Willy Chavarria of Willy Chavarria.

It’s a journey that started in the small town of Huron, Calif., led to Ralph Lauren and Nick Graham, and ended up as a popular independent fashion brand that has worked with everyone from K-Swiss to Kanye West.

That’s the path that Willy Chavarria took to create his eponymous label, which has grown to become a visible proponent of social messages ranging from anti-hate to acceptance of racial and sexual identity.

In a virtual discussion with Vice writer Wilbert Cooper for Joe’s Blackbook Thursday night, Chavarria said he grew up in a “small Mexican town” outside Fresno where residents were “more concerned with putting food on their plates than with fashion.”

The designer, who describes himself as “half white and half Mexican,” said it was when his family moved to a slightly larger town with a more diverse population that he finally experienced other cultures and popular trends such as preppy and how they could be mixed with “Chicano influences” to create a unique style.

He was especially drawn to the cholo, youth that identify with Mexican-American gang subculture, and the way they dressed, which he saw as a “clear sign of self-identity.” He pointed to how they could take “cheap Dickies from Kmart and make something beautiful.”

With that as the backdrop, Chavarria set out to San Francisco, where he got a job in the stockroom of Nick Graham’s Joe Boxer brand. It was there that he got his first taste for apparel and design and it led to a lightbulb moment for the young man. “I said, ‘This is great. This is what I want to do.’”

Although he spent a lot of time cleaning the chain-smoker Graham’s ashtrays, Chavarria also started dabbling in creating novelty prints for the brand’s boxer shorts and “eventually got noticed.”

That led to a job at a cycling company which Ralph Lauren contracted with to manufacture the shorts for his RLX brand. Chavarria, who “wore Polo Sport from head to toe” at the time, caught their eye and he was hired to join the brand in New York to work on the sports sublabel.

Chavarria admitted that moving across country and walking into the legendary Ralph Lauren offices was anxiety-inducing and he felt out of place for the first few months. “I was scared and I hated it,” he said, noting that he was “out of my element.” But he fought that fear and eventually believed that he truly belonged there.

“People of color have to work a little harder,” he said, telling the young viewers on the Joe’s Blackbook session that they need to “keep that in mind so we don’t slack off. People of color who don’t feel in place at the big fashion brands feel anxiety. But let that encourage you to be better. Let that motivate you.”

It was during his time at Ralph Lauren and later, American Eagle Outfitters Inc., where Chavarria discovered a love for vintage, which was “a new concept” at the time, he said. He started collecting antique items and opened a store called Palmer Trading Co., a vintage Americana shop that he operated for 10 years. This was the time when he started to design his own brand, a collection that caught the eye of buyers from Journal Standard in Japan.

So while Palmer Trading Co. focused on heritage and Americana, Willy Chavarria was “a complete expression of myself,” and became a way to serve the world and give back, he said.

Graphics became “very much a part of the expression of the brand,” he said, and allowed his “voice to be heard.” He encouraged any budding fashion designers in the audience to use their “artistic expression” to publicize what is important to them.

Despite the pandemic, Chavarria continues to spread his message to his customers and followers — but now in a different way. He has shifted away from doing fashion shows, which he said are “extremely costly, wasteful and not necessary,” and has embraced the digital world as a refreshing new way to showcase his line.

And he doesn’t see that changing when the world returns to a post-pandemic normal.

“There are more interesting creative ways to deliver the message without spending a fortune,” he said.

Collaborations are another way to expand his reach. Chavarria has partnered with K-Swiss as well as Hummel, the Danish soccer brand. He said that in addition to his designs, he uses these relationships to further his social message. With Hummel, for example, they sponsored soccer camps and championed asylum-seeking youth.

He also works with Kanye West, who was a fan of the brand and reached out to him. “When you have your own brand, you might need to do other things,” he said. “It’s not the end of the world to have to get a job elsewhere.”

But whether working for someone else or yourself, he said designers need to retain their own personality and remember what’s important to them.

“No matter your background, know yourself and pursue that in any way you can — and create something beautiful.”

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