Celebrating Willi Smith Day

During his 20-year career, Willi Smith (1948–1987) united fashion and American culture, marrying affordable, adaptable basics with avant-garde performance, film, art, and design. 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.  

In 1988, a year after Willi Smith’s death, New York City’s first Black American Mayor David Dinkins proclaimed February 23 as Willi Smith Day. The following years saw Smith’s family and friends honor the designer’s legacy by raising awareness and funds for the ongoing fight against HIV/AIDS, an extension of the work Smith himself did to increase visibility for Black and queer experience through his collections, events, and collaborations.  

In honor of Willi Smith Day and Black History Month, join Alexandra Cunningham Cameron and Darnell-Jamal Lisby for a discussion of key WilliWear projects that exhibit the designer’s work to increase visibility for Black culture and creativity.    

Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum’s Willi Smith: Street Couture and Willi Smith Community Archive have endeavored to document Smith’s efforts, beyond the material of WilliWear collections, to use his platform to drive social change, highlight the dynamism of Black ingenuity, and manifest a new vision for the fashion industry.  

For more information on Willi Smith’s career, please visit the Willi Smith Community Archive.   
For additional information on the exhibition, please visit the museum’s website.  The Willi Smith: Street Couture publication can be purchased through SHOP Cooper Hewitt.  


Alexandra Cunningham Cameron is the curator of contemporary design and Hintz Secretarial Scholar at Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum. She organized the Willi Smith: Street Couture exhibition, monograph, and digital community archive. 




Darnell-Jamal Lisby is the former project curatorial assistant of the Willi Smith: Street Couture exhibition and extending projects. Currently, he serves as an education associate handling public programs at Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum.


ABOUT THE behind the design SERIES 

What makes an object “museum-worthy”? How does an exhibition come to life? What discoveries have been unearthed by conservators? Behind the Design features curators, conservators, and other museum staff and guests in a series of lunch-time conversations to offer a behind-the-scenes glimpse of Cooper Hewitt and its collection. 


This free program will feature a lecture followed by an audience Q&A hosted through Zoom, with the option to dial in as well. Details will be emailed to you upon registration. This program includes closed captioning. For general questions or if we can provide additional accessibility services or accommodations to support your participation in this program, please email us at moorep@si.edu or let us know when registering.

Image: Theatre National Daniel Sorano Dancers on Set, Expedition, Willi Smith for WilliWear, Spring 1986 Collection, Photographed by Mark Bozek, Dakar, Senegal, 1985

Alexandra Cunningham Cameron, Josep Fonti, 2018