Community Archive

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.


Jack Travis

Fashion and architecture share many intersections historically. Creating skin, or surface treatment, begins with the study and the understanding of the body as a form with proportions that demand a very keen understanding of relationship and juxtaposition of the parts. Fashion and architecture both create new skin for the body to exist within. For fashion, it is the draping of the body itself. For architecture, especially the interior, it is more about draping the spatial envelope or the atmosphere the body exists within.

Over the last thirty-five years, my work in the environmental disciplines of architecture and interior design has tried to evolve a set of cultural principles intended to evoke visual memory of “Blackness” into the existing American design palette. Toward that aim,
I have proposed several projects intended to reconnect memory of an African-based heritage connected with the irony of the condition of Black people and spatial politics worldwide. That architectural expression, in my view, must connect with the common individual. It must also combine a literal sense of past representations with a strong sense of resistance of many past and current practices and ideologies in order to move toward a more meaningful future in design.

SITE for WilliWear, Showroom, New York, NY, 1984
My first remembrance of the flagship WilliWear fashion showroom design was from a magazine. I’m not sure where I was at the time or what the magazine was. There was something different in those pages and images for me, one who had gone through two architecture programs and who was working at the most prestigious architectural firm in the world at the time. There it was, this unexpected and very seductive series of images depicting a retail concept for a new “urban-wear” fashion brand. “Ghetto fabulous” was a term floating around then. For me this moment was more like “ghetto as fabulous.”

The origins of the idea, the main aesthetic direction for the design proposal, came from the firm SITE. The practice was and remains, in essence, a multidisciplinary art and design laboratory where James Wines, Alison Sky, and Michelle Stone were focusing on creating “aesthetically imaginative, visually memorable, environmentally responsible, and economically viable ‘structures.’” The WilliWear showroom envisioned a strange but keen understanding of the importance of the look and feel of Black urban space, with all its tenacity, desperation, marginalization, and, even, celebration.

The use of deliberate expressions of shadow over light emphasized an atmosphere peculiar yet very real. Applied decoration in the guise of graffiti and surface messaging, the materiality of chain-link fencing, and a neutral cool monotone gray paint over all surfaces added to a look and defined the irony of a place that hosted many complex interpretations.
What Willi Smith and SITE masterminded was the exposure and celebration of an “other” America. These designers began a timely and long-overdue dialogue, normalizing and legitimizing a well-fixed memory in the minds of so many often unheard. They redefined for me a world so familiar, so much a part of me, but one that I had learned to despise in a way.

James and I have been friends for more than thirty-five years. I never told him how much this project helped me begin to see beauty on my own terms outside a fixed, well-established, but noninclusive Western architectural language. I get the chance now, here in these pages. I wish I could have told Willi. One can only guess as to the commitment, the sacrifice, and the vision of one so young, so gifted, so alone, and so unabashedly Black that it had to come through in his work as well as within the spaces he commissioned. Fashion is better because of him; retail environments as well. I’m not sure how many truly realize this fact. Architecture yet awaits its own Willi, still.

It was utter genius to have conceived of, for the first major African American fashion designer’s boutique, an environmental framework that not only spoke to the designer’s creative vision for the apparel, but also defined the man, the politics, and the social conditions of the time. The results were undeniable.

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.