Photograph of designer Willi Smith wearing a t-shirt designed by Barbara Kruger for WilliWear

Willi Smith. T-shirt designed by Barbara Kruger for WilliWear Production’s “Artist T-shirts”, 1984 Object photography by Matt Flynn © Smithsonian Institution

Biography

After organizing his 1982 “Art as Damaged Goods” installation for PS1 (now MoMA PS1), visitors could observe a series of WilliWear basics by designer Willi Donnell Smith lying flat, ranging from blouses to shoes. Talking about the exhibition, Smith said, “I wanted to break away from the predictability of the way clothes are shown, to take them out of the realm of fashion.” This notion captured not only the exhibition but his entire aesthetic as a designer. Born in 1948 in Philadelphia, Smith was destined for developing quotidian styles and bringing audiences joy through fashion. From 1965 – 1967, Smith attended Parsons School of Design, and immediately after his departure, his incredible talent bolstered him into a Seventh Avenue sensation. It was in his first major role as the designer for Digits (1969-1973) that Smith began to formulate the street style aesthetic that made him one of the most notable sportswear designers of his his time However, for Smith, that meant something intrinsically different than how the term “sportswear” is perceived today. In Smith’s purview, he was inspired by what he saw people wearing in the streets of New York, and used his brand to create clothes that they could easily integrate into their wardrobes instead of dictating new fashions to the masses.

At a Glance

In 1976, Smith founded his iconic WilliWear brand with his business partner Laurie Mallet. There, Smith continued to foster his ideas about dress, incorporating various inspirations that served as a vehicle for touching his audiences in personal and direct ways. For instance, South Asian dress primarily inspired Smith throughout his entire career, both before and after he established WilliWear. WilliWear collections — such as the one from Fall 1978, the more notable Spring 1974 City Island show, to a faction of the Fall 1985 collection — were inspired by South Asian dress elements like the salwar kameez, Jodhpurs, or choli bodices due to their ease, billowed silhouettes, and functionality. Smith wanted to create classic pieces that consumers could layer and remain trans-seasonal, which broke the industry’s trend-driven rules. He understood that most people were looking for clothes that gave them joy and complemented their varying body sizes while not having restrictive silhouettes.

Smith’s more personal inspirations for his design aesthetic were spurred by his ongoing journey of understanding his Blackness. Like many of his peers, he was triggered by the fashion industry’s incessant need to pigeonhole Black designers. He knew that his brand crossed cultural and color lines; thus, he did not want to feel suffocated by industry standards. Publicly leaning into his Blackness, for his Spring 1986 collection, many of the textiles and designs were an ode to West African dress. Even the motifs mirrored the glorious Bògòlanfini textiles native to the Malian region. In conjunction with the collection,  Smith produced a fashion film entitled Expedition, directed by Max Vadukul, which was filmed in Dakar, Senegal. He casted the film with locals and the Theatre National Daniel Sorano dance troupe, creating this fashionable dimension that celebrated a spectrum of Black culture behind and in front of the camera.

Smith was an incredible designer but an equally incredible multidisciplinary artist, collaborator, and entrepreneur. With United States workwear history serving as another inspiration to many of his collections, Smith extended this perspective beyond his showroom. In 1983 and 1985, Smith worked with his dear friends Christo and Jeanne-Claude to design uniforms for the workers assisting with the Surrounded Islands and Pont-Neuf Wrapped projects. Dance was an art form extremely close to Smith’s heart. He even enlisted Alvin Ailey dancers as models for the WilliWear Fall 1980 show to inject the scene with his signature mood of joy. Another costume designing effort Smith embarked upon includes his work on the 1984 Secret Pasturesperformance, choreographed by Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company with a designed set by Keith Haring and music composed by Peter Gordon. Smith’s costumes as well as many designs from external projects, including the patterns he created for Butterick and McCall’s throughout the 1970s and 1980s, reflected what he developed on the runway because to him, every aspect of his life was an effort to evoke a total work or a modern Gesamtkunstwerk.

Collaboration was at the core of Smith’s artistry, which allowed him to be an incredible entrepreneur. One of his major collaborations was with the SITE architect collective. SITE worked with Smith to reimagine the WilliWear interiors, bringing cityscapes indoors. As seen in the elaborate showroom and retail spaces that possessed brick-like vignettes, steam pipes, and even fire escapes, they were purposely designed to reflect the street style evocative of Smith’s brand. SITE, alongside a host of the leading artist from Haring, Robert Rauschenberg, to Barbara Kruger, also worked with Smith to design Artist T-Shirts that Smith would produce, framed as artwork on canvas sold for inaccessible prices, equivalent to a Nike or Yeezy sneaker drop today. The widely popular initiative was also paired with a film entitled Made in New Yorkdirected by Les Levine. Smith enacted these projects in addition to his total brand, even beyond the extremely accessibly price-pointed and designed clothing, was a sense of community. He wanted his work to bring people together culturally, socially, and even economically. Smith left a legacy behind that many designers build upon today and continue to extenuate as each new generation enters the fashion system. Smith’s trailblazing efforts helped permit fashion to be free of conventional forms and allow everyone from the wealthiest to the masses a chance to partake in its future.

