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 —
Attitudes


By Horacio Silva

Willi Smith, a product of the pop era, was influenced by agenda-setting visionaries like Malcolm McLaren, Andy Warhol, David Bowie, and the clamor and glamour of his beloved Harlem church ladies. His fashion presentations also suggested a love of drag ball culture, a budding scene whose efflorescence coincided with Smith’s move to New York in 1965.

Friends recall his being a Harlem habitué and a regular at drag dives like the Gilded Grape. Fittingly, his collections were often broken down into sections whose nomenclature—Varsity, Work Epic, Renegades, Igloo—bring to mind the categories of the balls. It’s hard not to hear the hyperarticulated, stentorian pronouncements of ball emcees when reading WilliWear program notes: “drill cloth, poplin, corduroy” and “architectural outerwear ready for layering.”



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Willi Smith for WilliWear, SUB-Urban Fall 1984 Collection, Photographed by Max Vadukul, 1984

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.