Willy Chavarria: Love Take My Heart

by M-C Hill on 5 June 2024

The New York-based designer made a fashion film that evolved feelings of loss into a message of love dancing. Here, Chavarria goes deep with fashion critic M-C Hill.

The New York-based designer made a fashion film that evolved feelings of loss into a message of love dancing. Here, Chavarria goes deep with fashion critic M-C Hill.

i dreamt i was tangoing with

you, you held me so close

we were like the singing coming off the drums.

you made me squeeze muscles

lean back on the sound

of corpuscles sliding in blood.

i heard my thighs singing.

— ‘Dancing’ by Sonia Sanchez

Hiandra Martinez spots Kai-Isaiah Jamal as they bench press together in Safe From Harm, the Willy Chavarria fashion film. As they complete reps, Martinez walks away from Jamal. Martinez is wearing a black shirt flashing ‘It Feels So Good’ in bold blue typeface. The entendre connects multitudes inside the Willy Chavarria world. It recalls the pop star Mahmood’s weightlifting session earlier in the film. His spotter wore a Willy Chavarria cartoon tee with a macho, macho man bench pressing the house logo above his shoulders. The statement also references a notable Chavarria moment from ‘Cruising’ S/S 18: amidst veterans in a gay bar, a Brown kid sits looking uncertain, wearing a jumper with the crucifixion on it that reads ‘How Can I Tell My Mom & Dad.’ No question mark. A declaration announcing yourself to the world directly, to your potential ‘cum’ ups and still, to your parents. Dimensionality burns at the core of both Willy Chavarria the fashion man and fashion label. It is synonymous with his trademark entendres, that express explicit signals with blunt innuendo. ‘I have such a dirty mouth, I love it,’ he says. ‘I mean, sometimes I'm looking for the word and I just say, f_ck. I don't have the word but f_ck, I love that it can be used in a variety of different ways.’

Safe From Harm film set

Safe From Harm represented a slight coming out story for the Willy Chavarria label. It stuck to the guts of fashion audiences who, judging by the extremely emotional responses Chavarria’s film elicited, had likely not experienced storytelling in this ‘unique’ way before. ‘It goes back to the old story of fashion, especially in American fashion. There is still so much of the old guard sitting around. They're sitting around in their 35th floor offices and don't realise that the world is changing,’ he says. In truth Chavarria, his fashion films and our collective BIPOC stories have been loud and proud for several decades. After his ‘New Life’ S/S 24 show ended, well-wishers pushed towards backstage to congratulate Chavarria. Their faces in the crowd were ephemeral Brown and Black anecdotes that ‘Safe From Harm’ elaborated: Kerri Colby (yep Sasha’s daughter), Luka Sabbat, the baseball star Francisco Lindor, YG changing upstairs after catwalking. ‘I feel like in the US, if you're a designer of colour or a designer that doesn't come from a lot of money, you need to kind of carve out your own path. The old guard is still trying to figure out how to get in touch with the community, which is the new word for urban — community. It is time for that to change. I am hell bent on being a business that can be successful, change that old guard and work around those parameters.’ Working with authenticity does not require box checking statements. When stars attend your show, messages invariably turn maximal.

YG in New Life S/S 24

Willy Chavarria started Safe From Harm from a point of negativity in his New York daily life. He wanted to rediscover joy from a collective sadness he felt ran palpably across the city. ‘I love what people put out in the city. I love this undercurrent of looking after each other that kind of exists in all this madness. I wanted to tap into the people. Everything [globally] was just really f_cked. And I thought about how can I make clothes when all this sh_t is happening? That was when I decided the clothes are going to be a continuation of what I do. And I want this to be much more about the people who wear the clothes.’ This decision gave way to intersecting storylines within Safe From Harm relationships — Mahmood and Leonardo; Dilone and Kai-Isaiah; Paloma Elsesser and Chachi Maserati; Yuji and his mother Erika. A film unified by a notion of trauma sees each couple negotiate grief hurdles across a filmic conversation on emotional vulnerability. ‘I wanted to have a moment that appreciates how we feel and lets us know that I am here for you and we are here for each other. I wanted that message to come across.’

'The old guard is still trying to figure out how to get in touch with the community, which is the new word for urban — community. It is time for that to change. I am hell bent on being a business that can be successful, change that old guard and work around those parameters.’

