Fashion Culture | Willi Smith: The Creative Intersection of an American Genius

I don’t design clothes for the Queen; but for the people who wave at her as she goes by.

– Willi Smith

Willi Smith (1948 – 1987), designer for WilliWear, wasn’t a Black designer, he was a designer for the people, who happened to be Black.  He created affordable, loose, liberated designs for a broad audience; you couldn’t tell a person’s status, whether they were a socialite or secretary, when they were wearing WilliWear.  He purposefully didn’t pursue high fashion.  Instead, he designed simple, aspirational looks that were solutions to problems of getting dressed every day.  One of his hallmarks is that he recognized that everyday folks had a desire to express their individuality through dress and championed the wearer to manipulate their style with his clothes.  His vision was to counter the head-to-toe designer dressing that made a statement in billboard-like-fashion, shouting “look at me, I’m wearing Chanel”, rather he appreciated and encouraged consumers to make their own unique statement even if it meant pairing thrift store finds with his designs.  He offered a tool box for getting dressed.

Fashion is a people thing and designers should remember that.

-Willi Smith to Fashion Weekly, 1987

I bought WilliWear as a buyer for Macy’s in the mid-eighties and it was a thrilling ride of shopping the line and selling it out.  In writing this piece, as a writer, buyer and consumer, I recognize what a true icon he was then and now for the African American community and deserves his place in American fashion history.

Installation view of “Willi Smith: Street Couture.” Photo: Ann Sunwoo © Smithsonian Institution

Smith, born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, who studied at Parsons School of Design, has been labeled the inventor or ‘father’ of streetwear.  I will not categorize Smith’s design brilliance and overall creative vision by limiting it to streetwear or street couture.  That is up for conversation and debate, particularly today when its root is associated with subculture era-defined movements, such as punk and hip-hop.  Artist, writer Dario Calmese, points this out even more quoting from Kerby Jean-Raymond, creative director of Pyer Moss, in a 2016 interview with Elle magazine, “I’ve never seen Ralph Lauren, Rick Owens, or Raf Simons described as white designers, I just want to know what’s being called ‘street’ – the clothes or me”?  Calmese concludes that “the history of fashion has been dominated by eurocentrism, hailing figures from Philip the Good down to Alexander McQueen.  Designed to advance privilege, the industry has repeatedly devalued the impact of Black peoples and Black culture”.

WilliWear Spring 1986 Presentation, 1985, Courtesy of Fashion Institute of Technology|SUNY, FIT Library Special Collections and College Archives, New York, NY, USA; © Peter Gould

Smith was bigger than being defined by a category or designer with an ethnicity label.  He broke from the system to not only create seasonless, genderless clothes, but was revolutionary in his thinking long-term value and sustainability from his comment, “people only need a few clothes”, and it was totally unheard of for a designer to integrate art so heavily in their brand as he did.

Smith’s whole design premise and strategic vision had a reach beyond the institutional confines of fashion.  He designed for pattern companies Butterick and McCall; was a costume designer, working with today’s giants like Ruth C. Carter, Academy award winner for Black Panther, and awarded filmmaker, Spike Lee; was the first to capture the T-shirt as an art wave – twenty artists debuted at the Ronald Feldman Gallery in 1984, including Barbara Kruger and Keith Haring; was a film producer – Expedition (1985), shot by Kenyan-born photographer Max Vadukul, in Dakar, Senegal, Theatre National Daniel Sorano Dancers as models; collaborated with pioneers of new art mediums such as Nam June Paik for video art; designed the suiting for Edwin Schlossberg, the bridegroom of Caroline Kennedy; winner of the Coty American Fashion Critics’ Winnie award; and much more.

Smith navigated his approach to fashion during an experimental time, seventies and eighties New York art scene, where artists across disciplines wanted to shake up the norms. He pioneered unprecedented collaborative artistic output exposing art on a mass scale to the public.  He built exploratory, mutual, and productive relationships with goals that allowed the artist to remain independent, to not dictate or influence the other ones outcome.  Today, monetization is the objective of most collaborations.  Peter Gordon, composer for Willi Smith’s film, Expedition, that presented the Spring 1986 collection, remembers the significance of these collaborations, “Willi worked and functioned in the world of fashion and design, but he was an artist who respected and admired other artists as creative equals.  He brought art to the masses and the masses to art.”

The Battle of Versailles fashion show was a milestone event in fashion’s history, recognizing America’s importance in the industry.  The significance was a shift in power from French design houses to a fresh American style where Smith was at the helm of a popular unconventional look – sportswear.  Stephen Burrows, a close friend and only Black designer who participated in The Battle of Versailles remembers, “he was a very talented designer/artist who was part of what the New York press had dubbed the New York ‘youthquake’ movement because of all the new young designers who were emerging at that time. Willi did streetwear (sportswear, as it was known then) better than most and was recognized early on as ‘king of sportswear’.  He was influenced by how people on the street put themselves together and would funk it up, making his basics chic and fun to wear.”

