PRINT April 2020



Dancers wearing costumes by Willi Smith in Bill T. Jones and Arnie Zane’s 1984 Secret Pastures, with Keith Haring’s set design in the background, Brooklyn Academy of Music, New York, November 1984. Photo: Tom Caravaglia. © Tom Caravaglia and Keith Haring Foundation

LIKE BETTE DAVIS AND JOAN CRAWFORD, artists and fashion designers seem to work best together when the egos are thoroughly massaged and the contact is minimal. Perhaps that’s why their projects often take on a perfunctory air, stripped of the spontaneous spirit that collaboration is meant to elicit. Nearly every blue-chip artist, it seems, has had their name on a T-shirt or their imprint inscribed on a couture show. Designers, often under enormous pressure to puff up a modest house into a billion-dollar biz while retaining its cachet, regularly discover that a sure way to temper commerciality and boost sales is to add an artist’s name to a collection.

But as a fashion designer, Willi Smith—whose retrospective opened at New York’s Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum in March—enjoyed an unusually fluid relationship with artists, one much richer than “I scratch your back, you paint my backpack.” After he was dismissed from New York’s Parsons School of Design in 1967, allegedly for having a relationship with another male student, he fell into the world “below Fourteenth Street,” as downtown New York was then called, implying a locale in which every Mohawked proto-punk and caftan-clad Smith dropout was frolicking in Boschian arrangements of carnal chaos and creative output. In 1976, after working for a few now-defunct sportswear brands and launching a short-lived eponymous label, he established his WilliWear line, which he helmed until his death, in 1987, of AIDS-related complications.

Video documentation from Willi Smith for WilliWear’s City Island Spring 1984 presentation featuring a Nam June Paik video installation, 1983.

Friends and colleagues suggest Smith had more in common with artists than with fashion designers. “A conversation with him wasn’t like talking to Donna Karan,” said James Wines, one of the founders of the postmodern architecture firm SITE. “It was like talking with an artist.” Smith worked freely with many of the boldest creative experimenters of his day, employing talent from multiple media in his fashion shows, branding, and video and performance projects. He made uniforms for the workers who assembled two of Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s projects, Surrounded Islands, 1983, and Pont Neuf Wrapped, 1985. The loose blue smock and trousers he designed for the latter work were flipped with Supreme-like speed, appearing in a French newspaper ad shortly after the work’s debut with an asking price of $1,000. He created costumes for choreographers Dianne McIntyre and Bill T. Jones and premiered a collection at Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, enlisting Ailey’s corps as models. With mind-blowing prescience, Smith and his business partner, Laurie Mallet, conscripted about twenty artists, including Jenny Holzer, Barbara Kruger, Les Levine, and Robert Rauschenberg, to design T-shirts, so that you could not only contemplate, say, an Ida Applebroog while you were walking down the street, you could wear one. As Kruger put it, the shirts underscored how people use clothing’s semiotics, its slogans and logos, in the “public construction” of the self, revealing “the brilliance and idiocy of fashion.” Smith asked Nam June Paik to make video art for his shows and Keith Haring to make sets, presaging the interdisciplinary extravaganzas now undertaken seasonally by every kind of fashion designer, from quirkos like Eckhaus Latta to the billion-dollar House of Dior. As Horacio Silva points out in the show’s catalogue, New York fashion hadn’t seen anything comparable to Smith’s joyfully cerebral spectacles since Lily Auchincloss fried bacon on Halston’s runway. Innovators always face resistance. That Smith, who was black, also faced the enormous obstacles racism places in the path of designers of color makes those innovations that much more remarkable

In a 1986 South Florida Sun-Sentinel story about fashion designers using video in their runway shows and advertising, Smith said, “Without question, [fashion video] is the next phase of marketing clothing. I think . . . it will revolutionize department and specialty store displays, not to mention exposure in areas like television and nightclubs.” Here, too, the designer was a soothsayer, foreshadowing major developments in fashion culture—not simply the Home Shopping Network but Instagram and even the latest harebrained scheme in razzle-dazzle consumerism, livestream shopping. Ralph Lauren could never!

Look from Willi Smith for WilliWear Street Couture Fall 1983 collection. Photo: Max Vadukul.

Smith’s avant-garde credentials might suggest a design aesthetic akin to Issey Miyake or Stephen Burrows, both of whom were shaking the foundations of Paris’s fusty salons around the time Smith founded WilliWear, their radical shapes and fabrics rebuking haute couture’s laborious silhouettes and skirt-suit modesty. But Smith’s clothes are more closely affiliated with the genealogy stretching from Bonnie Cashin to Ralph Lauren, the tradition of all-American sportswear—clothes that are easy to wear, easy to afford, and expressive of democratic values. Smith really believed in the promise of America: the principles of egalitarianism, the possibility of democracy. He once said, “Who made the rule that everything in America that’s not expensive has to be horrible?” So WilliWear was sold at mass department stores like Bloomingdale’s and Macy’s, and with each collection, Smith released patterns by Butterick and McCall’s for the economical woman who sewed rather than bought. His clothing was made of simple materials like linen and cotton and manufactured in India, where materials and labor were available at a lower price.

