Willi Smith: Street Couture

A WilliWear showroom. In an urban / industrial gray warehouse space, garments are suspended not from clothing racks but from chain link fence that lines the wall. The garments are simple blouses and pants. In the background, two models, one woman and one man, look at each other like they're sizing each other up

Willi Smith: Street Couture is the first museum exhibition devoted to American designer Willi Smith. The exhibition seeks to restore Smith’s place in the fashion canon as a groundbreaking cultural producer who laid new roads for fashion before dying suddenly of AIDS-related complications in 1987 at age 39.

Willi Smith: Street Couture is named for Smith’s iconic fall 1983 collection, which brought together fashion, video art, and music in a unique event that symbolized the designer’s effort to democratize fashion through the intersection of the arts with affordable basics inspired by his diverse audience. Included in the exhibition are more than 150 works by Smith and his collaborators, such as Juan Downey, Dan Friedman, Keith Haring, Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company, Les Levine, Dianne McIntyre, Nam June Paik, and SITE. Many of the works on view, which include photography, video, design drawings, garments, patterns, and ephemera, have not been seen in more than 30 years.

The architecture of the exhibition, designed by SITE co-founder and National Design Award Winner James Wines with Sam Chermayeff Office, recreates SITE’s iconic 1982 WilliWear showroom, which brought the street indoors to create an environment for events, sales, and happenings. Communication design studio Poly-mode has created the graphic identity for the exhibition and publication, continuing the spirit of collaboration that Smith championed.

Willi Smith: Street Couture is organized by Alexandra Cunningham Cameron, curator of contemporary design and Hintz Secretarial Scholar at Cooper Hewitt, along with curatorial assistants Darnell-Jamal Lisby and Julie Pastor.

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Co-published by Cooper Hewitt and Rizzoli Electa, Willi Smith: Street Couture explores the emergence of street style in the United States, the history of collaborative practice, the downtown New York art scene of the seventies and eighties, the impact of black and black queer communities, and the relationship between fashion, marketing, race. Designed by Poly-mode, the book will feature more than 300 archival photographs alongside essays, conversations, and recollections from 50 notable figures in fashion, art, and culture, including Oscar-winner Ruth E. Carter, Paper Magazine co-founder Kim Hastreiter, choreographer Bill T. Jones, designer Stephen Burrows, and artist Lisa Yuskavage.




Featured Image: WilliWear Showoom, SITE, 1982, Photographed by Andreas Sterzing, Courtesy of SITE - James Wines, LLC, photo © Andreas Sterzing