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

Stephen Burrows, Scott Barrie, Jon Haggins, Jeffrey Banks, Alvin Bell, and Willi Smith were part of a dynamic peer group of emerging Black designers who were getting some recognition in the industry.  Alvin Bell reflects on Smith’s literary and artistic chops and how the industry loved him for his intellectual prowess and influence across diverse creative channels.  Bell says, “there will never be another designer like Willi.  Black designers aren’t as supported today by the industry as they were during Willi’s time.  Willi was the most talked about artist in our peer group.”  Mindy Grossman, who was President and CEO for WilliWear and later worked for Tommy Hilfiger, Ralph Lauren, and Nike, talks about Willi as a visionary, one who was a storyteller, and had the ability to see what other people could not see.  She remembers the impact he made on her, “those years with Willi were pivotal for my career because they inspired me to commit to brands that have a strong visual language made accessible to many people, unafraid to embrace culture, take risks, and, at times, be somewhat controversial.”

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

Smith had a knack for understanding how powerful fashion can be in transforming identity and culture.  His designs uplifted and countered the challenges of representation and inclusion as experienced from the Black community.  Supermodel, Veronica Webb, said, “Willi was the first person that I felt broke the visual mode of how fashion was perceived.  His success for such a broad audience symbolized that we in our community can move beyond race, be designers too, and make it.”

Smith’s body of work is a unique study of self-presentation, self-identity and one’s own claim to space, and he gave everyday folks the tool box to position themselves within society, to be visible.  Brendan Fernandes, Canadian artist, reflects on his interpretation of the film, Expedition, how it was a catalyst for hypervisibility and claiming your space in society, “how you present yourself to the world can change the way the world receives you”.

Appearance can allow you to position yourself regardless of class and capital.  Conversely, when you do this, the systems of class and capital become a lot more porous than they at first appear.

– Brendan Fernandes, Canadian artist, visual arts and dance

Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum hosted the first retrospective exhibition on Willi Smith in 2020. Willi Smith: Street Couture was organized by Alexandra Cunningham Cameron, curator of contemporary design and Hintz Secretarial Scholar at Cooper Hewitt, along with curatorial assistants Darnell-Jamal Lisby and Julie Pastor.  The exhibition publication, Willi Smith: Street Couture, co-published by Cooper Hewitt and Rizzoli Electa, is a fantastic read to explore all about Willi Smith and the emergence of street style in the United States, the history of collaborative practice, the downtown New York art scene of the seventies and eighties, the impact of black and black queer communities, and the relationship between fashion, marketing, race.

Installation view of “Willi Smith: Street Couture.” Photo: Ann Sunwoo © Smithsonian Institution

At the time of his sudden death from AIDS-related illness, Smith was considered to be the most commercially successful Black American designer of the 20th century. Jeffrey Banks, designer and friend, says it was difficult to maintain the business after his death, due to the stigma of AIDS.  “Willi was the second big-name designer who passed away from AIDS, a little less than a year after Perry Ellis, who was also my good friend. This is in the context of the hysteria that was prevalent during the early eighties, when AIDS was first discovered.  People were so stupid that they thought if they wore clothes from a designer who had AIDS, they might somehow catch the disease.”

. . .the clothes still feel empowering to wear, they create a sense of character and confidence.  Imbued with Smith’s legacy, the clothes have accumulated, rather than lost, power and relevance.  In our difficult political time, the transformations of perception and embodiment that Smith’s works created remain a striking point by which we might reorient ourselves toward more open, queer, and collaborative futures.

-Brendan Fernandes

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

What’s important to remember about Smith’s legacy is his collaborative projects on the arts and notable exhibits and events. From the Timeline section of the book published in conjunction with the exhibition, Willi Smith: Street Couture, pp. 18-19, a few highlights:

Collaborations with the arts – dance, film, music, and visual art: 

