Willy Chavarria and Omar Apollo on Faith and Heartbreak
Three days after his fall 2023 runway show in February, while on his way to meet Omar Apollo at a photographer’s house in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn, the 55-year-old fashion designer Willy Chavarria studied the 25-year-old musician’s Wikipedia page. What Chavarria lacked in detailed knowledge about Apollo’s career, he made up for with an immediate paternal tenderness. Each detail Apollo revealed about himself during their afternoon together — from his recent Grammy nomination for best new artist to his middle name, Apolonio (also the title of his 2020 mixtape) — drew “oohs” and “aahs” from Chavarria, a senior vice president at Calvin Klein and the founder of his own namesake line.
Apollo, a native of Lake Station, Ind., who first found success on Spotify, was more familiar with Chavarria, whose garments — chinos with exaggerated proportions, mourning gowns reimagined as nylon sportswear — reflect the soulful romance of Apollo’s own falsetto-inflected songs. “And on all-Latino models,” Apollo says. “We don’t often see that.” For the presentation of his religiously ornate spring 2023 collection, at Manhattan’s Marble Collegiate Church this past September, Chavarria exclusively featured models of color in lush fabrics and dramatic silhouettes.
A few days later, Apollo would perform his music, a mix of Latin-infused soul and R&B, on a North American tour as SZA’s opening act; Chavarria hadn’t yet come down from his triumphant fall 2023 show, staged at the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, which had awarded him the 2022 National Design Award for fashion. And yet the pair saw eye to eye on more than just success. Some similarities were obvious: Both are gay and Mexican American, and both were born in small towns where dreams of artistic stardom seemed impossibly distant. Others, like the way each came out to his religious mother during an intimate car ride, connected them further, leading Chavarria to suggest that a deeper involvement in each other’s lives would be “good in a lot of ways.”
Following a photo shoot that felt more like a family portrait session, Chavarria and Apollo spoke at length about faith, tokenism and how to balance swagger with vulnerability.
Willy Chavarria: Do you know Dave’s New York? You must go while you’re here. It’s a work wear shop where you get, you know, Timberlands. Actually, they probably have all that stuff in Indiana, too.
Omar Apollo: Honestly, I wasn’t dressing that well in Indiana. I didn’t realize you’ve got to have an awareness of how things fit.
W.C.: What did you wear growing up?
O.A.: I’d go to vintage stores. I had this suede varsity jacket with green and dark brown sleeves. I only figured out pants a couple of years ago.
W.C.: Because you’re so tall.
O.A.: Yeah, it took me a while to realize I need to buy them two or three sizes bigger.
T Magazine: Omar, you’re 6-foot-5. Are you from a tall family, or have you always towered over everyone?
O.A.: The Mexicans in my family are short. I have one tio who’s tall, but I’m still about three inches taller than him. I have a humongous lineage.
W.C.: I have a big family, too, but I was an only child. I loved it, but as I got older, I started to realize how, in certain ways, I wasn’t all there. I was very much a loner. I love my family, but I was usually out on my own.
T: Omar, you’re the youngest of four siblings. Were you the artsy black sheep of the family?
O.A.: Of course. [My parents] told me the classic, “You need a plan.” I was a step-by-step kind of guy. “What do I need to do to play a show? A guitar. What else do I gotta do? Hold auditions, find a band, start rehearsing.” I never really told them I was making music, because it just didn’t make sense to me. “I’m planning to tour the world playing music people enjoy”? That was so far-fetched.
W.C.: I believe some people are given a special gift, and that if you have that gift, the universe kind of guides you. Like you just said, I also did things minute by minute. I was always an artist, but I never had any plans. I just knew I was going to be what I am today. I pictured myself living in a big city, coming home with baguettes sticking out of a grocery bag. I’m from a small Mexican American town in California called Huron, where we didn’t have those. And now here we are.
O.A.: When did that fantasy start?
W.C.: Probably around 10.
O.A.: That’s young. For me, I didn’t think like a person who had money. I didn’t visualize buying a house. Now that I have money and can take care of my family and be self-sufficient and plan things, I’m doing what you were doing when you were 10.
T: When did that click for you?
O.A.: Right before I dropped my first album, “Ivory,” in April of last year. I was living in an attic in Indiana with asbestos and black mold. My rent was $150, and I could barely pay it with what I made working at Guitar Center. I had almost no money for food, but I’d uploaded my music onto SoundCloud, which is free. A friend told me to also add it to Spotify — he even gave me the money to do it. I uploaded a song that day, “Ugotme,” and it blew up. It was literally the only way I could have possibly escaped that small, conservative town [Apollo now lives in Los Angeles]. I was making all these unrequited gay love songs.
W.C.: You were in a white town? How did you end up there?
