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Willi Smith

In honor of Black History Month I will be highlighting several designers of color who were significant during their lifetimes but may not be household names today.

Say hello to Philly-born Willi Smith.

"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 Smith is well-known today for designing luxurious, easy clothing in the 1970s and 80s, making way for a modern retail landscape in which buying practices would be geared almost exclusively towards separates that could be mixed and matched.

Smith was born February 29, 1948 in Philadelphia, PA. Growing up, he observed his parents using clothing to project their identity in their everyday lives. His mother was known to "overdress" and his father had a propensity for purposely oversized clothing. As a teen, he studied commercial art at Mastbaum Technical High School and then went to Philadelphia College of Art for Fashion Illustration. In 1965, he received several scholarships to Parsons The New School and continued his fashion studies in New York.

Marnie Fogg, writing for the fashion history section of Love To Know, summed up Smith's early career well:

"On leaving college, Smith worked as a fashion illustrator with Arnold Scaasi for several years. From 1967 to 1976 he also worked as a freelance designer for companies such as Bobbi Brooks and Digits Inc. He specialized in sportswear, injecting an element of playfulness into functional garments such as the jump suit that he cut out of silver-coated cloth. In 1976 he and Laurie Mallet, who subsequently became president of the company, established the successful label Willi Wear Limited, which captured the spirit of pragmatic leisurewear. Together they launched a collection of clothes consisting of thirteen silhouettes in soft cotton, manufactured in India and sold in New York. Such was the demand for the relaxed styling and affordable clothes of the label that the company's revenue grew from $30,000 in its first year to $25 million in 1986."

WilliWear ad from Vogue, August 1981.

Fashion curator Richard Martin wrote of Smith's designs:

"Smith concentrated primarily on separates, and his consistency from season to season allowed pieces from previous years to be mixed with his new designs. Pieces ranged from oversized blazers and long dirndls to dhoti pants and poufskirted dresses. Everything he designed showed a sense of humor and spirit, as if inviting the wearer to get up and move. He paid acute attention to all aspects of design and manufacture, designing his own textiles and taking several trips each year to India to overlook production of his collection."

It has been noted that Smith's approach to fashion was very democratic. Marnie Fogg included this quote from Fashion Weekly (1987) in her analysis of Smith's desire to dress the average person:

"I would love to have a salon and design couture collections, but it's so expensive … and I hate the theory of 'We the rich can dress up and have fun, and the rest can dress in blazers and slacks.' Fashion is a people thing, and designers should remember that."

In his Los Angeles Times and New York Times obituaries Smith is quoted saying: "I don't design clothes for the Queen, but the people who wave at her as she goes by."

Willi Smith ad from Vogue, April 1984.

The practice of designing separates counted on an individual's personal knack for styling. As opposed to the full ensembles typical of couture, Smith focused on the functionality and taste of the individual.

While the majority of Smith's work focused on women, he left his mark in the world of menswear as well. In the October 1988 issue of Vogue, his creations were given high praise alongside other big names in men's fashion:

"Jackets and blazers, this fall, tend to be semi-constructed and double-breasted; made in soft fabrics like cashmere. This jacket is meant to be worn with the casualness of sportswear, the comfort of a sweater, often with a simple turtleneck sweater for a clean look. Some of the best are at Giorgio Armani, Hugo Boss, Jeff Sayre, WilliWear, Jhane Barnes, Andrew Fezza, Lanvin Studio, Ronaldus Shamask, Perry Ellis. Shamask dresses down blazers."

At the height of his career, Smith had the honor of receiving the Coty American Fashion Critics' Award for Women's Fashion in 1983 and the Cutty Sark Award for Menswear Design in 1986.

Tragically, in 1987 at the age of 39, Willi Smith lost his life to AIDS-related complications. In 1988, Manhattan Borough President David Dinkin declared February 23 "Willi Smith Day." On the occasion of Willi Smith Day in 1990, his sister, the model and actress Toukie Smith, remembered her brother in this way, "Willi always had fun with fashion... He had a special energy and a love of keeping clothes from being too serious. He also totally designed for the masses." In 2002, he received a bronze plaque on the Seventh Avenue Fashion Walk of Fame in New York City.

Sources referenced:

Deny Filmer. "Just William". Fashion Weekly (London). (12 February 1987)

Marnie Fogg. "Willi Smith". Love To Know.

Richard Martin (2005). Contemporary Black Biography, "Willi Smith 1948–1987". Encyclopedia.

Richard Martin. "Willi Smith - Fashion Designer Encyclopedia". Encyclopedia of Fashion.

Timothy Hawkins (February 23, 1990). "Toukie Smith Puts New Angles on Style". Los Angeles Times.

Vogue; New York Vol. 171, Iss. 8, (Aug 1, 1981): 239.

Vogue; New York Vol. 174, Iss. 4, (Apr 1, 1984): 5.

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Catia Lago
Catia Lago
Oct 04, 2019


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