Chances are you’ve walked by a window, maybe on 5th avenue in New York or elsewhere in the world, and have seen the work of Cesar Villalba on display. For five years he has been the senior designer of men’s bags and leather goods for Coach, the leading design house for luxury accessories in the US. In Spain as a student he studied architecture at the Universidad de Alcalá before leaving three years in to pursue a new education in fashion at the IADE Escuela de Diseño.
Born outside Madrid in a small town surrounded by forests and rolling hills Villalba took pleasure in the natural world, which served as an outlet for his creativity and an integral part of the local community. Until his late teens he devoted the majority of his focus to soccer, but never turned down the opportunity to explore the trails around his home town. Though effervescent and always modest, Villalba often prefers to listen to others rather than talk about himself. He’s interested in the details, in experiencing his surroundings through personal and often increasingly open means. "I feel like over the past five years I’ve been the most productive person I could possibly be," Villalba notes, "but that comes at a cost." That cost, he says, is both a personal and psychological one, where habitual planning and dedication can unfavorably dictate an outcome rather than letting them openly emerge.
I spoke to Villalba over lunch and coffee in New York’s Hudson Yards, near his office at Coach. We discussed his upcoming move to Los Angeles, his desire to relinquish some control on his schedule, and why now, more than ever, it’s important to focus on enjoying as many of life's pleasures any way you can.
Where did you grow up?
I grew up in Spain about 40 minutes outside Madrid. It was really cool because it was a nice tiny town. I would say it kind of looks like Boulder, Colorado a bit. It's a town called Guadalajara where you have access to Madrid easily, and we would go all the time. It’s a huge community of people and young athletes really into sport. So growing up I was playing soccer and riding bikes and motorcycles, but I didn’t know at that time how much that community would shape who I am now.
Was that a unique quality for a town to have in that part of Spain?
It was. You are living right by the trees and the countryside. It’s very beautiful. I would be outside every day on the trails and training with kids playing soccer. That sport I was deeply into at the time. But all the time in between soccer I was running outside or cycling outside, things I just saw as a hobby and that all my friends were doing. It was really natural and really nice having that environment.
Did you play soccer at a competitive level?
Yes. I grew up mostly playing soccer, and took that very seriously till I was around 17. At that time I was actually making a living off playing, and being able to pay all my bills from soccer, so that was very serious. For a while I raced motorcycles as well, from about age 10 competing in Enduro races. I was always involved in sport, especially later in my teens.
Did you go out socially as well or were you focused only on your training?
I did, but I never got into alcohol, I never drank. We definitely did go out a lot. When I was 13 or 14 years old—that’s when people in Spain really start to go out—I would still go out and party, but the advantage was that I had plenty of energy to keep doing all my sports and activities afterwards.
Lately a lot of elite runners and cyclists talk openly about the infamous recovery beer, and drinking is very much a part of the culture of professional and amateur endurance sports, to be specific. Has that affected you now or has not much changed?
I was always going, always joining everybody for the beers. I still do every day. I never rejected the social aspect to focus only on my racing and training, I was always a part of that culture too. I just don’t personally like drinking beer or alcohol and will just have a coke and that’s it.
How do you balance your work and training schedule?
I'm not sure if balance is the right word. It’s more of, How do you make it happen. I’ve gotten good at it over the last five years. It’s a lot of planning ahead and red-eye flights for sure. Last year I think I took 13 red-eyes. It’s all about maximizing the time. I’d be racing an Ironman or half Ironman on a Sunday, and then flying back in the morning on Monday and heading straight to work.
Would you be doing this on weekends or taking vacation time for races?
It depends. Mostly just going on the weekends honestly. I'll typically leave on a Friday and flying back on a red-eye Monday. I did it this past fall in New Orleans and qualified for the world championships in Nice, so it seems to be working.
You recently won your age group and placed seventh overall at NOLA. Four weeks later you run your first marathon in Philadelphia in 2:47:50 and quality for Boston. Has that changed your perspective on racing and work, or been an influence on your choice to move to Los Angeles?
No not really. I don’t think the races played a big part in that decision. The decision to move to LA has been in my mind for years. Almost since I first moved to New York I knew I wanted to eventually move to LA. Since this last year I gave my decision to leave [Coach] and move there so it was natural. Though I am very excited, and it will definitely be better for the training. It’s not that I’m thinking living there will allow me to invest more time in training, because I already invent a lot. It's just going to be more pleasant. And also being freelance and a consultant, a manager of my own schedule will be a big advantage mentally and physically.
That’s where you’ll find your balance, perhaps?
I hope life will be more balanced there. I’m not sure, but I have a good feeling.
