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. 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. Willi Smith: Street Couture surveys Smith’s pathbreaking imagination of an inclusive, collaborative, and playful new society.

SITE, in collaboration with Sam Chermayeff Architects, designed this exhibition to recall the WilliWear showrooms and boutiques, like the one seen in the image above. Conceived by SITE partners Alison Sky and James Wines from 1982–1987, these retail experiences were composed of construction materials and objects salvaged from the sidewalks of New York City, bringing the improvisational energy of the street indoors as a framework for sales, events, and installations. SITE’s streetscapes embody WilliWear’s emphasis on the power of art to transform daily life.

A portrait of Willi Smith, a young African American man wearing a white t-shirt, jeans, and spectacles, in a photo studio. Behind him is draped a white sheet. A small piece of giraffe-print fabric is draped from a leaning flag pole. At his feet is a zebra-print blanket or piece of fabric thrown haphazardly on the ground.

Willi Smith, ca. 1981, Courtesy of Kim Steele

Willi Smith Community Archive

 

On the occasion of Willi Smith: Street Couture, Cooper Hewitt is creating a digital community archive to honor the life and innovations of pioneering American designer Willi Smith. Powered by Cargo, the archive will collect and share anecdotes, personal photographs, ephemera, and garments to document Smith’s contributions to fashion, art, design, and performance. Click here to explore the Willi Smith Community Archive.

Acknowledgements

Willi Smith: Street Couture was curated by Alexandra Cunningham Cameron, curator of Contemporary Design and Hintz Secretarial Scholar with curatorial assistants Darnell-Jamal Lisby and Julie Pastor and interns Myra Edmonds and Madeline Walsh.

Exhibition design by SITE in collaboration with Sam Chermayeff Architects

Graphic design by Polymode

This exhibition would not have been possible without the guidance and support of Willi Smith’s family, friends, and collaborators including Jeffrey Banks, Anthony Barboza, Martine Barrat, Alvin Bell, Bill Bonnell, Mark Bozek, Stephen Burrows, Ruth E. Carter, Christo, Pat Cleveland, Peter Gordon, Bethann Hardison, Kim Hastreiter, Laurie Mallet, Peter McQuaid, Bill T. Jones, Les Levine, Alma Luna, Linda Mason, Dianne McIntyre, Veronica Jones, Maira Kalman, Steven Meisel, Miralda, Rosemary Peck, Robert Risko, Edwin Schlossberg, Alison Sky, Audrey Smaltz, Norman Smith, Toukie Smith, Jorge Socarras, Kim Steele, Jeff Tweedy, Max Vadukul, Sylvia Waters, Veronica Webb, and James Wines.

Supporters

Supporters

Rectangular book cover featuring a photograph of three fashion models. The two on the right wear oversized garments and headpieces with dramatic makeup while the model on the left wears graphic black-and-white fabric and sunglasses. Overlaid in white is the text "Willi Smith: Street Couture."
Willi Smith: Street Couture
Fashion designer Willi Smith, pioneer of streetwear and visionary collaborator, finally gets his due in an exuberant celebration of his life and work.