In the summer of 2022, the clothing designer Olivia Villanti passed seven weeks driving through France, Switzerland, Italy, Croatia and Montenegro with her husband, Guillaume Guevara, an entrepreneur, and their young son. While on the trip, she would spend most weekends scavenging flea markets, picking out shirts with details like an elegant cutaway collar or an unusual cuff stitched to fold back without cuff links. When the couple returned home to Mexico City, where Guevara, 41, grew up and where they moved in 2020 after 16 years together in New York, Villanti, also 41, unpacked several duffels of old clothes and began designing the latest (and largest) collection for her nearly three-year-old made-to-order women’s wear line, Chava Studio.
Before leaving the United States, Villanti had worked for years in marketing departments at large international brands. “I was trying to reach these enormous sales goals,” she says, “and I was so unhappy.” In Mexico City, where Guevara’s uncle Bruno Gilly Armand had for years supplied boutique men’s tailors with imported cottons and wools, Villanti started envisioning garments of her own using deadstock fabrics. She hoped to incorporate into women’s clothing “these elements that belonged, traditionally, to the world of men’s tailoring,” she says, “these small details” — like double vents on jackets, or functional cuffs — “that women just don’t get.” Since that first collection, Villanti, who handles the brand’s design, sourcing and customer service and works closely with a team of seamstresses out of Gilly’s studio, has been constantly immersed in production. By last summer, the business was established enough that she could consider not just her company’s future — “Chava will always be small,” she says, and always in partnership with local workshops — but also its past. To celebrate both, she decided to plan a dinner.
Held on a brisk March night, the event would serve as an informal launch for the new collection — with its slick, nip-waist tuxedo coat and shawl-collared vest in eggshell linen — as well as a tribute to the friends, family members and colleagues who have made the business a success. As the sun set around 6:30, Villanti and Guevara opened the doors at Proyecto Público Prim, an early 20th-century mansion in the central neighborhood of Colonia Juarez. Built in 1906 and occupied by a long line of owners before being abandoned for some twenty years late last century, the house has undergone a series of sensitive restorations over the past decade. With its gracious central courtyard and labyrinth of secondary rooms, its grand split staircase, cracked plaster walls and profusion of plants, the structure today exudes the old-world sprezzatura that has always animated Villanti’s line. “It’s just romantic,” she says, “and I think Chava is romantic — tailoring is romantic.”
By nightfall, guests from New York, Los Angeles, Guadalajara and Mexico City — including the designer Mariana Villeda, who has collaborated with Villanti through her embroidery collective, Jauja, based in the rural community of Temoaya, and the writer and curator Su Wu, who opened her home in the Roma neighborhood for the brand’s first trunk show — had found their seats at a long rectangular table set for 34 attendees with scallop-edged dishware by the Mexico City-based ceramist Perla Valtierra. In lieu of place cards, there were napkins made from leftover scraps of linen from Chava’s studio monogrammed with each guest’s initials.
Soon after, marbled wheat-and-corn bread arrived with rochers of butter tinted the color of chestnuts by ground chicatanas, or flying ants. Next came several salads served on raw earthenware: Apples, cranberries and grapefruit filled tangled nests of shaved fennel while a crumble of Ocosingo cheese from the southern state of Chiapas enlivened jewel-toned mounds of tomatillo, nopal, fava beans, black beans, peas and eggplant. All served family style and created by the local chef Elena Reygadas, who owns the restaurant Rosetta among other places in town, these dishes — as well as the individually plated sweet potato ravioli main and dessert of poached pears with tarragon and elderflowers — emphasized the profusion of fruits and vegetables used widely in Mexican cuisine.
As the plates came out, Villanti stood to make a toast with a glass of sparkling wine from the foothills of the Italian Alps. “Guillaume always compares a small business to a small glass, filling it drop by drop,” she told her guests. “Some of those drops are bigger, some are smaller, but they’re all essential.” Here’s how she turned what she’d initially conceived as a small dinner into a larger event that, nonetheless, felt special and intimate.
Focus on the Parts of Entertaining You Enjoy
Villanti prefers to invest her time, whenever possible, in the elements of her work that energize her. With Chava, that’s design, production and customer service rather than packaging and logistics; for her dinner, it was arranging a playlist. “We welcomed everyone with Gustavo Pena and Los Panchos” — respectively, an Uruguayan songwriter and the Mexican and Puerto Rican trio whose boleros traversed the Americas beginning in the 1940s — “then dined with Brian Eno and Helado Negro and finished the night with Sharon Jones, Fela Kuti and Juan Gabriel,” the designer says. To keep conversation flowing, she introduced people before dinner began and arranged the seating to encourage new relationships while ensuring that everyone was also close enough to someone more familiar.
Allow Yourself to Be Outshone
No one should feel uncomfortable at a party, neither over- nor underdressed, which is why Villanti wanted to keep her own look both elegant and slightly “undone,” she says. For the dinner, she wore the tuxedo jacket and pants from Chava’s new collection, made in collaboration with the tailor Edmundo Hernandez (based outside the city of Puebla), sizing up the pant for a looser silhouette. She had on “a beloved white T-shirt that’s been in my closet forever” beneath, left her hair down and applied very little makeup — finding common ground between people who came dressed up and those who’d opted for something more low key.
Keep Everything Relaxed
For all the grandeur of Proyecto Público Prim, which often hosts events like weddings and art fairs, it was important to Villanti that the evening remain informal, in keeping with not only her own aesthetic but also that of the city, which is known for its openness and warmth. Arrangements of eucalyptus and silver dollar wreathed in mauve clusters of amaranth were deliberately sparse — there were only three on the table — so as not to obstruct sightlines or conversation. Villanti also set out lots of handmade candles in a range of shapes and sizes to foster a sense of spontaneity and ease.
Let Your Guests Get Involved
Though Villanti isn’t a natural delegator, she found that including friends and guests in the process of organizing the dinner brought them as much joy as it brought her peace of mind. As the hour approached to open the venue, the New York-based photographer Clémence Polès put together the flower arrangements while Guevara hung mood boards for the collection (created by the Los Angeles-based creative director Johanna Langford, a regular Chava collaborator) from fishing wire.
Take Moments Alone
Hosting is demanding, not just in the planning but in the execution, requiring constant engagement. For Villanti, stepping back every so often for a few quiet minutes in a dark corner was “a great way to recharge and be more present,” she says. Standing at the periphery of her own party allowed her to watch as her guests, who came from different places and different worlds, created new bonds, expanding the community that brought them there in the first place.