“I don’t design clothes for the Queen, but for the people who wave at her as she goes by,” said
fashion designer Willi Smith. This credo animated Smith’s approach to design
for his eponymous brand, WilliWear, which brought casual yet refined looks to
millions of people around the world. At the time of his death, the New York
Times described Smith as “one of the fashion industry’s most successful young
designers, known for spirited and trendy clothes.”
Born in 1948 in Philadelphia, Smith came to Parsons on scholarship, but left school before he could finish his degree. In 1976, he launched a new brand with a business partner, Laurie Mallet. Smith’s informal ready-to-wear, marked by a slouchy, easy fit,
bold prints, and stylish takes on staple garments, was an immediate hit with buyers, bringing in more than $25 million worth of business in a year. The brand was also regarded highly by fashion insiders, earning Smith an American Fashion Critics’
Coty Award in 1983 and the Cutty Sark Men’s Fashion Award in 1985.
On top of running his fast-growing business, Smith frequently collaborated with artists outside of the fashion world, including Keith Haring and Jean-Claud, with whom he designed T-shirts. Smith’s career was cut short by his untimely death from an AIDS-related
illness in 1987.
For those who wore his clothes, WilliWear represented an exuberant yet accessible approach to fashion that welcomed customers of every race, gender, and sexual orientation.
“Willi was a great friend,” says classmate and Parsons Board of Governors chair Kay Unger. “He had the most effusive personality and an energy that carried throughout his work. It was his desire to make clothing that people could afford and be comfortable
in.” Now, with the Cooper Hewitt’s 2020 exhibition
Street Couture, named for a 1983 WilliWear collection, a new generation will be able to learn from the democratic vision of one of America’s first Black fashion designers.
To learn more about Smith, visit newschool.edu/willi-smith.