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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Featured —


Polydisciplinary Magnetism


Judith Barry, Prem Krishnamurthy, and Forest Young


Prem Krishnamurthy:
I am a relative newcomer to Willi Smith; I was first introduced to his work through James Wines and the designs that SITE created for WilliWear in the eighties. As a model, WilliWear brings up important questions around the politics of distribution. The brand stood for accessibility and affordability—essential parts of the modern project, as in canonical examples like Jan Tschichold’s design for Penguin Books—and demonstrated that mass production and broad appeal can go hand-in-hand with aesthetic quality. This approach to distribution is an ideological position in itself. At the same time, Willi Smith pioneered the idea of collaborating with artists and creative practitioners from other fields, in ways that still seem fresh today.

When Alexandra [Cunningham Cameron] asked me to help convene this conversation, it seemed like a perfect opportunity to touch on these topics and others in dialogue with practitioners who have a longer exposure to and understanding of WilliWear. In her critical artistic work since the eighties, Judith Barry has consistently explored the consumer gaze, the politics of display, and the productive frictions between design and art. Forest Young brings extensive experience working within branding on a global level, while also collaborating with artists such as Titus Kaphar on critical, socially oriented projects that incorporate design. Both of them have known Willi Smith’s work for a long time and bring their perspectives to bear on it.


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Bill Bonnell for WilliWear, Invitation, Spring 1984 Presentation, 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.