Traveling Exhibitions

Cooper Hewitt exhibitions regularly travel across the country and the world.

willi smith: Street couture

The first museum survey of African-American designer Willi Smith (1948-1987), Willi Smith: Street Couture celebrates this under-recognized pioneer of streetwear fashion, who played an important role in the New York art scene of the 1970s–80s before his sudden death in 1987 of AIDS-related complications. Featuring key works, the exhibition will illustrate the evolution of Smith’s designs through his extensive collaborations with visual and performing artists, architects, and media vanguard, and will demonstrate fashion’s potential to break down cultural and social boundaries. Smith’s work will be revealed not only as an expression of the sociopolitical, economic, and artistic transformations of his time, but also as an actor in the reimagining of fashion from a siloed discipline reinforcing class, race, and gender divides toward an experience and lifestyle-driven industry that can create a space of play and indeterminacy.

Conceptualized for a broad audience of fashion, art, and design enthusiasts, as well as the general public, the exhibition creates new avenues for understanding Smith’s influential work in dialogue with a heady period in American history. On view will be photography, video, design drawings, garments, patterns, ephemera and architecture, most of which has not been seen in more than 30 years. Works have been culled from institutional archives and the personal collections of Smith’s friends and collaborators and feature a range of artists including Nam June Paik, SITE, Christo and Jeanne Claude, Bill T. Jones and Arnie Zane, Juan Downey, Steven Meisel, Keith Haring, and Dan Friedman.

The design of the exhibition will be executed by SITE, the original architects of Williwear’s iconic 1980s showrooms and boutiques. These visionary retail environments brought New York’s streetscape indoors to create a flexible framework for display and celebrate Smith’s inspiration from everyday people on the street. An essential element of the exhibition, the SITE showroom architecture is built from modular constructions of fencing, masonry, piping, and brick and can be recreated at subsequent venues through local sourcing.

Willi Smith: Street Couture will be accompanied by a book co-published with Rizzoli, with essays by figures in fashion, art, and culture. Topics include the emergence of street style in the United States, the history of collaborative practice, the downtown New York art scene of the 1970s/80s, the relationship between fashion, marketing, and race, and the impact of Black and queer communities.

Space requirements: 1500ft2 | 139m²


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