Working in Luis Barragán’s Shadow

FOR 16 YEARS, on her annual trips from New York to Mexico City to spend time with her husband, Guillaume Guevara’s, family, the fashion writer Olivia Villanti would visit the offices of her in-laws’ business, Gilly e Hijos — a fabric importer for some of Europe’s top textile mills — in the middle-class neighborhood of Ampliación Daniel Garza. By the time Villanti, who grew up in Rhinebeck, N.Y., and Guevara, both 39, moved down to Mexico City in 2019, the once-thriving business was in decline, a victim of fast fashion. Guevara’s 61-year-old uncle, Bruno Gilly Armand, who had taken over the company in 2011, tried selling bespoke shirting, but most of the people gathered on the street outside had come instead to tour the architect Luis Barragán’s legendary 1948 residence down the block.

“I’ve always romanticized this place,” Villanti says, “but I never thought about doing something with it.” Yet access to the 4,500-square-foot studio and its staff of three expert seamstresses proved as tempting as it was inspiring. Soon she started sampling patterns influenced by a vintage shirt with detachable cuffs that she’d picked up at a Parisian flea market. During the spring lockdown, she began developing designs for shirts, dresses and jumpsuits that combined the precision of traditional men’s tailoring with feminine details like nipped waists and puffed sleeves. By June, she decided her project might work as a modest online business, limited to a total of just 10 orders per week. She named the line Chava Studio, after the Mexican slang for a young woman: a playful reference to her garments’ provenance and their femininity-by-way-of-masculinity aesthetic.

CHAVA IS, at its heart, a project about new beginnings, which is also what Mexico represented for Guevara’s grandfather Edouard Gilly, who arrived nearly 75 years ago as part of a wave of French immigrants who came to Mexico after World War II, many of whom settled in the small city of Orizaba and worked in the textile trade. Five years later, Gilly moved to the capital, where he continued to import fabrics that he sold door-to-door to tailors. By 1990, the company needed an office; the family found the current space by happenstance one afternoon, attracted to its blocky facade and its small, light-filled rooms, which are adorned with Modernist details like hidden skylights and square, pine-framed windows.

Those elements had been added over the previous three years by the architect Diego Villaseñor, 76, who had purchased the building in 1988. A friend of Barragán’s, Villaseñor had pursued the studio (originally a vecindad, or multifamily dwelling, akin to a tenement) because of its proximity to Barragán’s home, and then remodeled it as though in homage to him. In the central garden, for instance, there are now concrete pavers that mimic the color and texture of the dark volcanic rock called recinto, quarried in the city’s lava fields, that Barragán often used. The exterior walls of the courtyard are painted a bold rusty red — a near exact match for the waterproofing material used on roofs throughout the city — and are accented with downspouts, doorways and a rickety metal staircase in a shade of turquoise so bright it seems to vibrate. Although Barragán is celebrated for the bold, unexpected color blocking that he developed with his frequent collaborator, the artist Chucho Reyes, the palette here is closer in spirit to the raucous contrasts that dominate the city’s improvised sprawl.

Guevara’s family has changed almost nothing in the building since buying it three decades ago, but they’ve filled it over the years with their own objects and keepsakes. One wall of the open-air foyer is covered with wooden masks, collected from across Mexico by a family member. In a nearby closet, bolts of dead-stock textiles from the European fabric maker Scabal and satiny Sea Island cottons from the Swiss mill Alumo are stacked like wine bottles, and in a back room are boxes containing old handmade buttons — delicate ovals of beveled glass and glossy rounds of polished horn that may be incorporated into future Chava pieces. Though Villanti admires avant-garde designers, she’s always erred on the side of traditionalism, a style that her new atelier has only reinforced; she feels her business, like the building itself, was born out of the same spirit of reinvention: “It helps to breathe some life into things.”

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