We're in the Mahmood

We're in the Mahmood

Story by Kyle Rice / Interview by Willy Chavarria / Photography by Hannah Khymych / Styling by Marissa Pelly / Grooming by Francis Rodriguez / Makeup by Kauv Onazh

As soon as Egyptian-Sardinian musician Mahmood and Mexican-American designer Willy Chavarria enter the Zoom chat, the energy becomes magnetic. “Mahmood! How are you?” Chavarria bellows with enthusiasm. Mahmood, born Alessandro Mahmoud, the Eurovision star and four-time platinum artist for his single “Tuta Gold,” is running a bit behind. For a man who spends endless days grinding on choreography or fine-tuning his sound, it’s understandable. “I’m so sorry, I was running late from a rehearsal,” he acknowledges, though it’s clear there’s nothing but love and respect here.

Despite being two of the hottest talents in fashion and music, they remain grounded, laughing with childlike ease and affection. Perhaps it’s their shared love of making art, which could soften even the most rigid hearts, or their dedication to craft that introduces them like kindred souls destined to have crossed paths.

“It was really random,” Mahmood laughs, recalling their chance encounter on an impromptu shoot with photographers Luigi Murenu and Iango Henzi. “That day, I had to come back to Milan, but there was a fire at the airport, and all the flights were canceled. Luigi lived in New York at the time. He told me, ‘Don't worry, babe, come here. We'll do a shoot. We'll have a party. We will have the hairdresser come.’ So I went there with my bags, and we started shooting. I had your outfit just because I was at your show the day before, but then you also ended up being there for the shoot. You know, I think random stuff like that is the best. I have beautiful memories of that day now,” he smiles.

Nearly a year later, at an old warehouse in Greenpoint, hordes of fashionable elite gathered to see Chavarria’s Fall 2024 collection. Julia Fox was poised between stylist Briana Andalore and model/photographer Richie Shazam — a few seats down sat nightlife queen Amanda Lepore and stage queen Sam Smith, all tinted blood-red from the lights that flooded the walls. Before the models had a chance to command the runway, Chavarria presented "Safe From Harm," a short film centered on the politics of identity, overlaid with Chavarria’s traditional affinity for family.

Clothing: Thom Browne, Earring: Marland Backuz, Ring: John Hardy

While the casting featured key figures from Chavarria’s life, like Chachi Martinez and Elias Zepeda, both friends and collaborators of the brand, it was Mahmood who captured everyone’s attention in all of his sweaty glory.

In a room high above the ground of a convent, Mahmood bench-presses in a pair of custom “Willy” briefs, surrounded by a collection of studs in all their shapes and hues. He pauses for a moment, finishing a rep to adjust his underwear before leaning in to kiss dancer Leonardo Brito while “Love Changes” by MK slowly builds in the background. “I remember when you told me, ‘And now you have to kiss him on the sofa and then watch the window.’ I was thinking, ‘I've never kissed someone in front of a camera,’” Mahmood recalls with a smile.

“Well, that film, you know, is very sensitive and very passionate,” Chavarria explains. “I wanted somebody that had something of a queer identity, but was still able to deliver a level of masculinity in this particular film. And I wanted somebody who could tell a full story with their eyes. Alessandro's eyes are like books, sad books.”

The two seem busier than ever, Chavarria finalizing details on his next venture and Mahmood taking only a short break before heading into his Italian arena tour, enjoying the release of his latest music video, “RA TA TA,” in the meantime. “You know, I'm really happy,” he elates. “I'm happy because I'm doing new stuff for the first time. I'm performing in New York, so I don't think about the effort when there is exciting stuff to do like that. These tours are giving good vibes.”

As they segment time away to catch a quick breath, the two reminisce on their entwined lives, interrogate the idea of intimacy and pose the critical question: spit or lube? Perhaps this discussion will even foreshadow events to come as Chavarria and Mahmood trade secrets about the inner workings of their minds. Read their full conversation, below.

Clothing: Willy Chavarria, Earring: Bond Hardware, Rings: David Yurman, John Hardy, Shoes: Alexander McQueen by Seán McGirr

PAPER: Let's start with identity. That's a really pointed topic in both of your works.

Mahmood: It's like, what is it? I'm looking for it.

Willy Chavarria: You're looking for it? Me too!

Mahmood: My identity is in a state of evolution. I feel different from two years ago. Your experience could modify your identity. Also, traveling a lot and meeting new people sometimes helps me find my real identity.

Willy: I agree. Nobody ever truly knows their total identity because the journey of life is seeking identity, you know? And if you think you know your identity, it's going to change. The only way to honestly know is to admit to yourself that you are constantly seeking to find your truest self. Even with God. It's a constant search. “What is God? What does that mean?” It's one and the same. It's a beautiful thing that we're always looking for.

