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Monday, January 17, 2011

Willi Smith was The Fresh King

Once you were nobody unless you rocked some "WilliWear", honey

Willi Smith was one of the most commercially successful black fashion designers with his WilliWear line

His designs went so mainstream that he created the 1987 wedding dress for Mary Jane Watson's marriage to Peter Parker in The Spider-Man comics

Smith counted many wealthy socialites as clients and he also did wardrobe and costuming for plays and Spike Lee's "School Daze"

So of course, at the time WilliWear was given the dubious moniker of  "street couture" which he himself didn't like because it was limiting and racially slanted

Yet he could play it both ways sometimes, admitting

"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"

Further he told Essence magazine that

"What is happening on the streets of New York is happening to me, so I put it right in the collection."

yet he didn't look at his clothes as marginalized for certain people. WilliWear was for "people to live in" and he aimed for an affordable line of sportswear in relaxed silhouettes, natural fibers and mix-n-match patterns (love that!)

WilliWear was both a respected women's wear (Coty Award, 1983) and men's wear (Cutty Sark Award, 1986) line with designs so popular that Butterick and McCall's (before 2001 merger of the two pattern makers) both had a whole line of patterns out in conjunction

An uncharacteristically hands-on designer, Smith annually travelled to India to supervise the construction There, in 1987, Willi Smith died of AIDS-related causes. He was later honored in the original AIDS memorial quilt

WilliWear is still produced under a revolving design roster and Smith's personal legacy carries on as the street and the showroom continue to intertwine, prints continue to clash and American sportswear continues to favor young entrepreneurial people with a vision and drive to succeed no matter what stereotypes they face.


  1. This is a wonderful tribute to a wonderful man. I was lucky enough to have met Willi a few times, when I first started out in the fashion biz, and I adored him, and his work.
    I remember the first Williwear piece I ever bought, too - it was a bright red jacket, and I bought it at Capezio's, when they were on MacDougal street (actually, they were inside the theater that you and I went to recently!). At the time, it was SUCH a cool store, they had a lot of local NYC young designers.
    I had lots of his clothes, and I think that David might still have a few shirts of his, left over from the 80's, which are still in style.
    Oh, and OF COURSE I have that Spiderman comic book!

  2. I love that you knew him. I can imagine you shared some good laughs. I discovered Williwear in my years of vintage as a sadly under-appreciated but highly influential label that few knew. Let me know if David wants to hold on to those shirts still ;)

    xoxo m

  3. Willi was a doll, and I'll bet that George knew him, too. I'll have to ask.
    You'll be the first to know, if David goes through his closet, but I do know that he loves his Williwear, so I don't think he's going to part with anything, sadly.
    Oh well, I'll have to keep my eyes open for some Williwear, when I am thrift shopping.
    I also LOVE that you posted his different label designs. I just adored the one with the cartoon of him.
    When I got rid of of some of my Willi pieces a while ago (when shoulder pads went out of style), I thought about cutting out that iconic label and saving it. I wish I had, now! xoxol


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I'm a fashion writer who writes for Bluefly, EDGE Media, VIRAL Fashion, etc. I use "It Can't All Be Dior" as a safe release for my love of coats, cats and cake. Phew!