Willi Donnell Smith
Smith, Willi 1948–1987
Willi Smith 1948–1987
Rising quickly in the fashion world to become one of the industry’s most successful young designers, Willi Smith was part of a vanguard of hip young black designers who first made their mark in the late 1960s. The sportswear he created for WilliWear Ltd. in the 1970s and 1980s was noted for its relaxed, street-smart, and often oversized look that made it functional but fun. Youthful and often unfitted, his clothes had a free-flowing look that often featured unusual color combinations. Smith also introduced a design innovation by matching plaids, stripes, and colors in single articles of clothing.
Smith always wanted his clothes to utilize natural fibers, and he strove to keep his clothes affordable to the general public. “I don’t design clothes for the Queen, but for the people who wave at her as she goes by” said Smith, according to the New York Times. In Who’s Who in Fashion, Anne Stegemeyer said that Smith “brought fashion verve to the moderate price range.”
The seeds for Willie Donnell Smith’s later successes were planted during his youth by his parents, both of whom were extremely clothes-conscious. “I came from your typical black middle-class family, where every event called for an outfit,” Smith told Essence. Focusing on clothes also helped distract the family from their impoverished life in the Philadelphia projects. Smith’s mother would dress up frequently, never having any concern about the stares of onlookers when she was “overdressed” for an occasion. His father tended to wear oversized clothes, an influence that may have impacted Smith’s later design choices.
As a boy Smith spent a lot of time drawing with his mother, and he nurtured dreams of becoming an artist. After his parents were divorced, his grandmother, Gladys Bush, became an important figure in motivating Smith to pursue his artistic interests. She defended her grandson when he missed family curfews because of lingering too long at the Philadelphia Museum of Art or when he spent untold hours sitting on the floor sketching. While studying fashion illustration at the Philadelphia Museum College of Art, Smith began developing a greater interest in clothing design.
Smith’s grandmother urged him to pursue scholarships that enabled him to enroll in the prestigious Parsons School of Design in New York City in 1965. While at Parsons,
Bom Willi Donnell Smith, February 29, 1948, in Philadelphia, PA; died of pneumonia, April 17, 1987, in New York, NY; son of Willie Lee (an ironworker) and June Eileen (a homemaker; maiden name, Bush) Smith. Education: Attended Philadelphia College of Art, 1962-65, and Parsons School of Design, 1965-69.
Worked for Arnold Scassi, New York City, 1965; sketches Bobbie Brooks, 1969; designer, Digits, Inc., 1969-75; formed own design studio and worked as freelance designer, 1974-76; designer and vice-president, WiliiWear Ltd., 1976-87; introduced WiliiWear Men line of clothes, 1978; sponsored and designed clothes for Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Next Wave festival, 1984; designed clothes for film School Daze,
Member: League in Aid for Crippled Children, Bedford Stuyvesant Children’s Association.
Awards: Designer of the Year, International Mannequins, 1978; Coty American Fashion Critics’ Award for Women’s Fashion, 1983; Cutty Sark Award, 1986, for mens-wear design.
Smith freelanced as a sketcher after school and on weekends. He got his first design-related job one summer with designer Arnold Scassi, a position he landed due to one of his grandmother’s contacts—Bush had been a maid to one of Scassi’s clients and had mentioned that her grandson was a fashion designer.
Smith worked across the full gamut of the sportswear industry in the late 1960s: for companies ranging from the mass-marketed Bobbie Brooks to chic little houses such as Digits, where he was employed for six years. Extremely hard working, he began to build a solid reputation but had trouble breaking through to the top tier of designers. Socalled “black design” was very trendy at the time, but Smith resented pressure to be “more black.” For a brief period he made himself over, wearing long braids that went against his preferred clean-cut image, but this new identity didn’t last long.
Determined to make his own mark, he started his own business in 1973 with his sister Toukie—who often modeled her brother’s clothes—and a friend. Smith’s lack of knowledge of the business side of fashion put his fledgling company out of operation in no time, and he was forced to enter into a partnership with a Seventh Avenue firm that gained the rights to his name in return for financial support. The result was a very unhappy period for Smith. “I was doing all of these designer clothes out of expensive fabrics, very young couture,” he told Esquire reporter Lynn Darling. “They were clothes that people didn’t need.” Smith sued to regain the rights to his name, then worked freelance and pursued career options with other large sportswear companies.
