Behind the Design | Celebrating Willi Smith Day

by Alexandra Cunningham Cameron & Darnell-Jamal Lisby


February 23, 2021

During his 20-year career, Willi Smith (1948–1987) united fashion and American culture, marrying affordable, adaptable basics with avant-garde performance, film, art, and design. 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 and a pioneer of “street couture”—fashion inspired by the creativity of people from the cities to the suburbs that captured the egalitarian spirit of the age.

In 1988, a year after Willi Smith’s death, New York City’s first Black American Mayor David Dinkins proclaimed February 23 as Willi Smith Day. The following years saw Smith’s family and friends honor the designer’s legacy by raising awareness and funds for the ongoing fight against HIV/AIDS, an extension of the work Smith himself did to increase visibility for Black and queer experience through his collections, events, and collaborations.

In honor of Willi Smith Day and Black History Month, Alexandra Cunningham Cameron and Darnell-Jamal Lisby discuss key WilliWear projects that exhibit the designer’s work to increase visibility for Black culture and creativity.

Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum’s Willi Smith: Street Couture and Willi Smith Community Archive have endeavored to document Smith’s efforts, beyond the material of WilliWear collections, to use his platform to drive social change, highlight the dynamism of Black ingenuity, and manifest a new vision for the fashion industry.

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