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What to Know About Designer Willi Smith Before His 2020 Retrospective

What to Know About Designer Willi Smith Before His 2020 Retrospective

We are all guardians of our collective histories and when certain stories aren’t told, they’re simply forgotten. Philadelphia-born Willi Smith (1948–1987) was one of the most successful Black fashion designers in history – grossing sales over $25 million a year in more than 500 stores by 1986 – and an upcoming New York exhibition is here to remind us of his legacy and impact. Starting March 2020, the Cooper Hewitt museum will put on the first posthumous retrospective for Willi Smith’s groundbreaking work. “Willi Smith: Street Couture” is set to feature about 200 key pieces, videos, sketchbooks, pattern drawings, photographs and special collaborative pieces made with icons like Keith Haring, Andre Walker and Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company. Allow us to (re)introduce this master.

A Pioneer’s Pioneer

Willi Donnell Smith went from studying fashion illustration at the Philadelphia Museum College of Art to the famed fashion design course at Parsons School of Design in New York. The birth of his label WilliWear, co-founded with partner Laurie Mallet in 1976, spearheaded comfort in fashion like few brands had before. Serving people soft and light India-manufactured cotton in a new baggier style that challenged the reigning 80s stiff-shouldered aesthetic, WilliWear became a hit. We’re talking offices in London, Paris and LA lead from Smith’s New York HQ. Stores were industrial and chain fence underground creations designed by art studio SITE, rather than the standard marble glossiness. By way of comparison, you could picture WilliWear as the Off-White of the 80s. A savvy businessman, Smith was the openly queer pioneer who paved the way for the people of colour who are transforming the contemporary fashion industry today. “Being black has a lot to do with my being a good designer. Most of these designers who have to run to Paris for colour and fabric combinations should go to church on Sunday in Harlem. It’s all right there”, Smith was quoted. Willi Smith’s popularity lay in his eschewing of the pretentiousness that dominated fashion at the time: “Fashion is a people thing and designers should remember that. Models pose in clothes. People live in them”.

Laceine Owsley Wedderburn and Damon Pooser in “Take-Off from a Forced Landing,” 1984, Courtesy of Lois Greenfield, © Lois Greenfield

WilliWear Showoom, SITE, 1982, Photographed by Andreas Sterzing, Courtesy of SITE - James Wines, LLC, photo © Andreas Sterzing

Poster, WilliWear, ca. 1987; Designed by M & Co. (New York, New York, 1979–1992), For WilliWear Limited (New York, New York, 1976–1990); Lithograph on paper; 104.1 × 71.1 cm (41 × 28 in.); Gift of Tibor Kalman/ M & Co., 1993-151-143 / Photo: Matt Flynn © Smithsonian Institution

Willi Smith New York Office in 1982 - (c) Interior Design

Lost Generation

Willi Smith is mostly credited with altering how people dressed for work, parties and everyday life. WilliWear was affordable, widely available and combined bold prints with wearable cuts, erasing boundaries between high and low fashion. “Street Couture” is titled after Willi Smith’s hallmark 1983 collection, merging fashion with art and music performance. Winner of the 1983 Coty American Fashion Critics’ Award for Women’s Fashion, Willi even appeared in comic book form as the designer who dressed Marvel’s Mary Jane Watson for her wedding to the Amazing Spider-Man. Together with top model sister Toukie, Smith became inextricably linked with New York fashion. He designed 600 uniforms worn by the workers helping Christo and Jeanne-Claude wrap the Pont Neuf bridge in Paris in 1985 and created the costumes for Spike Lee’s ‘School Daze’. But all of this success came at a great personal cost. Willi died suddenly at age 39 in 1987 from AIDS-related complications contracted during buying travels for work. His line couldn’t survive without him and eventually shuttered 3 years later. We add his name to the incredibly devastating list of people killed in their prime by the disease that wiped out a generation. We can thank exhibitions like this, the @theaidsmemorial Instagram account and TV shows such as ‘Pose’ to spotlight all we have lost for those of us who were not around to witness it firsthand.  

1984 - (c) Dr. Mary Ellen C. Des Jarlais, Professor of Textiles and Clothing, University of Hawaii

WilliWear Fall 1985 Presentation, 1985, Courtesy of Fashion Institute of Technology|SUNY, FIT Library Special Collections and College Archives, New York, NY, USA; © Peter Gould

WilliWear Showoom, SITE, 1982, Photographed by Andreas Sterzing, Courtesy of SITE - James Wines, LLC, photo © Andreas Sterzing


There’s much to mourn, but more to celebrate when it comes to Willi. The expo is a good start, tying into many off-shoots centred around the trailblazing designer. “Willi Smith cared about style over status. He shows us that true collaboration, and the inclusivity it requires, is not a marketing gimmick or token gesture, but a way of thinking, of making, and of life. Clothing was a tool [he used] to disseminate ideas about personal freedoms beyond class, beyond gender, beyond race, while still having fun”, Alexandra Cunningham Cameron, Cooper Hewitt’s curator of contemporary design, told Vogue.

As museum tradition requires, there’s a coffee table book coming out as well, co-published by Cooper Hewitt and Rizzoli. “Willi Smith: Street Couture” dedicates its 228 pages to the street style boom, the history of collabs, the downtown NYC art scene of the 70s and 80s as well as the bond between fashion, marketing, race and the impact Black (queer) communities have had on these subjects. The tome is set to feature over 300 photographs plus essays and interviews by leading names in fashion and art such as Academy Award-winner Ruth E. Carter, editor Kim Hastreiter, choreographer Bill T. Jones and artist Lisa Yuskavage.

There will also be conversations and workshops scheduled elaborating on the themes presented in the exhibition, such as moderated talks and lectures with Smith’s collaborators, educators and academics, and other industry professionals. There will be a symposium of design talks, co-organised with The Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, putting race and fashion in America under the microscope as well as ‘studying the intersection of fashion, race and queer theory, the history of African Americans in fashion and the economics and sustainability of fashion’. Much to look back on and forward to.  

Willi Smith, ca. 1981, Courtesy of Kim Steele

Willi Smith: Street Couture

March 13 – October 25 2020

Cooper Hewitt
2E 91st Street
New York, NY 10128
United States of America

“Willi Smith: Street Couture” is organized by Alexandra Cunningham Cameron, along with curatorial assistants Darnell-Jamal Lisby and Julie Pastor. More info here.

Header image: Willi and Toukie Smith - (c) Anthony Barboza/Getty Images 

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