Olivia Villanti Wants To Make You the Perfect Shirt

The founder of Chava Studio on her go-to founder-led labels, her favorite fashion TikTok, and why she left New York City.

(Image credit: Olivia Villanti)

Jumping on a video call with Chava Studio designer Olivia Villanti feels like reconnecting with an old friend. There are no formal introductions. Instead, we dive right into what could be the middle of a conversation—like we're picking up where we left off—even though we've never met. "My son was three when we moved to Mexico City from New York [where she and her husband lived for fifteen years]. It was really challenging trying to raise him in NYC. It was a lot. My husband and I were both working a ton. It just wasn't really what we wanted," she says. Juggling work and mom life is a familiar struggle. Add in the city's grueling pace, tight spaces, and a global pandemic, and Villanti and her husband didn't need much more reason to stay put in Mexico City for the long haul, close to in-laws and where her husband was raised.

The better quality of life and emphasis on family were instant draws for Vallanti, who was used to burning the candle at both ends. As a dance major pursuing it as a professional career after college, the reality meant practicing all day and waiting tables all evening. "I just got really burnt out," she tells me point blank. And then there was an in-between career—and the novelty of a lunch break—at a part-time job at a fashion PR firm that led Villanti to meet editors who turned into friends. Through those connections, she landed an editor role at Conde Nast's former shopping publication, Lucky Magazine. "That was the magazine that started to make me feel like fashion was accessible to someone like me who loved clothing but didn't have a big budget."

I thought men have at least one or maybe several made-to-measure shirts in their closet, but that experience had never been translated into what women want or proportioned for a woman's body.

Back in Mexico City, she was immersed in design at her French in-laws' made-to-measure studio started by her husband's grandfather. Their family business, which imported fine European fabrics after emigrating to Mexico post-WWII, evolved into a bespoke men's tailoring atelier. Rummaging through their treasure trove of fine fabric deadstock, including the sought-after Alumo cotton (arguably one of the finest fabrics in the world), Villanti began making shirting for herself and became, in a word—obsessed. "There were so many options of collars and cuffs, and inner linings, and buttons and monogram placements—and I thought men have at least one or maybe several made-to-measure shirts in their closet, but that experience had never been translated into what women want or proportioned for a woman's body."

"The whole idea of Chava Studio just kind of came to me," she recalls, her voice filled with the excitement of a new venture. She dove into launching her made-to-measure women's shirting company in August of 2020, keeping the beautiful details that make made-to-measure unique but with "a sensibility that's really soft and feminine."

Villanti's showroom is nestled in the front of her in-laws' Mexico City studio—now an extension of the family business—and a go-to for the fashion set, who turn to Chava Studio for all their button-downs.

We chat more about Villanti's artistic inspirations, the book she can't put down, and discuss the polarizing sides of foundership—a job she notes is one of her loneliest but equally rewarding experiences to date.

Villanti works in her studio in Mexico City, Mexico.

(Image credit: Clémence Polès)

Marie Claire: Who is currently influencing your work as a designer?

Olivia Villanti: Dance will forever influence my work because it was my first medium for finding a creative voice. I studied ballet when I was young and switched to modern dance when I was about 16. I was focused on dance theater, specifically studying it through the lens of Pina Bausch, my mentor. She does many things beautifully, but she's a technically proficient dancer. She's rooted in fundamental, classic technique, but she can create something that feels so distinctly hers within the framework of this classical canon. Her performances have moved me to tears. She understands how to make these beautiful vignettes where you feel like you're being told the story from every angle—including how she uses costumes and fabrics to narrate a story.

MC: Do you have any of your own rules or techniques around the clothes you choose?

OV: Getting dressed in the morning is a pretty quick process. I don't take much time to pick out or plan outfits. I'm very formulaic. I wear the same things every day. I mean, it's a joke sometimes. I always have on a Chava Studio blouse—I own eight and rotate through them—a silver choker, an ear cuff, some sort of pants (my closet is 70 percent vintage denim), and a flat or loafer combination.