  • 1973 – Smith designs costumes for dancer-choreographer Dianne McIntyre’s composition The Lost Sun, performed by her company Sounds in Motion
  • 1976 – Smith designs costumes for McIntyre’s The Deep South Suite, which premieres during Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater’s Duke Ellington Festival.
  • 1983
    • Smith designs T-shirts and hats for workers constructing Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s Surrounded Islands in Miami.
    • Smith stages the City Island spring presentation with a video installation by Nam June Paik, music by Jorge Socarras, and makeup by Linda Mason.
    • WilliWear funds the world premiere of Set and Reset, a performance by the Trisha Brown Dance Company, during the Next Wave Festival at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM).
  • 1984
    • WilliWear funds the second rendition of Philip Glass’s opera Einstein on the Beach at BAM.
    • Smith designs costumes for McIntyre’s Take-Off From a Forced Landing performed by Sounds in Motion at the Joyce Theater.
    • Smith designs costumes for Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company’s Secret Pastures at Bam’s Next Wave Festival – Keith Haring designed the sets; Peter Gordon composed the music.
    • Public Art Fund hosts Artventure, a fundraiser at AREA with Williwear Productions artist T-shirts, a performance by Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company, and the debut of Les Levine’s Made in New York film for Williwear.
  • 1985
    • Smith designs workers’ uniforms for Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s Pont-Neuf Wrapped in Paris, France.
    • WilliWear produces the film Expedition in Senegal, directed by Max Vadukul with music by Peter Gordon, to present the Spring 1986 collection; Expedition premiers at the Ziegfeld Theatre during New York Fashion Week.
    • Smith designs costumes for La MaMa Experimental Theater Club’s Cotton Club-Gala.
  • 1986 – Smith designs the groom and groomsmen’s suits for artist Edwin Schlossberg and Caroline Kennedy’s wedding.
  • 1987 – Smith designs homecoming court gowns for Spike Lee’s film School Daze, Ruth C. Carter was costume designer for the film; Smith designs Mary Jane’s wedding dress for Marvel’s Amazing Spider-Man Annual.

Exhibits, Notable Runway Events, Awards 

  • 1973 – Fern Mallis and Suzanne Slesin invite Smith to participate in a designer showcase at Knoll International with fellow fashion designers Willie Woo, Calvin Klein, and Giorgio di Sant’Angelo, among others.
  • 1978 – the first WilliWear runway show takes place at Holly Solomon Gallery with a Spring collection influenced by nautical uniforms and Southeast Asian dress .
  • 1979 – African American designers Arthur McGee, Jeffrey Banks, Carl Davis, Jay Jaxon, Kevin Thompson, Robert Miller, and Smith are honored with a fashion show of their designs at the Fashion Institute of Technology.
  • 1980 – WilliWear’s fall collection is presented at the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater with Ailey dancers as models.
  • 1981 – The Black Fashion Museum organizes the exhibition Bridal Gowns of Black Designers, which includes a bridal ensemble by Smith.
  • 1982 – Smith participates in a group exhibition at P.S. 1 with fashion designers Cathy Hardwick, Michele Lamay, Corrine Guibert, and Regina Kravitz and presents the installation Art as Damaged Goods; architecture and environmental arts studio SITE designs the WilliWear showroom at 209 West 38th Street.
  • 1983
    • With four prior nominations, Smith is awarded the Coty American Fashion Critics’ Winnie award for womenswear.
    • WilliWear presents the Street Couture fall collection at the Puck Building as an interdisciplinary event incorporating video art by Juan Downey, music by Jorge Socarras, and makeup by Linda Mason.
  • 1984 – WilliWear SUB-Urban fall runway show launches gender-bender womenswear alongside the menswear collections; Ronald Feldman Gallery hosts an exhibition of WilliWear Productions artist T-shirts.
  • 1985 – James Mischka of Badgley and Mischka joins WilliWear as a designer; WilliWear presents a collection of pink and green faux fur coats for the fall season in collaboration with Bill Blass.
  • 1986 – Smith publishes two issues of the Williwear News with friend Kim Hastreiter, cofounder of Paper magazine.

Willi Smith: The Creative Intersection of an American Genius is the final study of A Study of EightSmith’s body of work is a unique study of self-presentation, self-identity and one’s own claim to spaceand he delighted in those who used his clothes for self-expression. 

In the belief that fashion is a legitimate subject of study and a language of our culture, Smith is acknowledged as an iconic Black fashion maker for his significant contribution to fashion’s history.  His design premise and strategic vision had a reach beyond the institutional confines of fashion signifying that there is more to fashion than its reputation as fluff or frivolous. Culture and the arts defined him and WilliWear. That’s the genius.

There is an intelligent way to look at fashion as a transformative power in cultural identity and A Study of Eight leads the way.

Installation view of “Willi Smith: Street Couture.” Photo: Ann Sunwoo © Smithsonian Institution

Notes, sources, suggested further study:

All quotes from – Cameron, Alexandra Cunningham, ed., “Willi Smith: Street Couture.” New York: Rizzoli Electa with Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum, 2020.

Website resource: Willi Smith Community Archive – Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum.  This archive is a community platform of friends, collaborators, and admirers to share in writing the history of Willi Smith.  It’s accessible nature serves as a resource for academia and the public to gain greater insight and understanding into the life, work, and legacy of the visionary American designer, Willi Smith.

Images: courtesy of Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum

Rhonda P. Hill

Founder, Publishing Editor