Design for Benefit for Homelessness poster, Willi Smith, 1985, Courtesy of Bethann Hardison
Willi and I loved each other. We had so much in common—same aesthetic and same ethics. He loved my style. I loved his conscious good manners. He believed in me. He spotted me on the street and felt that I had something special. His instinct to connect with people, to find their beauty and potential, is something you need to understand in order to understand what drove him. People in the industry, in our garment neighborhood, actually thought I was Willi many times. They used to say, “Hi, Willi,” because of the way I dressed. I was skinny and we were the same complexion. After a while, I just started saying, “Hi,” which was easier than saying, “I’m not Willi.”
Willi came out of the womb a different person. He was drawn to New York to study fashion and make it on his own—this requires a certain curiosity and sophistication. Willi was artistic, literary. For him, design was about looking at clothing from different avenues, finding new means of expression. His innate sense of style was never grandiose, which lent an ease to everything he did. It wasn’t about showiness, but about caring for art and music and dance and most importantly for people.
He was passionate about art. He surrounded himself with work by the artists he loved. A funny story . . . back in the day, Willi asked me to help him buy some Jean-Michel Basquiat paintings. I knew Jean-Michel, and Willi was already established at that point and had some money to spend. I was thrilled because I also loved Jean-Michel’s work and had my eye on a small black-and-white painting in his studio. I just knew Jean-Michel would give it to me if I helped Willi buy some larger paintings. Of course, Willi did and Jean-Michel was happy. He called me up the next day and said he had a gift for me. I was so excited thinking about that little painting. I saw Jean-Michel coming around the corner with a package in his hands. I opened it up, and it was a giant bag of weed. Enough marijuana to last anyone a lifetime. I never smoked enough to ever justify that amount.
Willi definitely changed fashion—not that we thought about it at the time or even used that word, “fashion.” Today, fashion has become part of pop culture. Everyone wants to be a part of it. Everybody is a part of it. But it wasn’t like that before. We were a tiny little island that nobody even cared about other than those who lived it. Willi is the one who connected this high-minded idea of fashion to everyday people, and made them feel like they were a part of it. That has had a huge impact on the public’s embrace of fashion today—their feeling of ownership over it. Because Willi Smith taught them that fashion could be affordable. It could also be made at home. And it was theirs for the taking.