Born: Willi Donnell Smith in Philadelphia, 29 February 1948. Education: Studied fashion illustration, Philadelphia Museum College of Art, 1962-65; studied fashion design, Parsons School of Design, New York, 1965-67. Career: Worked as fashion illustrator with Arnold Scaasi and Bobbi Brooks, New York, 1965-69; freelance designer, working in New York, for Digits Inc., sportswear company, Talbott, Bobbie Brooks, 1967-76; with Laurie Mallet established company, WilliWear, Ltd., 1976; added WilliWear men's collection, 1978; began lecturing in art history at the Fashion Insitute, London; first store opened posthumously, Paris, 1987; WilliWear reintroduced with Michael Shulman as designer, 1996. Exhibitions: Featured in Harlem Museum, New York, 1987; among permament collections of Black Fashion Museum, Washington, D.C., 1998. Awards: International Mannequins Designer of the Year award, New York, 1978; Coty American Fashion Critics award, 1983; 23 February named "Willi Smith Day" in New York City, 1988. Died: 17 April 1987, in New York.
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Without respect for race, Willi Smith was one of the most talented designers of his era. With respect to race, he was indisputably, as the New York Daily News fashion writer Liz Rittersporn declared upon his death in 1987, that he was "the most successful black designer in fashion history." Smith chafed at the attention given to the anomaly of his being a black designer, yet he acknowledged some advantages in the sensibility of being an African-American: "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." It was all right there for Smith as a quintessentially American designer, of the people and for the people, with a vivid sense of style democracy and eclectic mix.
Perhaps in part due to his Indian cottons and colors, or to his inexhaustible appeal to youth, or maybe just due to his own wit and sense of loose fit, Smith excelled in clothing for summer. His winter collections, too, were especially notable for oversized coats based on classic shapes. His WilliWear News for fall 1986 proclaimed with irony his intention to get "serious" with the fall collection. In a sense, Smith never was serious, preferring instead a lively incongruity he had learned from observation and refined from affordable clothing made in India.
WilliWear, the company he founded with Laurie Mallet in 1976, went from $30,000 in sales in its first year to $25 million in 1986. His soft, baggy looks did not require sophisticated tailoring and benefitted from the Indian textiles that he chose for their supple hand, easy care and comfortable aging, and indescribably indefinite colors. Smith's slouchy softness was a "real people" look, marketed at modest costs with great impact in the 1980s as the informality of designer jeans and other casual wear was replaced by the kind of alternative Smith's designs offered—a drapey silhouette for comfortable clothing with style.
While primarily a designer of women's clothing, WilliWear was also influential in men's clothing. In July 1983 he created the clothes for Edwin Schlossberg's marriage to Caroline Kennedy, including blue-violet linen blazers to be worn with white slacks and white buck shoes for the groom's party; the groom wore a navy linen double-breasted suit with a silver linen tie, outfits that were both traditional and slightly spoofy and outrageous enough to notice and enjoy.
Smith's tenure in the fashion world, however, was terribly short-lived. He died, young and at his prime, in 1987. George James quoted Smith in an obituary written in the New York Times (19 April 1987): "I don't design clothes for the Queen, but for the people who wave at her as she goes by." In Smith's designs there was no equivocation— sportswear was for fun and comfort. He knew this, having first worked for Arnold Scaasi in a rarefied world of fancy dress. Later, he worked for Bobbie Brooks and Digits, among others, but it was on his own, first in a business with his sister Toukie, and later in WilliWear, that Smith found his own voice designing what he affably called "street couture" without apology.
Smith created uniforms for the workers on Christo's Pont Neuf, Paris wrapping in 1985. His work even anticipates much that became casual style in America in the late 1980s and 1990s through the Gap and A/X—loose, slouchy oversizing and mixable possibilities. Hilton Als eulogized Smith in the Village Voice (28 April 1987), "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 italicized the designer's democratic urge: to clothe people as simply, beautifully, and inexpensively as possible."
In his short life, terminated by an AIDS-related death at 39, Smith made little issue or complaint of the social disadvantages and difficulty of being an African-American committed to making a mass-market clothing business—he simply proceeded to make an exemplary life of innovative design that both earned him the Coty award in 1983 and countless fans of his sportswear style who may never have known—or cared—whether he was black, white, or any other color. These fans found his designs available for a short time after his death, and then in 1996 WilliWear was relaunched. Available exclusively at T.J. Maxx stores, the new lines were produced by designer Michael Shulman.
updated by Owen James