Mahmood: Also, when we’re young, our parents try to make us like them. Then, in adolescence, we try to escape from this state. Now, at 31, I want to learn more, because I see the change that I made in those past two years. You will never find 100% of your identity. There is always something that is changing inside you.

Willy: I like that you mentioned when we're children and our parents because as we learn how to express our identities — when we kind of get to know ourselves better — it's important for us to share on our platforms. It's okay to be in touch with certain identities. The most obvious example is queer identity, you know? One reason I was very attracted to you in the first place, to become friends, was the way that you interpret your own queer identity in your work. It's not so much the focus of the work, but it just happens to be there.

When did you two formally meet? It sounds like there’s a lot of synergy.

Mahmood: Oh, my god. The first time was after your show.

Willy: I thought we met on Instagram.

Mahmood: Ah, yes. But I was thinking in person. It was for the Luigi and Iango shoot. You remember?

Willy: Oh, yeah!

Mahmood: I had the mustache with the red shirt and the hat. I love that shoot. And it was really random because, you know what happened? That day, I had to come back to Milan, but there was a fire at the airport, and all the flights were canceled. Luigi lived in New York at the time. He told me, “Don't worry, babe, come here. We'll do a shoot. We'll have a party. We will have the hairdresser come.” So I went there with my bags, and we started shooting. I had your outfit just because I was at your show the day before, but then you also ended up being there at the shoot. You know, I think random stuff like that is the best. I have beautiful memories of that day now.

Willy: That photo is one of my favorite photos, with the match in the mouth...

Mahmood: Ah, yeah. With the match, yeah, yeah, yeah. There were some Grace Jones vibes.

Willy: So fierce.

Coat: LỰU ĐẠN, Belt: Stolen Arts, Jeans: Who Decides War, Scarf and glasses: Pucci, Rings: David Yurman, John Hardy

How did this connection lead to you starring in "Safe From Harm," and how did that film come together?

Willy: Well, that film, you know, is very sensitive and very passionate. I wanted somebody that had something of a queer identity, but was still able to deliver a level of masculinity in this particular film. And I wanted somebody who could tell a full story with their eyes. Alessandro's eyes are like books, sad books.

Mahmood: Super sad books.

Willy: His eyes can give so much emotion and can be so powerful. I wanted that in the film. I also just wanted to work with him because I could tell there was something special. Then we were doing the film: it was so cold. It was New York, and it was snowing and disgusting...

Mahmood: But that day was sunny. Maybe the first day was snowing. But the second day I arrived, the sun was bright.

Willy: But it was cold as fuck.

Mahmood: When I went out to drink coffee, I was freezing. But I was so happy because it was the first job I ever did in America. So, for me, it was insane. It was a beautiful experience. Also, I never saw anything like that space, everything in just one place. You know, with the church, the rooms, with the kitchen — what was the building?

Willy: That was a convent. I can't believe we found that building. It's so incredible. That's why it has a chapel there; the nuns would go to the chapel. You know, we brought in all the props that were there.

Mahmood: So it was totally empty?

Willy: Totally empty. The prop styling was amazing for that shoot. But Alessandro, you were so good. You are so professional and so serious about your work.

Clothing: Louis Vuitton Men's, Earrings: David Yurman, Ring: John Hardy, Glasses: Gentle Monster

Mahmood: Because, in that case, it's not just work. It's just doing what you love, no? I feel happy when I'm inside that kind of environment. I'm inspired to do more and more. So, to be in that situation, I was super excited.

I remember when you told me, “And now you have to kiss him on the sofa and then watch the window.” I was thinking, “I've never kissed someone in front of a camera, but what the hell, let's do it!” It was also an opportunity to learn more, something different. Italy has a different vibe from America. There is more freedom in the creativity here. There was a lot of freedom during the movie, and for part of the day, I really felt free. Totally free. It was weird, but at the same time, really peaceful.

Willy: There was a time that day when I got so excited, I felt almost crazy — like my spirit was gonna leave my body, and I had to go up to a room and tell all the PAs, “Don't tell anyone where I am. Just say that I'm taking a break.” I sat down in this chair, and I was breathing like... I can't even explain my energy, it was so intense. Then I looked up at the window, and there was a cross from the church. And I was like, “Oh my...”

Mahmood: Why did nobody think to film? This had to be part of the movie, babe!

Willy: I know, I know. It was insane!

Mahmood: The last scene, when we were seated in the church, for the first time, I was looking at every character of the movie, and everything looked perfect. Super random, but at the same time, perfect. I loved it at the end, you changed my outfit at the last moment. You saw another guy, and you said, “Give me your jacket.” I said, “Oh, my god, he knows it. He gets it.” I will remember this day, I think, forever.

Willy: It was so good. I want to do another one.

Mahmood: You need to put yourself in, too, babe, because you are super cinematographic.

