Image: Willi and Toukie Smith Portrait (crop) A. Barboza. Courtesy of Cooper Hewitt
A new book - Willi Smith: Street Couture by Alexandra Cunningham Cameron – celebrates the career of Black American fashion designer Willi Smith (1948–1987). An exhibition of Smith’s work is at the Cooper Hewitt museum, New York, until October. The museum is currently closed, but many exhibits are viewable online together with the Willi Smith Digital Community Archive. The online archive collects and publishes personal recollections, new scholarship, video, and digital ephemera that contributes to a greater understanding of Smith’s life, work, and times.
Image: Willi Smith for WilliWear, Spring 1986 Presentation, Photographed by Peter Gould, 1985. Courtesy of Fashion Institute of Technology | SUNY, FIT Library Special Collections and College Archives & Peter L. Gould / Images
During his twenty-year career Willi Smith (1948–1987) united fashion and American culture, marrying affordable, adaptable basics with avant-garde performance, film, art, and design. Smith hoped to solve what he called "the problem of getting dressed," or the lack of control fashion afforded the everyday person, by using clothing as a tool for the liberation of stereotypes around race, class, sex, and gender, and bringing art into the mainstream. In the wake of the 1974 recession and Vietnam War, Smith founded WilliWear Ltd. with business and creative partner Laurie Mallet to produce clothing, events, and experiences with a wide range of collaborators who used new technologies and progressive ideas to transform their creative fields and instigate social change.
Image: WilliWear Fall 1985 Presentation, 1985, Courtesy of Fashion Institute of Technology|SUNY, FIT Library Special Collections and College Archives, New York, NY, USA; © Peter Gould
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. The Willi Smith: Street Couture exhibition surveys Smith’s pathbreaking imagination of an inclusive, collaborative, and playful new society. It takes its name from Smith’s most iconic collection, which was presented in 1983 as the first event in which he brought fashion, art and music together to present his work. The exhibition’s selection of photography, video, design drawings, garments, patterns and ephemera positions Smith as a groundbreaking designer and cultural producer who laid new roads for fashion.
For more information visit www.cooperhewitt.org