy Chavarria has always been to one day offer the brand to as many people as possible. I first proposed our concept of selling a collection with $40 items alongside $1200 items to Adrian Joffe at Dover Street. He loved it. We agreed it is the modern way.
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Your most recent collaboration was with the H.E.L.P.E.R Foundation – can you tell us a bit about the organisation and how you ended up working together? 
We’ve committed to partnering with organizations that work to help and improve society. It's been a very important part of our brand. The H.E.L.P.E.R. Foundation is a gang intervention and prevention crew in Los Angeles made up of tough people with big hearts.
When the pandemic hit, they took immediate action to help out the most economically distressed neighbourhoods by bringing people food, personal protective equipment and basic needs. These neighbourhoods are pretty rough. Without uniforms, it is very dangerous for them to be walking around. The director is Claudia Bracho and she is fearless. We are so happy to support them in what they do!
Can you see Willy Chavarria expanding into different media of activism and social justice in the future alongside campaigning through your collections?
My team and I often talk about doing more than the fashion component of our business.
At this point, we are still a small squad and managing the fashion component of our business doesn’t allow much time for anything else. But the plan is to grow to a point where we can help create more change. For the moment we use the work we are good at to influence and affect people culturally. It’s such a beautiful thing actually, to communicate emotionally through design. We are very grateful.
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