Willy: I don't know if I can act. All I can do is cry.

Mahmood: But it depends on how you cry, babe. If you cry in a cinematographic way, it's art.

Willy: Maybe a horror film. I've always wanted to be in a horror film.

Mahmood: In a horror film?

Willy: Yeah, like someone is chasing me.

Clothing: Dsquared2, Rings: David Yurman, Earring: Chanel, Watch: Audemars Piguet

Mahmood: The problem is that I don't like my scream. My scream is really bad. But maybe you? Yes, I think yes. Do you want to be the assassin or the victim?

Willy: I want to be chased... for a very long time. I'm running, and I'm terrified. I'm hiding, then I'm stabbed to death.

Mahmood: That's not for me, no. I was a fan when I used to go to school. I don't know if you have watched Scary Movie.

Willy: Oh, yeah.

Mahmood: I was obsessed. I wanted to be part of Scary Movie. I love it when they do the impression of The Ring, the girl from the well. Yes, I wanted to be her, with the long hair.

Willy: What's your favorite movie?

Mahmood: My favorite movie? I'm a huge fan of Quentin Tarantino. But, favorite movie? There is an Italian movie that I particularly love called La Pazza Gioia. It's really sad, but at the same time, it gives you hope. I don't know, it's weird to explain, but I love the movie. And yours?

Willy: There is only one for me — The Exorcist. I love it. It's so beautiful. The costumes, the color...

Mahmood: But just the first one, no?

Willy: Only the first one, yeah. When I was a little boy, I had a crush on that little girl in the movie, Linda Blair. I was obsessed with her. I was jealous of her.

Mahmood: You wanted to be her, or you wanted to be with her?

Willy: I wanted to be her. I was jealous she got possessed. She was also rich.

Mahmood: That's really intense. So when you were a kid, you used to personify the character at home? Maybe I'm just going too deep...

Willy: No, no. It's true! I used to personify her.

Mahmood: I knew it. I knew it!

Willy: I used to lay in bed and hope that I could levitate.

Clothing: Talent's own

At one point, isn't she strapped to the bed and flailing? All I can picture is you as a kid, strapping yourself to the bed, wriggling, trying to be possessed. Your parents were probably like, "What the f—"

Willy: I would! I used to think my bed was shaking, and I would lay there like, “Okay, concentrate.” I'd try to lift my body up so that I could levitate. Never happened.

Actually, that movie has been hugely influential on me. It's beautiful because it is the story of good versus evil. It's also a story about how the devil, or evil in general, wants us to see ourselves as ugly when we're really not. I think I took that message with me forever. Anytime I see myself as bad, I remember that's evil, you know. Especially when I was young. Anytime I would see myself as not worthy, or being of the devil, I would remind myself of that film. So, it had a positive impact.

I want to circle back a bit — when you were discussing Safe From Harm, there were touchpoints around the idea of intimacy, whether it's the intimacy you have with a friend, a partner, or with family.

Willy: Ah, intimacy. I feel like all my work is intimate because, of course, it's very personal and close to the heart. I like to connect with people in an intimate way. You know? I like to make them feel something within themselves so that they can think differently or feel differently. I usually approach everything I do from an intimate perspective.

Mahmood: You know, my mom always tells me when she listens to my music, she discovers new things about me. I have this problem with the people I love, because I don't like to speak about my private life. But when I write songs, if I don't put something about my private life, I'm losing an opportunity to create this intimacy between me and the people who listen to me. This last album, Nei letti degli altri, is the most intimate album I've ever produced, because I worked a lot on myself these last two years. Also, the way that I connect with new people is different. I understood that many sides of my behavior were bad, and I decided to work on that, not close my eyes and just try to go home.

For example, I have this ex who was my longest relationship for five years. Now we are friends, but I wrote this song that was 100% sincere. There is a part in it where I say, “More than be part of a threesome, I would like to have some flowers.” I understand that sometimes, the other person can feel attacked because certain things need to be private. But if I censored that story, I would lose an opportunity to connect with people.

Coat: LỰU ĐẠN, Earring: Pucci

Willy: Yeah. You know, for me, it's different because you are yourself on stage. You are the vessel, whereas I'm behind the scenes. I create a message that goes out to be seen and heard, so I keep my private life very private. But intimacy is more through feeling, so I just let the feeling out.

Mahmood: There are a lot of ways in which we could share our intimacy. The lyrics could be just one of them, but there are a lot. Also, your intimacy — when you were speaking about The Exorcist — I saw a little bit of that in the PAPER shoot. I wore your white dress with the ribbon element. There is something there that was a link for me.

Willy: But also you with your voice. You could just be singing, and the sound of your voice could be very intimate.

