Designer Willy Chavarria Finds This Dumpster More Inspiring Than Any Runway Show He’s Ever Seen

Portrait of Willy Chavarria.

“I’m much more inspired by people than environments,” says Willy Chavarria. The Fresno-born designer has built his eponymous brand on this sentiment—it is an homage to Chicano masculinity and tenderness. Chavarria designs clothes to make the people in his life feel regal.

The designer, 56, and his team work out of a sun-filled warehouse in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. Models-turned-advisors, muses-turned-friends, and friends-turned-designers mill around, hanging out or helping out, exemplifying the familial atmosphere that makes Chavarria one of the fashion industry’s rare birds.

It’s hectic in the studio—and not just because New York Fashion Week is around the corner. Chavarria is busy with something new. “I’m looking for a way to overcome the current standard so that I can offer lower prices for people who can’t afford the expensive things, and expensive things for people who do have that luxury,” he says.

Pricing experiments aside, little about the brand’s ethos has changed in the eight years since its founding. Chavarria’s eye for trendproof elegance has won him a number of the industry’s highest accolades, including a place in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s 2021 exhibition “In America: A Lexicon of Fashion.” But it’s his community, in all its complexity, that remains his raison d’être. In the midst of preparing his new collection, Chavarria gave CULTURED a tour of his essential New York haunts.

The Studio

"This is my studio. I used to have a little box in Manhattan, but when the rent skyrocketed to like $12,000 a month, we packed up and moved to Brooklyn. Now we do everything out of this place—photography, castings. I find it very important to surround myself with people who inspire me and to create a warm, loving culture here. The palo santo is always burning, and it’s kind of hippie, but we do white sage blessings during stressful times, or when bad energy comes through. It’s fashion after all; it’s not always a walk in the park.

Not everyone I work with has the best style—I find that people who are super into that aren’t always as creative. But all of the people I work with know what it’s like to have suffered, what it’s like to have been on the shit end of the stick. The hardship we’ve been through adds to the camaraderie. We find beauty and joy outside of fashion, and that gives more depth to what we do, makes it a little more interesting.

We’re also very supportive of one another. Today, I was like, ‘Holy fuck, are we gonna get these clothes made in time for the runway show?’ But everyone has faith, and Connor, our design intern, saw me stressing and brought me a sandwich. We’ll get it done.”

Chachi Martinez, Friend and Collaborator

The Park

"This park is right near my studio. It’s called American Playground, which I love. I come here when I need to sit and take a little breather. Parks are places of escapism. People go there to play—on the swing set, on the basketball or the handball court. Honestly, I don’t really play much myself. I don’t play an instrument or any sports, so it’s interesting for me to see other people just messing around. Being reminded of that freedom is comforting.

Chachi, the man in this photo, is a very dear friend. He skates a lot in this park; it’s his release. We met when he came in for a casting, and he never left. He just hung around the studio after, sitting quietly and watching everything. Eventually, he became a part of the team simply by being himself. Chachi helps out, he walks in the shows—he’s just part of the crew. I would definitely say that he’s become my muse because he embodies my vision of the brand. He has been around the block a few times and he has a very hard side to him, but he’s extremely tender and loving and has an enormous heart.”

Jess Cuevas, Art Director

The Streets

“There’s so little inspiration in the fashion world now, but there’s so much inspiration on the streets. I freak out every time I leave my apartment because people are so fucking amazing—the way they look and walk. It’s never-ending. I do a lot of street casting, and I love being able to see that somebody’s had a history; I find that really attractive. It’s easy to proclaim stylishness, it’s harder to show substance. I like wrinkles, and I like crooked teeth; I like the flaws that make us real.

This man is Jess Cuevas. He’s my art director and dear friend. He has the most beautiful heart, and he’s the funniest person I’ve ever met. He was laughing hysterically between every shot. We are so attached to each other creatively that we work together on almost every project. Also, both of us love trash, and we love recycling. I mean, look at this dumpster! The colors are amazing, the typography is incredible, and it’s weathered down in this insane way. This alone holds more inspiration than any runway show I’ve ever seen.”

Ricky Alvarez, Photographer and Collaborator

The Pier

"I enjoy a moment by the water. It’s easy in this city to get caught up in daily operations—it’s so tough to get through the chaos of the day that you can kind of forget that there’s a sky. I like to step back and remember that things are so much bigger than the minutiae. It’s nice to see Manhattan from a distance—the Williamsburg Bridge, downtown in the background, the projects on the other side. It’s therapeutic.

This is Ricky. Ricky is fucking crazy—he saw this fence and immediately climbed it. He is such a free spirit and so confident, like the Mexican Marky Mark. His trust in himself and his commitment to protecting culture as a filmmaker is something I very much respect. It’s important to have people like that in my life when I’m creating. Seeing my clothes on anybody is amazing to me, but when I see them on people I admire, it makes me so happy.”