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Willy Chavarria Takes It to Church

Fashion is no place for people without a stomach for contradiction. Consider the gorgeous, if occasionally lugubrious, Willy Chavarria show on Tuesday in Manhattan at Marble Collegiate Church, home pulpit of President Richard M. Nixon’s favorite clergyman, Norman Vincent Peale, the self-help pundit who wrote “The Power of Positive Thinking.” Exalting and hokey, exhortatory as a sermon and yet subtly persuasive, the show was also so late in starting that guests started fidgeting in the pews.

Then, in a honeyed tenor, the singer Dorian Wood opened Mr. Chavarria’s spring 2023 collection, “Please Rise,” with a Spanish-language hymn about crossing the metaphorical and actual borders that divide us, and the designer took us to church. Inspired by clerical garments like cassocks, surplices and priestly capelets, the collection also featured the colossal proportions, boxy silhouettes and subtly coded references to unassimilated Latin subcultures that are Chavarria signatures — his way of bridging what he calls “the divisions in our world.”

There were vast pleated trousers beneath snug-fitting double-breasted jackets, their chevron lapels zoot-suiting out beyond the shoulder line. There were T-shirts draped to knee length and inside references to the geographies of Mr. Chavarria’s California childhood in the form of place names like Sacramento, San Jose and Fresno spelled backward across sleeved athletic jerseys. Huge satin roses were pinned to waistbands and collars in what, given Mr. Chavarria’s affinity for outsiders, may well have been a symbolic reference to prison tattoos.

Not since Miguel Adrover left New York has the city known a designer whose work is as emotional and inventive, as classical and uncompromising in its politics as Mr. Chavarria’s. Mr. Adrover famously grew disillusioned with fashion and abandoned this city and country for Spain and his birthplace on the island of Majorca. Having already endured plenty of the hard knocks a tough business can deliver, Mr. Chavarria, 55, appears to be here for the long haul.

The thread of continuity between the two is crucial because Mr. Chavarria has an essential voice and vision. In addition to centering aesthetic and beauty ideals drawn less from European than from Mexican and Central American cultures, he embraces hybrid identities in all their paradoxes. Born to Irish American and Mexican parents, Mr. Chavarria was raised working-class in the fields of California’s agriculturally rich Central Valley. Now, as a senior vice president at Calvin Klein (and a stealth creative force behind Yeezy Gap, which appeared to be imploding on Thursday), he is among the best-paid, and certainly the most influential, Latinx designers in the field.

Interviewed by Vogue years after his retirement, Mr. Adrover asserted that his principal goal in fashion had always been giving a voice to the underdog. “For me, it was really important to bring up people that had never been represented before on a catwalk,” he told the magazine. For far too long, no successor to Mr. Adrover appeared; sometimes it even seemed as if the person who combined his abundant gifts and deeply held convictions did not exist.

Then suddenly the industry discovered Mr. Chavarria hidden in plain sight.

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