Williwear, Smith’s label, was making $25 million per year when he died in 1987. What would he have done if he had lived past the age of 39?
Willi Smith invented streetwear, was the most prominent black fashion designer of the 1980s, and influenced a generation, but fashion history has largely forgotten him. That is about to change, thanks to a new book commemorating the designer, who died in 1987.
“Willi Smith’s lack of scholarship created a missing link in our understanding of contemporary fashion and visual culture,” says Alexandra Cunningham Cameron, curator of the Willi Smith: Street Couture exhibition at Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum in New York.
Williwear, his label, was ahead of its time, combining the relaxed fit of sportswear with high-end tailoring elements. His clothes were not meant to be pristine, catwalk-only creations. Although the term “streetwear” has recently been debated, Smith’s more flexible definition (bringing urban culture to the catwalk) has been enormously influential. “He mixed looks from workwear, the military, African and Indian prints,” says Darnell-Jamal Lisby, a fashion historian. “He was obsessed with denim and the romanticized cowboy, frequently incorporating tweeds, denim, or corduroy into his collection.” He adored jumpsuits and the functionality of the silhouette.”
His clothes were intended for everyone. “Fashion is a people thing,” he said, “and designers should remember that.” Models pose in their outfits. They are inhabited.” Though he was inspired by New York City, he wanted people all over the world to appreciate the city’s culture and inspiration. “Being black has a lot to do with my ability to design,” he explained. “Most of these designers who have to rush to Paris for color and fabric combinations should attend Harlem church on Sunday.” Everything is right there.” According to his friend, former neighbor, and fashion editor Kim Hastreiter, this philosophy went deep: “He was a fan of street culture and designed clothing for people to wear on the street.”
Smith was born in Philadelphia in 1948 and received a scholarship to Parsons School of Design in 1965 after interning with couturier Arnold Scaasi. One of Scaasi’s clients employed his grandmother as a housekeeper. Williwear hit its stride in the early 1980s (it was founded in 1976 with Smith’s friend Laurie Mallet) when it incorporated elements of hip hop culture into its aesthetic, most notably his 1983 autumn-winter collection called Street Couture, which featured music and dance performances. Smith was the youngest-ever winner of the American Fashion Critics’ Award for Women’s Fashion that year.
Smith was part of a generation of young black American designers who rose to prominence in the 1970s. There was Patrick Kelly, who rose to prominence in France with his controversial designs, and Stephen Burrows, a celebrity favorite. There was also Jax Jaxon (“the first black designer to run a couture house: Jean-Louis Scherrer from 1969 to 1970,” according to Lisby), and Smith’s best friend Alvin Bell.
“I think the success of Smith and Kelly set them apart from their peers and predecessors,” says Lisby. “Smith owned the most lucrative business out of them.” By 1986, Williwear was grossing sales of more than $25 million a year in more than 500 stores.
“He was a huge hero for African American women,” Hastreiter says. “They idolized Willi and took great pride in his success.” “He was a black man who had the potential to change our society’s inherent racism toward black men in general,” she says. “[For black women, he became] their fantasy husband, fantasy boss, fantasy best friend, fantasy leader, fantasy son, fantasy teacher.” He represented many people’s hopes for the future of the African American community. Smith was subjected to a great deal. It must have been extremely stressful.”
She claims that his true motivation was not ambition, but a desire to give back to his community. “It wasn’t that a movie star wearing his clothes would make him proud. When he saw black kids on the streets running around in his clothes or those black ladies at the bank wearing it to work, he would burst with pride.” “I don’t design clothes for the queen, but for the people who wave at her as she passes,” he often said, emphasizing his universal outlook.
Smith also pushed the envelope when it came to collaborating with artists and creatives (something that today’s designers like Dior’s Kim Jones or Rick Owens do). He maintained close ties with artists he met while studying at Parsons, such as Christo, and also collaborated with Nam June Paik, Bill T Jones, and Dan Friedman. He worked twice with Keith Haring, including on a Williwear T-shirt. Smith also made an appearance in Spike Lee’s 1988 musical comedy-drama School Daze. Cunningham Cameron explains that “[costume designer] Ruth E Carter commissioned him to make the gowns for the homecoming court.”
During this period of professional success, Smith contracted Aids. “When he wasn’t well he would disappear,” says Hastreiter. “Like many other successful people with Aids, Willi didn’t talk about it. And hid a lot. Although I could tell he was sick for a while. You just knew in those days when someone had that very haunted look.” She recalls that the last time she saw him alive: “I saw him in the building elevator and he’d gotten very very thin.”
Smith died of pneumonia, which was exacerbated by the parasitic disease shigella, which he contracted during a work trip to India to buy fabric. He was 39 years old at the time. Williwear was making millions at the time of his death, and the New York Daily News called him “the most successful black designer in fashion history,” but he is now largely forgotten. What would have happened had he lived?
Cunningham Cameron claims that his friends and family have been abuzz with speculation. “We’ve been told that he wanted to move permanently to India, which he visited frequently,” she says. “After making a short film called Expedition, he may have gone to Hollywood to produce films full-time.” Of course, we’ll never know, but his legacy lives on in menswear season after season.