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.


Norma Jean Darden

Willi was one of the most loving, gentle, and secure people I have ever met. He was in his own world, doing his own thing, and he had his own vision. I met Willi when I went up to his studio at Digits because I had seen his clothes, and I really loved them. We clicked instantly. He introduced me to Toukie, his sister, and his younger brother, Norman, and then I got to meet all the family. Willi was very proud of his family, and they were very much an integrated part of his team. You didn’t find too many people that had a team that was multigenerational, but he did—from his younger brother to his mother and grandmother. They were inseparable. We all traveled together. He took his family everywhere, and I was lucky to be a part of that. Once, he took me to Philadelphia with his family, and we put on a show at Wanamaker’s. That was a really big thing for him because he was from Philly. He got such a great welcome. All the papers were there and the TV stations. He had a beautiful line, and Wanamaker's was showing his clothes—it was fabulous to be a part of.

I met Willi before WilliWear—though, I remember more from when he became the master of his realm. Laurie Mallet is such a dear—she was the perfect partner for Willi. They were not temperamental. There was not a lot of nonsense, not a lot of ego clashing—the things you found in other showrooms. It was all very mellow at WilliWear.

Willi nurtured so many modeling careers. There was Bethann Hardison, who he always had in light and love, and of course, there was his sister Toukie, there was me, and many others. A lot of people were afraid to use Black models in mass at the time, but he wasn’t. Not at all.

He was so proud of all of us, and he saw our individuality and nurtured our creative spirits. He created a wonderful environment for you to flourish in. Willi was very proud to be a Black American designer. So many people were running from that title, and just wanted to be an “American designer,” or to separate themselves from race, but Willi was very proud to come out of a tradition in his family where his mother and his aunt had been wonderful seamstresses and how his inspiration had come from the Black community that nurtured him. Willi spent time in Harlem for church—he loved the sounds and the congregations. His clothes were so upbeat and reflected that influence.

I first got into modeling when I went to Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, New York. The school nominated me to be the Sarah Lawrence model for Mademoiselle’s college issue. I went downtown to Condé Nast and had on my high-heeled patent leather shoes and a beautiful red boucle coat with a hood, and the receptionist said to me, “why didn’t you use the delivery entrance?” I said, “because I came here to be a model,” and she said, “that’s ridiculous; it’s a white woman’s prerogative.” I told her I was sent by my college, and she said, “I’m sorry, there must be some mistake.” I returned to Bronxville in tears, and my college went berserk! There had never been a Black model in Mademoiselle, but they had never thought about that at Sarah Lawrence. They put up such a fuss about it that they got a Black model in the magazine, but it wasn’t me, they got a girl from California. That was in 1961. When I graduated four years later, all I could think about was breaking the door down in modeling!  

I went to a group called Black Beauty, and then I got taken by Wilhelmina, and that’s how I started modeling. The first designer to use me was Jon Haggins, then Scott Barrie, Stephen Burrows, and Willi Smith. They were the four Black designers who got all of the publicity, and suddenly the Black designers and Black models were in vogue. We were everywhere; we were wined, dined, and the people of the moment. I got in Harper’s Bazaar, Vogue, Mademoiselle, and that was the start of it. About four years after our hay-day, Asian models were in—now the Yugoslavian and Eastern European models are in. That’s fashion for you—they go from one ethnic look to another for inspiration. But Willi wasn’t interested in ethnic “trends” in modeling. He didn’t care what color you were.

I remember all of Willi’s shows were fun, and we all liked each other. It was not competitive. Nobody was trying to out-do one another, which was an amazing thing. Willi always kept it calm. He came out at the end of the shows for his bow, with his glasses, and he was so modest. He had a quiet ego that came from the strength of knowing who he was and what he could do—it was not a false or puffed-up ego. Willi had beauty and humility and kindness. He was one-of-a-kind.

Willi didn’t really need fittings. I could wear what would fit somebody with a different body type. Willi’s clothes just fit. It was a gift that he had, and the only other person that I know with that gift was Karl Lagerfeld. Willi’s clothes fit a million different bodies with the same garment. It was uncanny. Everybody looked good in WilliWear. The only designer whose clothes struck me as being similar to the philosophy of WilliWear was Clovis Ruffin.   

Let me tell you what Willi did for me. I had an audition for a movie in Hollywood—I wanted to be an actress and had got in some off-Broadway plays. At first, I figured why not try modeling and get into acting that way? So, to send me out to California, Willi gave me a whole wardrobe of what he thought a star should be wearing in Hollywood. I was thrilled! I got out to Hollywood in my WilliWear…and, unbelievably, it was freezing cold! People said to me, “oh, I can tell you’re from New York, you thought it would be hot.” So, I auditioned for my part, and I wore my WilliWear to the audition. I was going to be playing opposite Richard Pryor for a movie called The White Sheep, but it never got done. That was my little Hollywood excursion. But Willi was rooting for me and was such an important person in my life.

I remember, after I retired from modeling in 1980, I ran into Willi at one of his favorite restaurants, Un Deux Trois, and he said, “Norma, you never should have left the business. Don’t you miss it?” I didn’t realize how much I had missed it and him, I almost broke down in tears! He was welcoming me back, but I was off and running with my food career, which I am still in today. I have the Spoonbread restaurant, and I did my Spoonbread & Strawberry Wine cookbook, and Willi was very complimentary and started cheering me on in my food business. I made my transition from modeling to food. 

Willi was such a dear and is so greatly missed. There’s never been anyone like him. He is irreplaceable. His clothes were so cheerful. They were more for the young person coming up—not the fashion people who could spend $5,000 on a gown. His designs were for the person who didn’t have millions in their bank account. Willi was of the people, for the people, and saw to it that we all looked nice no matter what. He gave us chicness at a reasonable price, styled-up streetwear, and was so ahead of his time.

Photograph of Norma Jean Darden, ca. 1970s
Courtesy of the Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture © Anthony Barboza

Spoonbread & Strawberry Wine Cookbook, published in 1976

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This website was designed by and created in collaboration with Cargo, as part of its ongoing initiative to support arts, design and culture.