The resulting fashion film elevated Willy Chavarria dimensionality to its apex. Safe From Harm was filmed at an old convent. It was an ironic location to center these characters at, inner turmoil from hell's angels and prolific demons. Chavarria’s appetite for eroticism is relentless, particularly facing down the ghosts of sacrosanct codes. This explains the weightlifting tableau, Mahmood’s shower scene and Kai on Dilone after arm day. ‘I gagged for it, of course. A mood like pure eye candy. That shower scene with Mahmood has nothing to do with the film other than, we get to look at his body and his lips. That was the only purpose.’ Religious iconography gave way to the altar of fashion.

Scenes like Amara Gisele, Zaya Guarani and Dilone in repose on a couch opposite Leonardo, a sexy boy in black heels and another cowpoke gazing at his phone are respective Steven Meisel and David LaChappele feasts for shame at fabulous stages. Pivotal is the Douglas Plaid check ruffle shirt and dress style Paloma wears. The colourway has been a recurring motif in a grey, black-striped oversized polo since ‘Real Men’ A/W 21. Safe From Harm reshapes to redefine its cultural common sense from cholo to barrio peacock. Reconciling demons as real and ethereal contrasts haunt each character throughout the film expresses necessary sadness, interconnected by tears, from each mourning origin story. These exercises also comment on depictions of sex, gender and emotional stereotyping. Perhaps these reasons are why Chavarria’s film had strong reactions. ‘It was also, like the death of our own shame. It was the death of something within us,’ he adds.

Hiandra Martinez on Safe From Harm film set

The ending scene set at church recalled growing up, facing down ideas of shame, or the temple where trauma presumably gets released. Values being the accepted commandments of a Biblical sort in a family. Indulging your own carnal instincts — or should you even — in pleasurable ways. Chavarria conceived it as a celebratory moment. ‘The church scene is this moment that brings forgiveness. It is kind of a funeral where we're honouring the death of these people. And that's why we see these people who rise up, who died, and then it turns into a dance.’ Set to proper deep house music from Marco Neves, the ebullient nature of house absorbs each manner of loss that our characters release to bathe in the joy Chavarria sought to recapture from his, from our, gloomy New York period. ‘House music and the way I design goes hand-in-hand. This season, I worked with a beautiful soul, Marco, who is a DJ I just met. We built the soundtrack together. The whole time I said, think old Frankie Knuckles. We are building this sound. And then we made the house track with snippets here and there of stuff which is in the film. It was very much that.’

Bodies became primal vessels-in-movement to this house music hymn. They spoke in tongues when Neves’ lyric ‘Love take my heart/Love is pain’ reverberated in ‘church’ like a dub remix. It became each character’s personal 23rd Psalm. This house music homily raised spiritual hands to the ceiling in metaphorical recognition of Brown and Black ecstasy. A feeling that seemingly acknowledged house music’s old and new testaments. To India, whose Nuyorican Soul couldn’t get no sleep. Of Romanthony, when it had been too long. Brighter days that Dajae sang about lifted Dilone up, in juke mode, with Leonardo. When Mahmood and Paloma got that feeling to turn a runway walk down a convent corridor. These were freedom portals for every saint and sinner that house music opened.

Willy Chavarria backstage at A/W 24 show

Willy Chavarria, our fashion man and fashion label, exists in a moment that speaks to the interdimensional relationship Brown and Black people have with music that connects to fashion, that connects to style. As his world evolves steadily with wholesale, retail and creative collaborations, perhaps all this love and fierceness in transition to a larger platform is Chavarria’s coming out story to shed the old ways so new outcomes can emerge. Maybe ‘Safe From Harm’ was his haus of hidden meanings that placed the past to rest. ‘It is so true, that fear. We all have it. It is the worst thing in the world. The more you think about it and let it get to you, the more devastating it can be. I have missed out on many amazing things because of my own fear or sabotage. I will never do it again.’



Fashion Film: Willy Chavarria A/W 24

12 February 2024
Watch the Willy Chavarria A/W 24 fashion film.
Live Review

Live Review: Willy Chavarria S/S 24 Menswear

13 September 2023
Live from New York, editor Hetty Mahlich rounds up the key takeaways from the S/S 24 shows, including Willy Chavarria menswear.

Willy Chavarria Wants Fashion To Mean Something

15 February 2023
The Mexican American designer has become a cult and industry favourite with his subversive take on menswear. Ahead of his A/W 23 show we caught up with the designer to discuss identity, community, and the change he wants to see in fashion.
Back to top