Born Willi Donnell Smith in Philadelphia on 29 February 1948, Smith studied fashion illustration at the Philadelphia Museum College of Art from 1962 to 1965 and continued his studies in fashion design at the Parsons School of Design in New York City from 1965 to 1967. He died at age thirty-nine on 17 April 1987. According to Liz Rittersporn of the New York Daily News, he was the most successful black designer in fashion history.
On leaving college, Smith worked as a fashion illustrator with Arnold Scaasi for several years. From 1967 to 1976 he also worked as a freelance designer for companies such as Bobbi Brooks and Digits Inc. He specialized in sportswear, injecting an element of playfulness into functional garments such as the jump suit that he cut out of silver-coated cloth. In 1976 he and Laurie Mallet, who subsequently became president of the company, established the successful label Willi Wear Limited, which captured the spirit of pragmatic leisurewear. Together they launched a collection of clothes consisting of thirteen silhouettes in soft cotton, manufactured in India and sold in New York. Such was the demand for the relaxed styling and affordable clothes of the label that the company's revenue grew from $30,000 in its first year to $25 million in 1986.
In 1978 Smith added a men's wear collection, and in 1986 he designed the navy, linen, double-breasted suit worn by Edwin Schlossberg for his marriage to Caroline Kennedy, together with the violet linen blazers and white trousers worn by the groom's party. He was, however, primarily a designer of women's wear. From its origins in a single New York store, the company went on to open offices in London (a boutique in St. Christopher's Place), Paris, and Los Angeles, as well as more than a thousand outlets in stores throughout the United States. The Paris store-his first eponymous store- opened posthumously in 1987. Just before his untimely death that year, he expressed his desire to Deny Filmer of Fashion Weekly to see all WilliWear products housed under one roof. "I want my stores to be a little funkier, like, wilder and fun to go into. You know that wonderful feeling when you go into an army surplus store, they have an unpretentious atmosphere. I don't want to push a lifestyle" (p. 7).
Democracy in Fashion
Smith's attitude toward fashion was democratic and the antithesis of the ostentatious 1980s. His main concern was that his clothes should be comfortable and affordable. He was dismissive of the edict "dress for success," identifying with the youth cults he saw on the streets of New York and drawing much of his inspiration from them. To this end he provided comfortable, functional clothes in soft fabrics that did not restrict the body in any way. He very often chose Indian textiles for their suppleness, diffused colors, and attractively distressed quality. His clothes were moderately priced, loose-fitting, occasionally oversized separates. Skirts were full and long and jackets oversized, in natural fabrics that wore well and were easy to maintain.
He disliked the pretentiousness of haute couture. "I would love to have a salon and design couture collections, but it's so expensive … and I hate the theory of 'We the rich can dress up and have fun, and the rest can dress in blazers and slacks.' Fashion is a people thing, and designers should remember that" (Filmer, p. 9).
Smith's obituary in the Village Voice (28 April 1987) by Hilton Als read,
"As both designer and person, Willi embodied all that was the brightest, best and most youthful in spirit in his field. … That a WilliWear garment was simple to care for italicised the designer's democratic urge: to clothe people as simply, beautifully, and inexpensively as possible. "
For a brief period after his death, the company continued to function, and it opened its own store on lower Fifth Avenue in New York. In 1996 WilliWear was relaunched, designed by Michael Shulman, and available in T.J. Maxx stores.
Although never an innovator, Willi Smith represented a paradigm of casual American style, creating affordable classic separates. Their functionality and informality was not reliant on overt sexuality or on the status implied by high fashion, and they appealed to a broad spectrum of people. Smith received the Coty American Fashion Critics Award in 1983, and New York City designated 23 February as "Willi Smith Day." He was also honored by the Fashion Walk of Fame.
See also Fashion and Identity.
Filmer, Deny. "Just William." Fashion Weekly (London). (12 February 1987).
Milbank, Caroline Rennolds. New York Fashion: The Evolution of American Style. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1989.
Rittersporn, Liz. "Designer Willi Smith Is Dead." New York Daily News (19 April 1987).