As the recipient of this year’s Cooper Hewitt National Design award for Fashion Design, Willy Chavarria is still processing the honor.
Although the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum revealed the winners publicly past week, he sounded a little gobsmacked, despite having been told a little while ago. But 23 years after first relocating to New York, Chavarria is being saluted with one of the more covetable titles in the interdisciplinary and highly competitive world of design, not purely fashion design.
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Chavarria spoke of being in the same company as other winners such as Nader Tehrani for Design Visionary; Rural Studio for Architecture/Interior Design, and Wedew by David Hertz for Climate Action. Chavarria said, “Something like this is really just an incredible gift. It’s not just a comparison to other people in fashion. It’s a comparison to other people, who are all really trying to be the best at their game. All these people do such great work and, of course, I know what’s involved in doing great work. It’s quite an honor to be in the same company.”
With his own work Chavarria aims to have an impact beyond the fashion industry to inspire on many other levels beyond the beauty of the apparel and how it’s made. “I really aim to raise people up, who maybe come from a background like me and didn’t really have this path carved out for them,” he said, adding that he hopes his cultural background and name will signal to others, including children, “that there is a great possibility for them to do something that they really want to do whether it’s fashion or something else. Whenever younger generations are able to see someone like me succeeding, it only raises people up.”
The Californian switched coasts in 1999 to work with Ralph Lauren. Chavarria didn’t start his own label until 2015. Since that time he has stood out for statements related to racial, economic and sexual identity. He also serves as senior vice president of design at Calvin Klein.
With his next runway show slated for Thursday, while speaking last week Chavarria said that he was sitting in a pile of shoes, sorting them out to see if there were enough sizes to fit the runway models. Known for an all-inclusive approach to fashion, Chavarria is aware of the trend toward inclusivity. He said he is just happy to have been able to stay true to his work without compromising, garner a following and to stay in business. “That alone for me is success for sure,” he said.
HIs fellow NDA honorees include Emily Adams Bode for Emerging Designer; Giorgia Lupi for Communication Design; Felecia Davis for Digital Design; Kounkuey Design Initiative for Landscape Architecture, and CW&T for Product Design. “I recognize the seriousness of this award and that is why it is so deeply personal. Through my conversations with the Cooper Hewitt, I understand that they are recognizing not only my talent or skill as a designer, but the reason I design and the impact my work has on people.”
Describing his style as “an elegant interpretation of cultural influence,” Chavarria said much of that influence comes from the street, with his last few collections having been inspired by his own culture, upbringing, family and circle of friends. “I’ve always been mad about subcultures, even those that I’m not completely connected with,” he said.
Allowing that he still questions himself daily, Chavarria said that having people in his life in his childhood who nurtured what he was thinking or felt about himself and his art was advantageous. Having “even felt different as a small kid,” there were people in his circle who recognized and respected that. My parents, to some degree, my mother especially, recognized that and respected that.”
Growing up in a family of agricultural workers in California’s San Joaquin County, Chavarria said his relatives did a lot of the picking of the crops and his grandfather opened a small-town grocery store later in life. “Without question, I learned from my parents and from my family that work is the way to success. My idea of success became something very different from my family’s but just seeing their arduous work absolutely taught me discipline.”
While some are inclined to write off design as a gift, there is a good deal of elbow grease involved.
“Discipline is key. I can look all around to see people who are great successes and may not be very talented, but they have amazing levels of self-discipline and drive. Part of my drive was always to be honest, to show that I could make something of myself. I came from a family that I loved very dearly, but I wanted to show them that I could really be something. The discipline I learned probably also came from the church and my disciplined Catholic upbringing,” he said. “As I’ve grown, my relationship with the church has evolved, for sure. I go to a Mass several times a year. I do think that having that repetition of prayer and learning that discipline of repetition is something that’s aided my ability to stick with a plan.”
Having recently visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where three of his designs are on view, he was amazed and moved to overhear people discussing his work and how they identified with it culturally. For now, though, he is focused on his upcoming New York Fashion Week show, not celebrating his Cooper Hewitt honor. “Right now it is all about work and sleep and water and vitamins. I’ll celebrate by closing my eyes and sleeping really well by thinking about it,” he said.
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