A New Exhibit of Late Fashion Designer Willi Smith Highlights His Philadelphia Roots and Ground-Breaking Fashion Firsts

By Kathleen Nicholson Webber | July 14, 2020 | Culture Style & Beauty

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Photo courtesy of Kim Steele

As America once again grapples with issues of race, identity and equality against a backdrop of a pandemic, a new retrospective on the career of one of Philadelphia’s native sons, fashion designer Willi Smith, shows just how his efforts to democratize fashion culture still resonates within our society 40 years later.

“The principles you hear reverberating in the fashion world today reflect the core tenets of WilliWear—diverse representation, gender fluidity, access and affordability,” says Alexandra Cunningham Cameron, curator for the exhibit at the Cooper Hewitt called “Willi Smith: Street Couture” which opened in March and will be extended through 2021.

Willi Donnell Smith was born here to clothes-conscious parents, Willie Lee Smith, an ironworker, and June Eileen Smith, a homemaker. He graduated from Mastbaum Technical High School and studied fashion illustration at the Philadelphia Museum College of Art before moving to New York and becoming a designer for different sportswear labels. In 1976 he paired with friend Laurie Mallet to start WilliWear, Limited. He went on to become one of the most commercially successful Black sportswear designers in his 20-year career, receiving praise from peers, the press (he was the youngest recipient of the Coty Fashion Critics award in 1983, fashion’s then Oscar) and the 1,100 retailers who carried his collection. At the height of his career his label earned $25 million in sales annually, but his career was cut short when he died suddenly of AIDS-related complications in 1987 at the age of 39.

When curator Cameron found drawings of Smith’s from 1982 she knew nothing about him. She unearthed mostly scholarly articles on his work. She contacted friends and family to paint the picture of the man and designer. “The majority of the information on him was in memories and storage closets of friends and collaborators,” says Cameron. “Their recollections were much more important than anything any institution would say about him.” What his community revealed: he was not only an entrepreneur, but an activist and cultural catalyst.

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Installation of Willi Smith's "Willi Smith: Street Couture" installation. Photo by Ann Sunwoo © Smithsonian Institution


The designer saw deeper meaning in the clothes we wear. “Willi Smith saw a disconnect between the fashion industry and diverse lifestyles so he made clothes that worked hard to serve a multiplicity of wearers—suburban moms, club kids, social climbers,” says Cameron. “He lit the fire of a cultural movement that celebrated style over status—when someone was wearing WilliWear, you saw them not their bank account.” Unheard of at the time, he created gender neutral silhouettes along with deconstructed suiting. He and his business partner, Laurie Mallet, traveled to India to design fabrics. “He looked at what people wore on the street more than anything. He looked at shorts inspired by what crossing guards in India wore. He also had an affinity for uniforms, from jumpsuits to harem pants,” she says. “Still, the clothes were second to the person wearing them.”

He was a designer of firsts—males and females on the runway, the first to collaborate with high-profile artists like Keith Haring and Christos for clothing and with choreographer Bill T. Jones, and video artists Nam June Paik and Juan Downey for fashion videos that were part of his avant garde presentations. In 1983, he collaborated with costume designer Ruth Carter on Spike Lee’s School Daze. He also railed against the elitism of luxury fashion. When other designers were traveling to Paris for color inspiration, he said he could go to a church service in Harlem to do that. Philadelphia designer Alvin Bell told Cameron even in college, Smith said he wanted to make fashion affordable. “One of his aunts told us that growing up, his mother and grandmother were women of style. He learned that you didn’t need to be rich to look good.” But his price point didn’t alienate well-heeled fans. In fact, Edwin Schlossberg chose Smith for he and his groomsmen to wear for his wedding to Caroline Kennedy in 1986.

During his peak, New York welcomed Black designers like Stephen Burrows, Jeffrey Banks, and the late Patrick Kelly. Cameron worked with Burrows and Banks along with existing family members (his sister, Toukie, was his model), friend Bethann Hardison who served as his muse, and business partner Mallet, on the exhibit and accompanying book, “Willi Smith: Street Couture,” published by Cooper Hewitt and Rizzoli Electa.

While the museum is currently closed, Cameron and her collaborators crowdsourced a digital archive which includes essays, photos and oral histories that she hopes friends and colleagues will continue to contribute to https://willismitharchive.cargo.site

“This archive extends an open invitation to the public to rectify history by taking an active role in shaping an understanding of Smith’s influence. The archive is a push to get a wider sampling of voices and the histories of underrepresented groups.

For more information on the exhibit, click here.



Photography by: From top, photo: courtesy of Kim Steele; by Ann Sunwoo © Smithsonian Institution