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 —


Willi Smith: Swervin’ in the Kingdom of Dreams


By Will Perkins

Between 1981 and 1987, 40,849 people died from AIDS in the United States.1 Smith, who died in ‘87, was one of thousands of Black men amongst them. During that period, New York had become the world capital of AIDS and the disease became the city’s third leading cause of death. Despite the gravity of the situation, Koch carelessly failed to plan and by the time he got around to it, City Hall’s efforts were dreadfully too little too late. Social services buckled under pressure while infected patients languished on long waiting lists for treatment, hospital beds, nursing homes, home care and housing.2

New York also faced threats from the outside. North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms, a homophobic hysteric, took aim at programs like New York’s Gay Men’s Health Crisis, the largest private AIDS-service agency formed by writer Larry Kramer. Fearful that blunt language and sexually graphic illustrations used in GMHC’s materials promoted homosexual behavior and would perpetuate the AIDS problem, Helms introduced legislation that forbid the Federal Centers for Disease Control from funding programs that “encourage or condone homosexual activities.”3

For his part, President Ronald Reagan didn’t even mention the word AIDS in public until 1985, four years after the first cases were reported. If Smith hadn’t died from the administrations indifference, he might have been killed by any number of Regan era policies which crippled the dispossessed in general, and Black Americans in particular. Cut off by inequitable economic policies and the “war on drugs,” Black people would disproportionately suffer from unemployment, equal access to education, poverty, homicide, hate crime and skyrocketing prison populations.4

In an atmosphere where Black American’s social infrastructure was being dismantled, Smith constructed an alternative point of view. Gay, Black, living in New York City grim with addiction, disease, and death, Smith’s work would embody an inclusivity he himself was not afforded.


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Willi Smith. T-shirt designed by Barbara Kruger for WilliWear Production’s “Artist T-shirts”, 1984 Object photography by Matt Flynn © Smithsonian Institution


Raekwon, Only Built for Cuban Linx, 1995 © Care of RCA Records, a division of Sony Music




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.