Willy Chavarria on the 'Brilliant Sexual Revolution' in Fashion

Willy Chavarria on the 'Brilliant Sexual Revolution' in Fashion

Among the celebrity sightings at New York Fashion Week, Madonna seated in a church pew alongside Arca — both sipping red wine and shimmying to Catholic pre-show music — was a memorable highlight. (For context, nobody else in the audience had a drink, nor were they dancing in the slightest.)

The designer worthy of such iconic attendance? Willy Chavarria, the California native reshaping menswear through a uniquely queer, Chicano lens. Having recently won Cooper Hewitt’s National Award for Fashion Design, it’s clear that Chavarria’s namesake is finally sticking among the heavy hitters, both in luxury fashion and pop culture at large.

For his Spring 2023 collection, titled “Please Rise,” 55-year-old Chavarria continued to showcase the possibilities around men’s evening wear. Suiting had dramatically extended lapels and cinched waists; bright colors like cyan or magenta were introduced in satin, with massive roses pinned to waists and collars; jersey tops had puffed up sleeves like members of clergy. As always, his tailoring was impeccable and the silhouettes were XL.

Hosted inside Manhattan’s Marble Collegiate Church, religious undertones were overt this season, mixed with more casual references to Latin subculture that played into Chavarria’s mission of uniting our divided world. He also introduced womenswear for the first time, which would be fitting on Madonna during a performance of “Like a Prayer.”

While we pray on that, read more about Chavarria's thoughts on gender, sexuality and love, below.

From your perspective as someone who has always challenged traditions of menswear, how have you seen the industry’s relationship with it evolve over time?

For most of my life and definitely most of my career, men's fashion has moved at a snail's pace compared to the innovation in the women's business. Men generally favored a way of simply looking confident and masculine without wanting to disrupt the room. Within the past 10-15 years, a steady and exciting transformation in "men's" fashion has occurred. The business is both transforming and accelerating at a rapid pace. We can now experience the same levels of creative expression on platforms that are quickly dissolving the confines of gender separatism in the business.

How have you seen the public’s perspective on it change, as well?

We are in the middle of brilliant sexual revolution. Gender identity and sexuality is not only an intellectual conversation, but it is a party with loud music and everyone wants to come. The traditional gender confines that made straight men feel inhibited about expression have been greatly influenced by a new generation of fierce leaders who look good while changing culture. This, along with the increased manipulation by social media, has led to a consumerism and a freedom to more elevated levels of expression through fashion.

I’m interested in your evening wear this season, specifically in relation to visible men in pop culture having fun with fashion. Do you think there’s more space for looks like these with names like Bad Bunny and Timotheé ushering in newfound freedom with personal style?

Our made-to-order business has been expanding with the introduction of the WILLY CHAVARRIA Collection label. This is our most elevated collection using luxury fabrics and finely hand-sewn in our atelier. I think that some of the cultural leaders in music, art and film are transforming the male identity. It is such an honor for me to see my fashion supporting the voices of both male and female cultural leaders. From A$AP Rocky to Bad Bunny to Madonna, each of these icons has their own interpretation of my work and it supports their own unique voice. I am just humbled to take part.

"Gender identity and sexuality is not only an intellectual conversation, but it is a party with loud music and everyone wants to come."

The giant floral accents were standouts from this past collection. How’d you arrive at that design detail, in particular?

The collection separated into three stages: The seed is planted, the blossoming and the judgement. Red rose or black rose. This idea of the rose became something I saw as a connection to the heart. I loved the idea of wearing our hearts on the outside through these enormous beautiful silk roses.

A lot of classic WILLY silhouettes were present, but the updates were in your subtle edits — the waists were cinched even tighter, the lapels even bigger, some of the colors and fabrics louder. How do you maintain freedom as a designer, while still building a brand that becomes immediately recognizable?

There are parts of my design language that have become quite signature. These elements have been such a part of my personal expression that they come quite naturally. I feel that I have a close personal connection with the people that wear the brand. Evolving the brand vision is almost collaborative with the evolving of the people who wear WILLY. I am a part of the modern human expression. I feel connected with this movement.

You introduced womenswear this season. Talk through those silhouettes and how they play into the larger WILLY brand, which has always skewed gender in smart ways.

I love to play with masculinity. I want to be the International maker of high fashion. Regardless of gender identity or sexuality, masculinity still plays a cartoon role in the human experience. But I don't consider my work gender specific. The women in my show were wearing looks that could easily be worn by the men in my show. The clothing is the tool, the expression is the wearer's art.

"The clothing is the tool, the expression is the wearer's art."

Everyone has worn those massive Willy trousers from seasons past (even J. Balvin and Omar Apollo in their PAPER cover stories). Why do you think those resonated so strongly and what do you consider the iconic staples from this collection?

I think these styles that boldly challenge the masculine stereotype are being worn by these talents who understand their impact on how people think and feel about themselves. These are great talents who use their platforms to challenge the traditional confines of identity. They paved the way to new perspectives. I can make them look super hot, while still making people question the world around them.

What was the significance of the location as a backdrop this season? How much of your relationship with religion is love and genuine affection, and how much of it is rebellion?

Love is rebellion — rebellion against darkness and rebellion against the world as it is today. I chose a church because I believe there is a loss of God today. We are surrounded by war and hate and greed and lies. Our focus is blurred by darkness. The church is the most epitome of a sacred respect for life, and the body and most of all love. I thought it was a nice contrast to everything else around us. I also love the idea of having very little skin exposed and still being sexy. Overt sexuality has lost its novelty. Refined sexuality is cool again.

Arca and Madonna were both in attendance. Did you happen to get any feedback from them about the show?

Well, Arca stole my heart by singing along with Alicia Myers at the end of the show, and Madonna ditched Tom Ford for my afterparty, which seemed a much better fit for the woman who truly understands how to change the culture for the better.

Photos courtesy of WILLY CHAVARRIA