Mahmood: At the beginning of my career, when I signed my first contract, the label didn't have a lot of trust in my writing skills. They wanted me to sing other authors’ songs, which I didn't like. When you're on stage singing something that doesn't represent you, it's torture. So I decided to speak the truth in my songs just because I wanted to feel free, be sincere with myself and be 100% on stage.

Willy: It's being a true artist. That's what being a true artist is.

Clothing: Thom Browne, Earring: Marland Backus, Ring: John Hardy

I think a lot of people are talking about heartbreak now more than ever. I'm curious how you imbue the feeling of heartbreak into your work.

Mahmood: Basically, all my albums talk about this. In the title track for Nei letti degli altri, there is this sentence in which I say, “Potremmo parlare anziché immaginarci nei letti degli altri per dimenticarci,” which means “We could talk instead of thinking about us being in other people's bed.” This thought was really heavy for me because this used to happen in my past. Once you decide to trust someone, you can't think about all the mechanisms inside the relationship, but I didn't trust anybody. This part of me is getting better because I'm growing. But two years ago, I really didn't trust anybody.

And maybe some of it is trauma. I basically grew up with my mom because my parents split up when I was five, and so perhaps I developed trust issues. But I exercise this inside the lyrics.

Willy: A broken heart is so hard. I often think a broken heart is worse than death. It can be so incredibly painful. I mean, I've been in a relationship with the same person for over 20 years now, and before that relationship, I had a broken heart several times. I also broke other people's hearts, which is really terrible, too. I work very hard every day to build trust and be trustworthy because I haven't always been the best person. There were times when I couldn't be trusted. But now I'm older and have a different perspective on what's valuable to me. I realized the value of trust, and I realized that is such a vital component of love. The healthiest way you can have love is if you also have trust, because if you have one without the other...

Mahmood: It doesn't work.

Willy: Yeah, it doesn't work.

Do you have tips for sustaining a 20-year relationship? Because that's a huge accomplishment. If you were to talk about the economy of love today, you just became a billionaire.

Willy: Mental health and personal well-being. I think it's important for both parties to be doing that and to have an interest in being good. You can only be as good to the other person as you are to yourself, you know? I think for us, we're able to clear away all of the mess and noise that happens in day-to-day life. We can say, “Okay, at the base of this, we care about each other.” I want what's best for this person, he wants what's best for me, and as long as we make that the focus of our love, then we can get through anything, and that's important. You know, life is very difficult. There's always going to be some crazy thing that happens. So, it's very important to make sure that we are clear about the foundation of the relationship.

Clothing: Dsqaured2, Rings: David Yurman, Earring: Chanel, Watch: Audemars Piguet

Do you two have a worst date story?

Willy: You know, I was never the dating type.

Mahmood: Yeah, me neither.

Willy: I can remember being on a few that were so bad that I would leave in the middle of the date, saying, “I'm sorry, I just can't.”

Oh, so you would just straight up tell them?

Willy: There was one when I did not tell him, I just went to the bathroom but actually left. I know it's so bad, but I was young. I was troubled.

Mahmood: [Gasps] It's like that!

Willy: I felt really bad about it at the time, but when I look back on it, I think, “Thank goodness I did that,” because I probably would have slept with the guy.

Coat: LỰU ĐẠN, Earring: Pucci, Belt: Stolen Arts, Jeans: Who Decides War, Rings: David Yurman, John Hardy

Both of you are between big events right now. Willy, you're between shows. Mahmood, you're ending the European tour and getting ready to play Italian festivals in July and arenas starting in August. What do those slow periods look like for you? What are you doing to relax?

Mahmood: This year was really tough because I'm working a lot. I checked how many days I have to rest, and it's just two weeks. But you know, I'm really happy. I'm happy because I'm doing new stuff for the first time. I'm performing in New York, so I don't think about the effort when there is exciting stuff to do like that. These tours are giving good vibes.

Willy: I do not rest. I haven't rested in years. It's just work, work, work, work...

Mahmood: The devil never rests!

Willy: I can't rest.

Mahmood: My assistant sent me a question: this thing about spit or lube?

Oh yes, I’m curious! If you want to answer, I'm not going to say no!

Willy: I mean, definitely spit.

Mahmood: At first, I thought lube because I always like to stay comfortable. But spit will never let you down. It could work in every place. Yeah, spit for me, too.

Willy: It's really accessible.

Mahmood: What a perfect end to the conversation.

Photography: Hannah Khymych
Styling: Marissa Pelly
Grooming: Francis Rodriguez
Makeup: Kauv Onazh

Photo assistant: Ian Rutter
Digitech: Antonella Alberti
Styling assistant: MJ Perez
Styling intern: Phoebe Davis

Editor-in-chief: Justin Moran
Managing editor: Matt Wille
Editorial producer: Angelina Cantú
Cover type: Jewel Baek
Story: Kyle Rice
Interview: Willy Chavarria
Publisher: Brian Calle
Location: Rein Studios