“Models pose in clothes. People live in them” was the mantra of revered fashion designer Willi Smith. His designs pushed the boundaries of fashion from as early as 1976 creating affordable street-wise clothing that rejected the notion “we the rich can dress up and have fun, and the rest can dress in blazers and slacks”
The Philadelphia native, born Willi Donnell Smith, studied fashion illustration at the Philadelphia Museum College of Art and fashion design at the Parsons School of Design in New York. About his childhood he joked that there was always more clothes than food in his house because the women of his house were clothes conscious. Before the launch of his label- WilliWear Limited in 1976- he worked as a freelance designer specializing in sportswear for fashion conglomerates such as Bobbi Brooks and Digits Inc. The birth of WilliWear saw the introduction of comfort in fashion with the first line offering consisting of soft lightweight India manufactured cotton meeting the consumer demand for easy and relaxed clothing.
The first to mix and match plaids, stripes and colours, WilliWear ushered in a new slouchier look that challenged the uniformity of 80’s with loose fitting oversized pieces that didn’t restrict the body. His words gave life to his designs “I don’t design clothes for the Queen, but for the people who wave at her as she goes by” Though he primarily designed women’s wear, his men’s collection in 1978 saw the commission of the 1986 linen double breasted navy suit worn by Edwin Scholossberg for his marriage to Caroline Kennedy along with violet linen blazers and white trousers for the groomsmen and silver tie for the groom-which as you can imagine, caused quite the stir for being non traditional in his selection of colour and fabric.
With offices in London, Paris and Los Angeles stemming from his single New York outlet, he was the complete opposite what we perceive a fashion mogul to be. He shunned the pretentiousness of haute couture “Fashion is a people thing and designers should remember that“. He identified with the street kids of New York who gave his designs much inspiration.
Winner of the Coty American Fashion Critics’ Award for Women’s Fashion in 1983, Willi graced the comic book world by outfitting Marvel’s Mary Jane Watson for her wedding to the Amazing Spider-Man in the 1987 wedding issue. He designed 600 uniforms to help his friend and artist- Christo -wrap the Pont Neuf bridge in Paris with pink material in 1985. He also designed clothes for the 1987 Spike Lee flick School Daze.
Willi represented the voice of the people in fashion and stayed true to his black heritage: “Being black has a lot to do with my being a good designer. My eye will go quicker to what a pimp is wearing than to someone in a gray suit and tie. Most of these designers who have to run to Paris for color and fabric combinations should go to church on Sunday in Harlem. It’s all right there“
Willi’s sudden death at age 39 in 1987 from AIDS related complications came as a blow to the fashion world. He had been ill for three weeks before his death apparently picking up a parasite from a recent trip to India where he frequently sought that soft cotton fabric synonymous with his designs. It’s widely believed that he had no knowledge of having the disease. Though his appearance was frail, those around him thought it was a result of his strong work ethic and perfectionist qualities.
His obituary read: “As both designer and person, Willi embodied all that was the brightest, best and most youthful in spirit in his field. … That a WilliWear garment was simple to care for italicised the designer’s democratic urge: to clothe people as simply, beautifully, and inexpensively as possible. ”
The pioneer of Street Couture, Willi Smith was honoured by the Fashion Walk of Fame and his company, WilliWear, was worth 25 million by 1986. His designs appealed to both the ordinary person and the rich and famous thus making him one of the most successful black designers. Ever.