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 —


Om Batheja



I had the privilege of working with Willi Smith and Laurie Mallet from the time they launched WilliWear Ltd. in December 1975, through the close of the company. I worked behind the scenes on the non-fashion side of the business.

Like everyone who came to know Willi, I came to admire, cherish and love Willi tremendously. In these behind-the scenes everyday interactions with him, I saw a kind, sensitive, loving, and very generous person. He had a love for beautiful things, and every so often, he would share his treasures from his trips to India and elsewhere with his colleagues out of sheer generosity.

Willi loved life. He enjoyed life with zest and energy. He had a wonderful sense of humor and could have us in stitches during lunch or dinner when he talked about people and events.

He was very sociable and would often hang out with his friends at the cool places. He admired and respected talent in others and collaborated with artists in art, music, dance, and theater. Willi, in turn, was liked and admired by artists in these fields. I remember once our team went to lunch at Mr. Chow. Andy Warhol was there with Jean-Michel Basquiat. When Willi went to greet them, Andy quickly sketched something on a dinner plate and presented it to him.


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Just (some) friends, Photographed by Sergio Purtell, Paper magazine, 1988
Om Batheja poses, with his daughter on his shoulders, for a group photograph of Willi Smith’s closest friends, partners, and collaborators for Paper magazine in 1988.


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.