A couple of core tenets are really important to me when it comes to clothing, especially as a designer. I want everything to feel emotional but also timeless. It's all about infusing outfits and pieces with interesting and special details that aren't distracting, not pegged to a specific moment in time, or tethered to a trend. It's a hard tension sometimes.

I also like juxtaposing formality with femininity to make dressing more accessible and relaxed. A workhorse shirt can be made of luxurious fabrics that feel elegant. Why not?

(Image credit: .)

MC: What is exciting you in the fashion industry right now?

OV: I really love that there's been an emergence of founder-led brands that feel like they're creating pieces with a lot of soul and very much a representation of themselves. I love the shoes from Emme Parsons' [eponymous] brand and Alissa [Zachary's] brand High Sport. It feels like so much intention and focus goes into their brands. What I don't like is any brand that feels like it's launched as an idea to get a lot of investment, or to sell it off, or to be the hot new direct-to-consumer company.

With the smaller founder-led brands, there's an intimacy that resonates. People are getting a lot of [the founders'] personal style and ethos. It's nice to think about it as a return to fashion's roots—keeping craftsmanship alive by buying pieces you can repair and care for, have an afterlife, and want to hold onto.

Olivia Villanti founder of Chava Studio

"A couple of core tenets are really important to me when it comes to clothing, especially as a designer. I want everything to feel emotional but also timeless. It's all about infusing outfits and pieces with interesting and special details that aren't distracting."

(Image credit: Olivia Villanti)

MC: What are your feelings on fashion TikTok?

OV: I think it's so important. I mean, at least if you're a small brand and you're starting out, that is where you're going to build your community. But for me, I think there's something really authentic about sharing a lot of the behind-the-scenes stuff, things that you're experiencing on a day-to-day basis with your brand that feels, I don't know, interesting, fun. It also feels a little bit therapeutic for me. I feel like I'm inviting people into my process because, as a founder, it's a pretty lonely experience.

Some brands are so good at TikTok. Like Loewe, their TikTok is amazing and so funny! Social media can add an entirely new dimension to the brand. I pay all my respects to social media. It might drive me crazy, and I spend way too much time on it. I know it's not good for my mental health, but I see a lot of value in it. I really do.

brand building headline

(Image credit: .)

MC: How do you keep yourself entertained when you can pull yourself away from Loewe's TikTok?

OV: I've gotten really hard into this Bleachers music phase. I'm so happy, and their music is bringing me up because I feel like this has been an intense moment in my life [growing Chava]. We've been really busy; if I put that music on, I'm just in the flow. I'm actually going to see them in October in New York.

I'm also reading Hello Beautiful by Anne Napolitano, which my mother gave me. I really like it, but I just finished rereading Call Me By Your Name by André Aciman for the fourth time. I love that book and am inspired by it every time I read it. It's just so beautiful.

effortless ethos

(Image credit: .)

In our Have You Met series, we get to know stylish creatives, changemakers, and founders.

Sara Holzman
Style Director

Sara Holzman is the Style Director for Marie Claire, where she's worked alongside the publication for eight years in various roles, ensuring the brand's fashion content continues to inform, inspire, and shape the conversation about fashion's ever-evolving landscape. With a degree from the Missouri School of Journalism, Sara is responsible for overseeing a diverse fashion content mix, from emerging and legacy designer profiles to reported features on the influence of social media on style and seasonal and micro trends across the world's fashion epicenters in New York, Milan, and Paris. Before joining Marie Claire, Sara held fashion roles at Conde Nast's Lucky Magazine and Self Magazine and was a style and travel contributor to Equinox's Furthermore website. Over her decade of experience in the fashion industry, Sara has helped guide each brand's style point of view, working alongside veteran photographers and stylists to bring editorial and celebrity photo shoots to fruition from start to finish. Sara currently lives in New York City. When she's not penning about fashion or travel, she’s at the farmer’s market, on a run, working to perfect her roasted chicken recipe, or spending time with her husband, dog, and cat. Follow her along at @sarajonewyork