28 Days of Black Fashion History: Willi Smith

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In 1988, NY mayor David Dinkins declared February 23rd Willi Smith day, in honor of one of the most talented designers of his era. He was F.U.B.U. before the brand, a man of the people for the people. And though he designed for the everyday man and woman, his line appealed to the wealthy and famous as well.

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A native of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Willi Smith studied fashion illustration at the Philadelphia Museum College of Art and later fashion design at Parsons School of Design in New York. Smith had two scholarships to Parsons in 1965 but eventually dropped out to freelance. In 1969, he met his business partner Laurie Mallett while designing at the sportswear company, Digits, and together started Williwear in 1976.

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Toukie Smith, Willi’s sister, wearing Willi Smith’s designs.

Williwear’s design aesthetic was comfortable, natural fabrics, looser fit, vivid colors and mixed prints all at affordable prices. He designed 11 collections of Williwear, eventually adding menswear under the same brand, a first for any designer. He was also the first to mix stripes and checks and incorporate two different plaids in a design. He liked using soft fabrics, preferring cottons from India, and often travelled there to source his own fabric. The company went from grossing $30,000 in its first year to over $25 million by 1986 and was sold in over 500 doors.

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Williwear, 1984. Model (who appears to be a young Veronica Webb) in yellow and grey overcoat.

Willi Smith collaborated with many other designers and worked on various types of projects during his career. He designed the attire for the groomsmen for Edwin Schlossberg’s marriage to Caroline Kennedy. He collaborated with Jhane Barnes on some of his early shows and worked with designers such as Antthony Mark Hankins, James Mischka, and John Bartlett. He was the costume designer for one of the first major works of the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance company, Secret Pastures. Smith also collaborated with Spike Lee on his film School Daze, designing the Miss Mission Court gowns.

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Bill T. Jones and Arnie Zane in their Secret Pastures, 1984. Photo: Tom Caravaglia

Smith didn’t complain about the social disadvantages or difficulties of being Black in the fashion industry. Instead, he proceeded to create innovative designs that appealed to a fan base that did not know or care what color he was. He did, however, believe that being Black gave him advantage when it came to design. “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.”

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Willi Smith’s career was short-lived, and he died young (at 39) and in the prime of his career. However, he’d accomplished much during that time, becoming the youngest designer ever to be nominated for a Coty Award in 1971, eventually winning in 1983 for Women’s Fashion, and then, winning the Cutty Sark Menswear Award in 1985. In 2002, he received a plaque on New York’s Fashion Walk of Fame. Not to mention being a pioneer of streetwear and running a company that made him (at that time) the most successful Black designer in fashion history. His style and example influenced what became casual style in the late 1980s and 1990s and countless other designers who came behind him.

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Willi Smith’s plaque on the Fashion Walk of Fame in New York City.

Did you know Smith designed the wedding gown worn by Mary Jane Watson when she married Peter Parker (Spider-Man) in the comic book and strip in 1987?

 

 

 

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