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 —
Future Crossings


By Brendan Fernandes 


In 1984, when I was five years old, my family traveled from Nairobi, Kenya, to Calgary, Canada. Leaving the African continent for the first time to visit family in North America, my mother had my two sisters, father, and me dressed in matching tailored outfits: khaki suits à la safari with details in plaid—an ode to what we understood as Western style. We didn’t have a lot of money, but the question of how we were going to express our “African” selves in North America was important for us. At that early age, with few resources and clever tailoring, my mother instilled in my sisters and me the value of self-presentation. Today the question of how I present myself as a queer, Brown, border-crossing man is of serious personal and physical consequence.

One year after my family’s journey, Willi Smith produced Expedition (1985), an experimental short film that could be considered the inverse of my family’s experience. Shot by Kenyan-born photographer Max Vadukul with a score by Peter Gordon, the film follows Chicky, a caricature of a white man, as he travels in “Afrique,” the nonexistent place that the African continent occupies in the Western imagination. As he is subjected to an over-the-top border inspection upon arrival, a family of WilliWear models escape from his suitcase and begin to vogue, model, mischief, and make for a bathroom break in Smith’s brightly patterned fall collection. The film is a camp-fest reversal of stereotypes. The white man is made the outsider, and Smith pokes critical fun at the perception of African bodies as refugees or smuggled goods. Subverting the cliché of cross-border experience with humor may have been exactly what my mother had in mind with her own stylized border-crossing.

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Willi Smith on Set, Expedition, Willi Smith for WilliWear, Spring 1986 Collection, Photographed by Mark Bozek, Dakar, Senegal, 1985

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.