The idea that a designer could create something reasonably priced whose aesthetic value does not lie in its similarity to a high-fashion original barely exists today.

In the catalogue, Mallet recalls that in the company’s early days, the Mumbai factory in which the clothing was made “had never produced a coat, pants, or a jacket. The workers were paid by the piece and did not enjoy (at least at the beginning) working on harder pieces. Some of them ran away.” Even if “ran away” just means “quit,” the comment paints a troubling picture. When it came to labor practices, WilliWear was not ahead of the ethical curve. The company participated in broad trends that, since Smith’s death, have led to the environmental and human scourge of fast fashion. India is consistently ranked among the top exporters of garments in the world alongside China and Bangladesh, countries infamously known for low-cost labor—a garment worker in India makes on average just $257 a month. But the ethical demand that the show itself meets is that of offering a close look at the work of an important designer who has never gotten his due—a history, not a hagiography.

The clothing itself was elegant but frankly humble—see the speckled knit sweater with ribbed sleeves and a matching snood, tossed over a contrasting knit skirt and pulled together with a leather lobster-claw-clasp belt, from Fall 1984’s SUB-Urban collection; or the cream wide-wale corduroy trousers with a green corduroy trench from the Fall 1983 Street Couture collection. Sleeves were meant to be rolled up or pushed into new shapes; belts, shoes, scarves, and customers’ own ingenuity would reveal the untapped possibilities of Smith’s straightforward, nearly subdued garments. “My customers put things together that amaze even me,” Smith said. “But I learn from them. First I give them ideas and then they give me ideas.” His collaborator and muse Bethann Hardison has even suggested that they weren’t in fashion—they were in the apparel business, darlin’. “Fashion was a word we hardly ever used,” she said.

WilliWear showroom, New York, 1984. From left: Alison Sky, James Wines, Willi Smith, Laurie Mallet. Photo: Peter Aaron.

Any fashion retrospective inevitably gives rise to unprovable claims of invention. McQueen invented emotion, the Catholic Church invented couture, Schiaparelli invented Prada, yada yada. Designers like Yves Saint Laurent established the canonical fashion fetish for subcultural quotation, or what we more commonly call appropriation, long before Smith came along—Saint Laurent’s 1960 Beat collection for Dior, inspired by those Left Bank free-verse lowlifes, was so upsetting to his bosses that when he was drafted to fight in the Algerian War, they were thrilled to see him go. But Smith really did make it his project not to steal from the streets and sell it upward, but rather to cycle the modest realities of American life into the designs and ethos of his brand. “When people hear the name Willi Smith,” he said in an interview, “I want them to think, this is a person who cares enough about them that he’s taking the time to design and create and think for them.” His office and showroom—which are probably getting pinned on a thousand coworking start-up Pinterest boards as you read this—exemplified this philosophy: an urban landscape of half-fallen brick walls, chain-link fences, and pipes designed by SITE—calmed, or “ghosted,” in cool, dove-gray paint. Smith took the street and, rather than elevating it, proclaimed it the source of elevation. It’s for this reason that he is credited, by those in the know, with creating streetwear. He preferred the term from which the Cooper Hewitt show borrows its name: street couture.

Smith’s designs stand in contrast to what we think of as streetwear. They have more in common, visually, with Armani than brands like Supreme, FUBU, or Off-White. Fashion historians contextualize Smith as the first designer to democratize luxury, decades before Instagram allowed any old whoever to sit in the proverbial front row, and a new push into less expensive products like sweatshirts and wallets allowed people of even modest means to become luxury consumers. To this day, those who can’t afford a Balenciaga dress are encouraged by fashion’s marketing apparatus to wear the Balenciaga bag or sneaker—borrowed from the street and cycled up and away—with the fast-fashion dress that approximates the costly European standard, but which is made (usually) in India, China, or Bangladesh, a factory with poor working conditions and unfair wages. The idea that a designer could create something reasonably priced whose aesthetic value does not lie in its similarity to a high-fashion original barely exists today. Even Eileen Fisher is too pricey for the average wireless-mouse pusher.

But just as Christo and Jean-Claude wanted to make uncomplicated, aesthetically powerful art a universally accessible experience, Smith wanted to do the same with affordable, well-designed clothes. That, perhaps, is the real starting point of streetwear, which connects Smith to FUBU and Supreme. Historically, the genius of streetwear has been about transforming commonplace clothing by wearing it in new ways that transcend occasion, sometimes creating lines, proportions, or statements as daring as any of Miyake’s. The real significance of the phrase street couture is that it invited the wearer to be their own couturier. The past decade has seen fashion houses swallow streetwear whole through a currently trite and risk-free insistence that hoodies and sneakers belong on the runways of Paris. Now even its prophets suggest streetwear’s influence is winding down: “I would definitely say it’s gonna die” over the next decade, said Virgil Abloh in a late-2019 interview. Smith envisioned another future, one in which the hierarchies that allow streetwear to be seen as a fashion trend—rather than just as fashion—would level out, and no one would ever need to be reminded that real style isn’t a social practice of the wealthy. Perhaps we need that vision now more than ever. 

“Willi Smith: Street Couture” is on view at the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, New York, through October 25.

Rachel Seville Tashjian lives in New York. She is a staff writer for GQ.