O.A.: When my dad crossed the border, he’d already lined up a job as a cook in Indiana. My mom was friends with my dad’s sister, so they wrote each other letters. And then my aunt sent a picture of my mom to her brother, and he thought she was beautiful. He was like, “I gotta cross back and get her.”
W.C.: Like old-fashioned Grindr for straight people.
O.A.: That’s how I ended up at a mostly white school. There were four Mejicanos in my graduating class, and they’re all my friends.
W.C.: When I went to high school, it was about 5 percent Black, 50 percent Mexican and 45 percent white.
O.A.: Did you get into design and clothes in high school? Did you have a group of friends, like a scene?
W.C.: I didn’t have a scene. I just wanted to get away from everything. And then — this is crazy — right before I went to high school, I was like, “I’m going to be the most sought-after kid in school.” I went in and dated Susie, I dated Veronica, I was the homecoming king, boom, boom, boom. I did it all in high school and then, as soon as it was over, I left.
O.A.: How was that with your family? Did they know you wanted to do fashion?
W.C.: I didn’t even know I wanted to do fashion at that point. I just needed to be around other creative people because, where I was, there were very few. I knew I needed to be free and, to be honest, my sexuality wasn’t fully realized until, well, way after Susie. Were you openly queer in high school?
O.A.: No, I didn’t even know I was gay. OK, I did — but not really. I was 17 when it really hit me, and I remember I was in the shower like, “Damn, that’s crazy.”
W.C.: Did you come out?
O.A.: No, I just made music about … things.
W.C.: I read your Wikipedia page and thought, “God, this child is so young.” I was so lost at your age. I was heavily involved in the nightclub scene in San Francisco. It was a beautiful time — rave culture had just hit the United States from the U.K., and house music was coming from Chicago and New York, and it all kind of arrived in San Francisco and created this amazing lifestyle of music, drugs and sexual revolution. That’s when I realized that I felt free and could really appreciate who I am as a complete human being. That’s also when I discovered fashion.
O.A.: Nightlife inspired it?
W.C.: Yeah, that’s when I started dressing up. Jesus Christ Cyberstar was my nickname.
O.A.: I love seeing you wear the virgen and a cross.
W.C.: And St. Francis.
O.A.: My queerness distanced me from religion. The way that things are taught now, obviously it’s different and you can develop your own relationship with God. How do you think, for you? … I’m not sure what my question is.
W.C.: But I know exactly the answer to it. I was very freaked out about being queer. I went to San Francisco and lived my best life, right? I was more comfortable with it there. I knew what was going on and what I was into, but I didn’t know that I had a lot of guilt. I wasn’t embracing it as a positive thing, which I do now and which is the coolest thing in the world. Have you had a broken heart?
O.A.: Plenty of times. I think the best art comes from suffering.
W.C.: What do you think is worse: having a broken heart or breaking someone else’s heart?
O.A.: I’d rather be broken up with. I’m an empath — I feel too much of the other person. I don’t know, there’s something nice about sitting with sadness. I’ve been carrying it my whole life.
W.C.: I think, honestly, part of that is being Mexican. I was recently with Raul Lopez of [the fashion brand] Luar, who’s Dominican, and we were talking about how we’re both part of the same Latinidad but from different parts of the culture. While he’s out partying, I’m more likely to be taking shots of tequila and crying at the moon.
T: Both of you, in your work, seem to want to represent where you come from — sexuality, religion, background, family. But do you ever come to a point where you go, “I don’t want to be that guy”?
O.A.: I try never to think about the way I’m perceived. It’s impossible for me to force my queerness because it’s just who I am. My real-life relationships are the ones I want to tend to. The others are totally beyond my control.
W.C.: I like things that move the needle politically, and occasionally I’ll do something that intentionally has that vibe. But sometimes, I think just being is political enough. Just the fact that we’re brown and queer. That alone is —
O.A.: Inherently political. But it’s true, there are moments when people are like, “Omar, paint your nails.” If I wanted my nails painted, I’d have come here with them painted.
W.C.: It’s about carving out your own vision for yourself.
O.A.: And it’s not just about queerness. I probably shouldn’t say this, but one time at a shoot, they put me in front of a taco truck, and I was like, “Everyone here is white, this feels weird.” They asked me to eat the tacos, so I told them I was vegan — which I was, for two months. I thought, “Look, I know what’s happening, and that’s fine, but you don’t need to amplify things that just are.”
W.C.: As artists and designers, we’ve shifted the way things have been perceived over the years, and now things are moving in a very different direction. My last collection had Latin influences, of course, but it intentionally wasn’t a celebration of Latin culture.
O.A.: You told me earlier, “I think I’m the best designer because I want to be the best designer.” That’s how you’ve got to feel.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Makeup: Marco Castro at Born Artists using Marco Castro. Hair: Sergio Estrada using Bumble and Bumble