On the Tonys’ red carpet, designer Willy Chavarria delivered a message about representation
From head to toe, ‘A Strange Loop’ star Jaquel Spivey’s outfit spoke to the excluded
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When Jaquel Spivey, the star of the “big, Black, queer-ass American Broadway show,” A Strange Loop, stepped onto the 2022 Tony Awards red carpet in a royal blue Willy Chavarria suit, he was all about representation — from the Afro hair pick worn as a pocket square to the pearl necklace designed by a queer activist to the custom black velvet Del Toro smoking loafers adorned with Black Power fists.
It’s touching when you think about it. The man who played a character about being excluded wore pieces by designers who know a thing or two about being excluded, and Chavarria understood the assignment perfectly. After determining which color would stand out on the red carpet — and on the big stage should Spivey, who was up for best leading actor in a musical, win anything — the designer settled on a jacket with an exaggerated lapel and billowing wide-leg pants slouched just enough so Spivey looked cool yet regal.
Chavarria needed Spivey to look “fantastic and tailored,” because it was about representation. Not just for the Mexican American designer, but also Chris Habana, a queer activist, who created a pearl necklace for Spivey with a large heart charm encrusted in pearls, and rubies. “I thought that was great on him because he has a warm heart,” Chavarria said.
Spivey’s makeup artist Dalia Younan complemented the suit with a matching Maybelline cobalt blue eyeliner.
Fashion, like the Great White Way, can be exclusionary and there aren’t many plus-size Black men on the industry’s red carpets. Chavarria was thrilled to be a part of Spivey’s moment celebrating his role as Usher in writer, lyricist and composer Michael R. Jackson’s musical. A Strange Loop was nominated for 11 awards, the most for any show in the 2022 Broadway season, and took home the award for best musical.
“You know it’s funny because his character on Broadway is dressed down onstage,” Chavarria said. “Even his hair and facial grooming — it’s intentionally very dressed down. So he’s a star on Broadway and he’s walking around New York looking kind of scroungy. We elevated the collar on his lapel around his neck so it felt like an old Dior gown.
“I’ve always known that Black and brown people influenced fashion,” said Chavarria. “It’s always been that way. I’ve always kind of felt like, if there’s inclusivity, that’s one thing. But I don’t always want to be included in everything. I don’t want to be included in a place that’s not going to let me in because I’m not wearing the right shoe.”
Here we have a queer designer who has carved out a safe space in the industry, both for himself and his consumer base. Through his work, Chavarria brings along those of us who would have been or still are excluded from living fashion’s aspirational life.
His runway shows celebrate an everyman whose glamor is exhibited in the ordinary, reimagining blue-collar workwear on bodies often thought to be less than beautiful. Chavarria aims to give respect to where these styles are coming from. “I’m not some big brand that’s going to take from the streets and try to own it,” he said. “I’m designing for the streets with the streets.”
Chavarria has worked for brands with immense commercial appeal, such as Joe Boxer, Ralph Lauren and American Eagle, so he knows what it’s like to create in a space designed to exclude people of color. (He’s also worked for Dickies and Yeezy.) Still, working at those brands earlier in his career helped him gain the experience to launch his own company.
Since launching his business in 1996, Chavarria has designed all of his collections with an eye to social progress. Chavarria was raised in a “very, very” segregated community divided between Mexican and white people. He’s half Mexican and half white and was raised with the Mexican side of his family, who advocated for the farmers’ rights movement as well as the Equal Rights Amendment, instilling in him a “strong backbone of social justice.”
In February 2021, Chavarria joined Calvin Klein as senior vice president of design, tasked with injecting inclusivity into the brand’s DNA. “I feel like there is a lot of change happening, shifting the value system within the company,” he said of his role.
“It’s all very new. I’m proud to be part of having an effect on that change. It’s not just me alone, there’s a team here, but that’s most of my purpose in working with this company.”
He said design is obviously a big part of the job but beyond that, it’s about having an influence on Calvin Klein’s social values.
“Fashion has always been so money-driven,” he said. “It will always be that, it’s a business. But fashion has for so long told people they have to look a certain way in order to be valuable or accepted.
“I’d like for people to look beyond that and just wear whatever they want,” Chavarria said. “If it’s hoochie daddy shorts, then cool.
“Hopefully, eventually, it won’t always be a guy in a suit and a woman in a stretch tank dress.”
Channing Hargrove is a senior writer at Andscape covering fashion. That’s easier than admitting how strongly she identifies with the lyrics “Single Black female addicted to retail.”