Willie Norris, Willy Chavarria, West Dakota, and More Flock to Bernie’s to Celebrate the Pride Collab of the Year With 'CULTURED' and Away

Hunter Abrams, Serena Tea, and West Dakota at Bernie's in New York. All event photography by Deonté Lee/

New York’s jet set got a bit carried away last night.

On the eve of Pride Month, CULTURED, Away, and Willie Norris took over Greenpoint staple Bernie’s to celebrate the designer and luggage brand’s second collaboration, titled oh-so-fittingly Air Willie. As a who’s who of the art, fashion, and entertainment worlds filtered into the restaurant, they were met with samples of Norris’s cheeky take on the language of luggage. Mantras like “SOMETHING TO DECLARE,” “MY BAGGAGE,” and “THIS IS PERSONAL” adorned Away’s signature hard-shell wares and a garment bag, while custom luggage tags cemented the definitive Air Willie aesthetic.

Over martinis, margs, and onion dip, the likes of designer Willy Chavarria; artists West Dakota, Leilah Babirye, Martine Gutierrez, Ambera Wellmann, Maayan Zilberman, Jeffrey Meris, Meriem Bennani, and Bony Ramirez; writers Aminatou Sow, Adam Eli, Coco Romack; photographers Lee Mary Manning and Emmanuel Sanchez Monsalve; designer Misha Kahn; comedy writer Celeste Yim; and Papi Juice co-founders Mohammed Iman, Oscar Nuñez, and Adam Rhodes dished on their latest travels and Pride Month plans.

Serena Tea

The attendees then settled into their tables for a rousing pair of speeches from Norris and Away Senior Manager of Brand Partnerships Josh Sacks. Not to be outdone by drag performer Serena Tea, who waltzed into the dining room for not one but two show-stopping numbers over the course of dinner. As the root beer floats and key lime pie slices disappeared, guests spilled out onto the Brooklyn street for a last drink and a cigarette before strutting off into the night, head full of the places they’ll go next.

To celebrate the release of the Air Willie capsule collection—whose proceeds up to $30,000 will benefit IGTLA, a queer travel network—and an accompanying campaign featuring none other than West Dakota, Norris and their muse sat down with CULTURED. Below, the power duo talk travel rituals, in-flight magazines, and what a Pride collab should like.

West Dakota and Willie Norris in the Air Willie Campaign. All campaign imagery courtesy of Norris and Away.

CULTURED: Willie, the Air Willie collection is the fruit of your second collaboration with Away. Can you share how your intentions and process evolved from the first to this one? 

Willie Norris: The stark difference is that last year we didn't sell the collection in any capacity. In retrospect, it was pretty badass. The reason we didn't do it is because when I am presented with an opportunity for a project, especially with a larger company with a corporate structure, I like to question everything. Going into the last one, my thing was really about making suitcases and beautiful imagery that I could send to my friends and my collaborators for their travels during Pride of last year. The reaction was heightened from what I thought it was going to be. People really, really responded. I had one person who told me they stenciled on the letters to their existing Away suitcase. That’s what I love to see. People really did read between the lines here and see that this was a different way to approach a Pride collaboration.

So there was fuel in the car, and I wanted to go further. The Away team did their magic and signed me up for season two. The difference this year is that we are selling it, with 100 percent of the proceeds going to IGLTA … I knew I didn't want to do a copy-paste job of last season, but I wanted a link to be there. What I thought was the real iconic piece of the first collection was the My Baggage one. I was like, “I want the My Baggage design to go into another.”

Then I created two new designs with the bigger carry-on template. We created a garment bag. I designed a luggage tag and a custom luggage charm in the shape of an airplane. That, honestly, is one of my favorite little details of the collection. Another difference is I was in all of the campaign images by myself last time, and I wanted to bring in someone else this time. You walk into the imaginary castle of Willie Morris, and West Dakota is the muse. She has been my muse for however long I've been really making stuff. I'm the CEO of Air Willie, but I need my crew. To me, West was the person that embodied the Air Willie persona.

West Dakota: We've known each other since 2017, 2018? Willie came to one of my shows and was like, “Oh, if you ever need anything printed I would love to work with you on something.” I meet a lot of people performing, so I didn't really pay too much attention, no offense, but then I followed up with her, and she ended up printing my first round of merch. Working with her over the years, every project has just been a little insight into her mind and her process. I never feel like there's anything expected of me besides showing up and lending my own creative vision. There's no need to control what the outcome is; it's about putting all the ingredients together and seeing what happens.


CULTURED: Did this project lead to any new discoveries about each other?

Dakota: I didn't know Willie had this obsession with airports and airplanes. I'm like, “Okay, work.”

