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.
You can learn more about Cesar at his website: https://www.cesarvillalba.net/about-1