When Willy Chavarria showed his fall ’17 collection, which aimed to empower people of color through messages of resistance, the queer Chicano designer received significant backlash from his own community. “It was, Oh, this guy’s making us look like fags,” he said of the hate mail, surprised to hear such oppressive words come from his own marginalized culture.
But after moving through the shock, Chavarria decided his next show would be less confrontational, and instead bring worlds together through mutual interests. “What happens when two cultures that are not in the same picture at all—maybe even opposing—come together?” he asked. “Because that’s what I am, really: half white, half Mexican... I’m gay—I’m all these different things.”
That’s when Chavarria landed on cruising—something that’s embraced by all cultures, regardless of sexuality or race. So for spring ’18, the designer brought NYFWM to the Eagle, Manhattan’s legendary leather bar, where his presentation leaned less on provocation and more on the gritty, romantic history of cruising culture.
Swirling incense masked 50 years of escapades, as fragrant flowers and lit candles softened the Eagle’s impressive wooden bar. “Caution: Men Working” signs were hung and seedy red lights set the tone, though Chavarria’s atmosphere wasn’t as subversive as it was celebratory and referential. “I thought about elements of New York’s queer community that are disappearing,” he said. “This bar is iconic, but it’s almost like you come here to experience a movement that happened in the past.”
Chavarria’s clothes offered sly nods to leather culture with big motorcycle jackets and vintage police caps, but the collection as a whole felt less Robert Mapplethorpe and more California lowrider. Wide-legged pants were styled with oversized button-downs—a Chavarria signature—where stylized sweatsuits and varsity jackets came into play more heavily this season, all worn with shiny black Florsheim shoes.
Several looks were made in collaboration with artist and childhood friend Brian Calvin, who reappropriated iconic logos with new messages: "Coors Light" became "Cares Fight" and Marlboro Reds became "American Mayhem." Recalling the aggressive statements made for fall '17, Chavarria’s t-shirts offered existential statements about race and sexuality: "Silence still equals death," read one, sandwiched in-between Calvin's iconic lips, and "How Can I Tell My Mom and Dad," read another, wrapped around Jesus on the cross.
The designer's models all dressed in character, leaning against the bar and licking their lips, as if cruising the attendees, who clutched rosaries they were gifted at the door. Where much of contemporary queer fashion embraces femininity, Chavarria said he wanted his models to perform masculinity, embracing the campy core of leather culture. “I like the idea of rolling and meeting somewhere,” Chavarria said. “It could be a night, it could be two in a night, who knows, but there is a romance to cruising.”
Photography: Hunter Abrams