Norris: I've always loved travel. It does something for me that going to a spa does. Airports and airplanes are liminal spaces, especially when there's a time change involved. It's such a literal interpretation of the movement of human nature. Every time I'm in the airport I find new people to fixate on. Where are you going? Why are you here right now? And I love the machinery and the industry of it. Even when I was a kid, I was always obsessed with the economy of airplane meals and how much work goes into everything that you see and everything you don't see.

Dakota: There's so much signage and so much text anytime you're moving through that space, and I feel like so much of Willie's work is about how text is interpreted and re-interpreted. It's cool to think about something like your luggage contributing to the literal and metaphorical signage of the airport experience, like “This is my baggage.”

Norris: One of the designs in this collaboration says “SOMETHING TO DECLARE.” I've always been so obsessed with when you come back from an international trip and there's that sign. I never knew what it meant until I was like 30. I was like, “Nothing to declare, what do you mean?” Then I realized that you should declare stuff that you bring into a different country, which I don't do. It’s my objective to go on an international vacation soon and get a picture of the suitcase in front of the “Nothing to Declare” sign. That will put a pretty little bow conceptually on this.

CULTURED: Do you have any travel rituals you swear by?

Dakota: Bringing a water bottle. New York has the best tap water in the world; I'll go somewhere like Los Angeles, and I'm like, “Oh my God, the water tastes horrible.” It's always nice to land and be like, “Oh, I have this delicious bottle of water that I brought.”

Norris: If it's a longer trip, I tend to try to catch up on my pop culture and watch movies. I'm also always super emotional; I cried at Hustlers in the air. And I always put SPF on on the airplane. I'll just lather my face with Eight Hour Cream by Elizabeth Arden.

West Dakota

CULTURED: West wears a tailor-made stewardess outfit in the campaign. Where did you look for inspiration for the fit, Willie? And West who did you channel in the shoot?

Norris: I've always wanted to design uniforms for a real air fleet, so I took this as an excuse to dive into that. I did a lot of eBay and Etsy research for old uniforms. I looked at a lot of old, in-flight magazines. Delta had this whole article about having a fashion show with all of the flight attendants wearing their new uniforms in a physical printed newspaper. I thought that was just so chic, having an event to show off something that is very much meant for function and as part of a brand identity, but adding some exuberance into it.

Dakota: There's something about the way a cabin crew can inspire fantasy in the process. Flying can be so uncomfortable, but I think back to this golden age of travel where you have these beautiful stewardesses in ridiculous outfits—it brings this element of glamor. It was also cool to see the process of designing my outfit for this because it feels like such a rite of passage for designers. Think about Pierre Cardin or Paco Rabanne, those amazing ‘60s flight suits that are just so cool in their own right. It's nice to see someone like Willie taking those references and doing her own take on what that would look like.

Norris: The base uniform was taken from a TWA uniform which does stand for Trans World Airlines, just going to say that. It was designed by Ralph Lauren. I wanted it to look snatched, like stewardess couture. We put zippers in the side and fit it to a T, like this only fits West.


CULTURED: Willie, what was it about the ethos of Away that felt compelling to you?

Norris: The unalienable truth is that Away changed the luggage game. You go into any airport, and you see an Away suitcase. They redefined what contemporary luggage is. You can't fake that. I also love how it's for travel, but they also really embraced the other uses that people have for luggage. I have so many hair and makeup artist friends who show up to set with everything in their Away suitcase. That was really something I alluded to in the first collection. I will also say that the people at Away are world class, and I always take note of that.

CULTURED: This is a Pride Month collaboration. What ties do you see between the month and travel?

Dakota: I'm thinking back to last year and the launch party you did at the Wythe Hotel. I had a gig that night so I couldn't stay for dinner, but I was like, “I'm gonna show up, say hi, and get some photos.” I came half-baked in drag but had all of my looks in my little luggage. It was cute because I had the “5-7 Looks” suitcase, and everyone was like, “Oh, do you have five to seven looks in there?” And I'm like, “Got at least a few.” Honestly, it's changed the way that I move around: I used to throw all of my stuff into an Ikea bag—there was no order to it. There's something really nice about being able to have different compartments and organize what I'm bringing with me.

Norris: The product is alive, the organ took. I didn't just make some product and throw it out in the world, these really are sticking with people. That was a big part of my decision in involving West with this collection. And I really am quite proud to go around in an airport with luggage I designed that says my name on it. That feels fucking cool. To show up at the airport and have clothes and luggage I've designed, I like this life. To see it come around to the carousel and stand out, that is a very proud moment for me.

Oftentimes Pride projects and collaborations really end up becoming a box to fill. It's always been a personal misgiving of mine how unattractive a lot of Pride merch can be, and how you can't use it year round. I just wanted to make it look good year round and to not be a June thing. It's not always that I can look at the final result of a project and feel it's exactly what it should be. I looked at these final images and I was like, “Oh my God, this is exactly what an Away x Willie Morris Pride collaboration should look like.”