Compared with other fashion weeks around the world, New York Fashion Week shows have a reputation for emphasizing commerce over art, politics, or big ideas. Many shows take place in sterile, corporate spaces that are filled with big brand sponsorships. Designer Willy Chavarria, however, is the exception. His debut NYFW show this past February was a shot across the bow, taking aim at Donald Trump, institutional racism, and the prison industrial complex by presenting his collection on models of color locked inside a cage. And with his latest show for NYFW: Men's on July 12, the bold Chicano designer presented his collection in space that is as subversive as his designs.
Chavarria, who grew up in California's San Joaquin Valley and earned his stripes designing for Ralph Lauren, staged his July 12 show at the Eagle, one of New York City's last remaining leather bars. A holdout of a fetish culture is rapidly becoming mainstream, you'll still find events like like Foot Fetish Mondays and Jockstrap Wednesdays at the Chelsea watering hole.
Lots of designers imbue their work with themes that defy norms of gender and sexuality, but by staging his show in a unapologetically gay space, Chavarria's presentation really shifted the paradigm. It forced people like myself, who've never spent a significant amount of time in a place that was designed explicitly for the pleasure and joy of gay men, to engage with his work in a context entirely on its own terms.
Right away, Chavarria created a distinctive mood and spirit for his show. Two gorgeous low-rider vehicles blasting R&B and hip-hop could be found outside, evoking the designer's affinity for cholo and street culture. While showgoers waited in line, they were gifted with colorful rosary beads. These are sacred objects in the Catholic Church that were worn by cholos in the 60s, representing their faith as much as their gang affiliation. These flourishes were a defiant reminder that this was the work of a man of color representing the power and beauty of his community on one of American fashion's most vaunted platforms.
Once inside the Eagle, there were a handful of old guard leathermen behind the bar and sprinkled around the space, embodying the BDSM and motorcycle-imbued subculture that continues to shape mainstream trends. The show was appropriately kicked off with Smokey Robinson's iconic song "Cruisin'" which I've haven't been able to take off of repeat since I saw the show. From the very first look, it was clear that through impeccable casting and styling, Chavarria captured a look that was sweet and full of swagger. The silhouettes were exciting and continued to advance his cholo-inspired aesthetic: His trousers sat high and were cinched at the waist, but billowed out at the leg. His black motorcycle jackets looked incredible oversized and styled without a shirt underneath.
Despite the excellent tailoring, some of the strongest elements of the collection were the graphics. One of the stand out messages was "Silence Still Equals Death," an update of the popular motto of the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, that he placed on several different shirts. I loved the T-shirts that featured a crucified Christ and bore the words "How Can I Tell Mom & Dad," bluntly confronting the dichotomy between the "traditional" values of church and family and the lifestyles we want to lead for ourselves. He also presented several flat bill caps that had the words "Cruising" embroidered across them in a cool gothic script, which paired perfectly with the music and vibe of the space.
While NYFW can at times feel so commercially driven that the shows come off as uninspired, Chavarria's latest presentation exemplifies the ways in which a singular vision like his, that is born out of the strength and perseverance of marginalized communities, can keep its radical edge and even break new ground.
VICE photographer Jimmy Tagliaferri was on the scene to take picture backstage and during the show. Scroll below for more pics of Willy Chavarria's spring/summer 2018 show.