Photograph from a performance of Secret Pastures. The costumes are designed by Willi Smith, and a set designed by Keith Haring can be seen in the background.

Secret Pastures at Brooklyn Academy of Music, Choreographed by Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company, Music composed by Peter Gordon, Set designed by Keith Haring, Costumes designed by Willi Smith, Photographed by Tom Caravaglia, 1984

Influence

Image of a man walking down the Louis Vuitton Spring 2020 Collection designed by Virgil Abloh

Elevating Street Style to High Style

Smith was seamless in designing accessible clothing with his WilliWear basics. Inspired by urban citizens’ quotidian style, he subverted their essence into his brand identity, which was adored by national and international audiences. Through this blueprint it either sparked a line of succeeding designers and firms that executed similar visions, even to the extent of taking this aesthetic into the luxury fashion realm. Through Smith’s imprint, it begat the foundation for entities across the creative spectrum from Virgil Abloh, Eckhaus Latta, and Telfar to Sean John and Karl Kani.

Look 2 of Louis Vuitton Spring 2020 Collection designed by Virgil Abloh – Link

Photograph of Beyonce performing alongside her backup dancers

Setting Precedence for the Fashion Designer to Ascend into the role of Multidisciplinary Artist/Designer

Willi Smith’s work to combine the contemporary art and fashion realms within his practice set him apart from many of his peers locally and abroad. One of his most notable collaborators was the SITE architecture firm that designed WilliWear showrooms and retail spaces in the 1980s. Today, designers like Becca McCharen-Tran, who hails from an architecture background, weaves together these multidisciplinary perspectives through fashion, touching audiences in inventive ways as seen in the costumes she designed for Beyoncé’s backup dancers during the entertainer’s 2014 MTV VMA performance.

Image: Beyoncé performing at the 2014 MTV Video Music Awards (wearing a Tom Ford bodysuit) with backup dancers wearing shapewear designed by Chromat – Link

Image of a woman walking the Pyer Moss Spring 2019 collection designed by Kerby Jean-Raymond

Fashion Films as Forms of Runway Presentation

Today, audiences can view fashion shows on YouTube in seconds, allowing designers to sometimes create cinematic experiences. In 1985, Willi Smith alongside director Max Vadukul, produced a fashion film in Dakar, Senegal, entitled Expedition to premier his Spring 1986 WilliWear collection. The film also acted as a part of his personal process to subtly celebrate his Blackness, paving the way for the likes of creatives from Carly Cushnie and Christopher John Rogers to Kerby Jean-Raymond to execute more openly within their work when they chose.

Image: Look 33 from Pyer Moss Spring 2019 Collection designed by Kerby Jean-Raymond

References

Barber, Tiffany E. “Real Clothes for Real Dance.” Willi Smith Community Archive. Accessed June 10, 2021. https://willismitharchive.cargo.site/Real-Clothes-for-Real-Dance 

Bullock, Michael. “SITE’s Iconic Ghost Cityscape,” Willi Smith Community Archive. accessed June 10, 2021. https://willismitharchive.cargo.site/SITE-s-Iconic-Ghost-Cityscape 

Cunningham Cameron, Alexandra. “About Willi Smith.” Willi Smith Community Archive. Accessed June 10, 2021. https://willismitharchive.cargo.site/About-Willi-Smith-1

Earnest, Jarrett. “Willi Smith In Pieces.” Willi Smith Community Archive. Accessed June 10, 2021. https://willismitharchive.cargo.site/Willi-Smith-In-Pieces 

Fernandes, Brendan. “Future Crossings.” Willi Smith Community Archive. Accessed June 10, 2021. https://willismitharchive.cargo.site/Future-Crossings

Nichols, Elaine and Adrienne Jones. “Wedding Dress for the Black Fashion Museum.” Willi Smith Community Archive. Accessed June 10, 2021. https://willismitharchive.cargo.site/Wedding-Dress-for-the-Black-Fashion-Museum

Silva, Horacio. “Artventure.” Willi Smith Community Archive. Accessed June 10, 2021. https://willismitharchive.cargo.site/Artventure

“Timeline.” Willi Smith Community Archive. Accessed June 10, 2021. https://willismitharchive.cargo.site/1976