Willi Smith Community Archive


Willi Smith: Street Couture—Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum’s book and exhibition—was built through the memories and contributions of Smith’s friends and collaborators. Share your own story about Willi Smith here...





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     I don’t design clothes for the Queen; but for the people who wave at her as she goes by.



The Willi Smith Digital Community Archive invites friends, collaborators, and admirers of American designer Willi Smith to share in writing his history. This site collects and publishes personal recollections, new scholarship, video, and digital ephemera that contributes to a greater understanding of Smith’s life, work, and times.
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. 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.

Portrait of Willi Smith, Photographed by Kim Steele, ca. 1981


︎  Browse the site by subject, timeline, and through open call submissions, or share your own story. We want to hear from you!



Community Archive



The Willi Smith Digital Community Archive collects and publishes personal recollections, new scholarship, video, and digital ephemera that contributes to a greater understanding of Smith’s life, work, and times. 


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Shailah Edmonds



Back in the eighties, the modeling life was very wild, and we partied a lot at clubs like Studio 54, the Paradise Garage, and Better Days.
I met Toukie Smith while modeling here in America—she didn’t come to Paris until later on. We met working at a fashion show. There was a crew of us models that were always working together, and Toukie was one of the Black models in that circle. We worked a few fashion shows together. The first or second time I met her, she told me that her brother was a designer and that I should see him. It was during the fashion season, and I went to see him for a show, and he hired me pretty much on the spot. I think I was a very good fit for him. I was very lively and energetic—and that’s what Willi’s clothes kind of represented because he did fun sportswear and streetwear clothes. 

I was going to and from Europe a lot during my modeling days, so I wasn’t really in New York that much to work for Willi continuously, but I walked in his shows from around 1983 to 1984. 

I did a few shows for him at the WilliWear showroom and one at the Puck Building. Then, he chose me to represent him at the September 1983 Coty American Fashion Critics’ Awards, where he was chosen to do a show and was winning the award for womenswear. I felt very special and honored to be chosen to do that. I still cherish the little name tag that was attached to my hip—it had my name and his name on it. I remember at the Coty Awards, it was a big event and very well attended by celebrities. It was exciting—lots of hubbub and buzz—pretty frantic backstage. I think we only modeled one or two outfits from one of his collections. It was a showcase more so than a full show. We did what we did on the runway—we danced around, paraded down the runway to great music, and each time got a rousing applause! People loved his clothes and the show. At the after-party, there were people like Sterling St. Jacques, Debbie Allen, Richard Roundtree, and Calvin Lockhart. The show and after-party were unforgettable.  



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Shailah Edmonds’ model tag for the Coty American Fashion Critics’ Awards, September 29, 1983





This website was designed by and created in collaboration with Cargo, as part of its ongoing initiative to support arts, design and culture.

This website was designed by and created in collaboration with Cargo, as part of its ongoing initiative to support arts, design and culture.