What has been the most difficult aspects of your life in the city as an athlete and designer?
I feel like over the past five years I’ve been the most productive person I could possibly be. But that comes at a cost. I felt that if I kept going in this way—being able to tell you what I’m doing every week, every day, almost every hour of the next year—something would break. Plus, I was never able to find a partner, ever, because I was never there, or I didn’t have any openness to improvisation. Everything has been really planned the last five years. So I’m really excited to explore a new kind of life.
What drew you to design?
I studied architecture for 3 years, and I thought that was my vocation. A lot of people in my family are architects. But I found out early that I was more interested in clothes and sneakers and accessories. And looking back I realized that growing up, before I was 13 or 14, I was always sketching soccer boots and sneakers, and all my books were covered in sketches. And even prior to that, I was always playing with fabrics and materials. So I guess being surrounded by architects made me think that was going to be my career but in reality when I started into the studies I knew it wasn’t right. I’d focus more on drawing the people and their style within the buildings than on the building itself.
Did your brief time modeling have an influence on your design career?
Yes, for sure. It was a really helpful and natural way to get in contact with the fashion industry. I don’t have anyone in my family who is or was connected to that so it helped me start to understand how the fashion business worked. I started working during my studies for companies doing fittings or putting together lookbooks. I stated to go to Milan for the fashion weeks and really paid attention to the designers and how they put together the pieces and organized the business aspects. Being a model you have great access into that part of the industry. This was really around when I was 18 and 19, right when I switched from architecture to fashion school.
Did you stay in the modeling industry for a while?
About four or five years. Starting to study fashion allowed me to focus on that, and then I started to work and do small things for companies in tailoring and internships and suit designing. After I finished school I worked in Spain for a while with a few big companies like Scalpers, and spent some time in Indonesia designing before I got an offer to work with Loewe back in Spain. I was there for four years before moving to New York to work for Coach, where I've been designing for five years.
Who are some of your influences in design?
I really liked Hedi Slimane when he was at Dior. I always liked Celine and Margiela as well. Technical brands like Nike are interesting and the style and novelty they always bring in. I constantly try to bring that into my designs at Coach, into the high fashion brands.
I also have a motivation to bring sustainability into my work and the companies I work for. It’s coming now a bit stronger, and I’ve always tried to find ways to make them slightly more sustainable. I’ve always looked up to what Patagonia has done, and Stella Mccartney for sure has been a big influence in sustainability in high fashion, and I’d love to work with her. And of course, Thom Browne. His style and his own aesthetic made a big statement, and he’s stood by that and really changed men's tailoring and fashion in so many ways.
What are your race goals this year?
With the move and setup I haven't really planned the season properly. World Championships in September in Nice is the only thing I have on the calendar right now. My main goal is to keep improving. It’s one of the main goals I have every year is to keep improving from the previous season. I feel like my running is getting better, my cycling is getting better, my swimming is getting better. I don’t make myself goals like I have to win my age group or beat a specific time. If I keep improving it’s going to happen most likely, but the way to approach it is different. I don’t put any stress on myself in terms of training, and the results will come if I keep moving forward.
Last year I was in the best shape ever for the full Ironman and my body didn’t want it, and when I thought I was in much worse shape at the end of the season I had two beautiful races. I will just keep having fun and enjoying it. And then mix it up a bit.
Will you run another Marathon this year?
I would love to. At the end of the year maybe Berlin or Frankfurt or maybe CIM. I didn’t have any plans in Philadelphia this year as far as times. I decided what time I was going for at the start line because there was a group of people that were going for that time and I was like OK, perfect, I’ll just go with you guys. It was actually a group of women who were trying to qualify for the Olympic Trials, and it was awesome and I did well. But if I do one in the fall I would like to do a good race and take more than three weeks to plan and train for it and aim for around the 2:30’s. It’s a big jump but I’m confident and excited for sure.
Any biking events this year?
Definitely. I’m doing in March the Landsrun 100, and I’d love to do some more Xterra and Mountain biking this year as well. I’m really looking to mix it up and have fun.
Lastly, if you had a perfect day and a perfect run in New York, what would it be?
It would probably be starting from my home in Brooklyn, crossing the Pulaski and Queensboro bridges into Manhattan, through Central Park along the bridal path, then back along the West Side Highway, through South Manhattan, and finally across the Williamsburg or Manhattan bridge back into Greenpoint. That would be a long run, but on the perfect day, that would be the best run. I really love exploring by running, just letting my feet take me through the city with no goals. That is the best kind of run.
You can see more of Cesar and his adventures over on Instagram and Twitter @CesarVillalbajr