In 1976 Smith met up with Laurie Mallet, an old friend who at the time was selling shirts imported from India. At Mallet’s suggestion, Smith accompanied her to India to design a collection at a factory near Bombay. A company called WiliiWear Limited was set up, with Mallet as president and Smith as vice-president and designer. The following winter Smith’s collection generated only about $30,000 of business, but one of Smith’s pants designs became extremely popular. Characteristic of what would become the Willi Smith look, the pants were a baggy fatigue with a high, wrapped waist and became known as the “WiliiWear pant.”
Before long the streetwise and sassy WiliiWear designs caught the public’s attention in a big way, and other designers soon copied the style. Smith’s next collection sold $200,000; by 1982 WiliiWear had an annual gross topping $5 million. In 1978 Smith introduced WiliiWear Men, a line of clothes that incorporated both formality and casualness. Smith struck fashion gold again with this new line, winning the 1986 Cutty Sark Award, the most prestigious honor for menswear design.
Smith concentrated primarily on separates, and his consistency from season to season allowed pieces from previous years to be mixed with his new designs. Pieces ranged from oversized blazers and long dirndls to dhoti pants and poufskirted dresses. Everything he designed showed a sense of humor and spirit, as if inviting the wearer to get up and move. He paid acute attention to all aspects of design and manufacture, designing his own textiles and taking several trips each year to India to overlook production of his collection.
Many influences were cited by Smith as affecting his work, from art to watching people. His apartment in the Tribeca section of Manhattan was filled with African, Oriental, and contemporary art, and many of his clothes featured unusual color blends that he had seen in artworks. Smith also had many friends who were artists, and he worked with some of them. In 1985 he designed 600 uniforms for workers who helped the artist Christo wrap the Pont Neuf, a bridge in Paris, with pink material.
Smith would often stroll down New York City streets, his designer’s eye picking up strange color mixes or “attitudes” that people conveyed through what they wore and how they moved. As he told Essence, “What is happening on the streets of New York is happening to me, so I put it right in the collection.” Smith himself was known for talking as much with his hands as his voice, and he often gesticulated dramatically. He almost never wore his own designs, thinking that he needed some distance from his work to remain objective. Although Smith was generally soft-spoken, his design shows on Seventh Avenue were far from it and were known for their outrageousness.
By the mid-1980s Smith’s designs were hanging in 1,100 stores in the United States, as well as stores in London. WilliWear grossed $25 million in 1986, and by that time the company’s designs were taking on a more traditional, tailored appearance as Smith decided to “mature.” However, he created a bit of a furor with the uncharacteristic look he designed for Edwin A. Schlossberg for his wedding with Caroline Kennedy in 1987. The groom’s outfit featured a navy blue linen suit with a silver tie.
After one of his usual trips to India to supervise production in 1986, Smith became infected with shigella, a parasitic disease. The parasite led to serious complications that proved fatal. Suffering from pneumonia, he was later admitted to a New York City hospital and died in 1987. At the time of his death at age 39, Smith had just been requested to design the wedding gown for the comic-book bride of Marvel’s Spider Man.
Stegemeyer, Anne, Who’s Who in Fashion, second edition, Fairchild, 1988, pp. 192-93.
Milbank, Caroline Rennolds, New York Fashion: The Evolution of American Style, Abrams, 1989, pp. 291-92.
Daily News Record, April 30, 1987, p. 12.
Esquire, December 1984, pp. 407-15.
Essence, July 1987, p. 49.
Jet, May 4, 1987, p. 9.
New York Times, April 19, 1987, p. 34.
People, November 14, 1983, pp. 76-8.
Born: Willi Donnell Smith in Philadelphia, 29 February 1948. Education: Studied fashion illustration, Philadelphia Museum College of Art, 1962-65; studied fashion design, Parsons School of Design, New York, 1965-67. Career: Worked as fashion illustrator with Arnold Scaasi and Bobbi Brooks, New York, 1965-69; freelance designer, working in New York, for Digits Inc., sportswear company, Talbott, Bobbie Brooks, 1967-76; with Laurie Mallet established company, WilliWear, Ltd., 1976; added WilliWear men's collection, 1978; began lecturing in art history at the Fashion Insitute, London; first store opened posthumously, Paris, 1987; WilliWear reintroduced with Michael Shulman as designer, 1996. Exhibitions: Featured in Harlem Museum, New York, 1987; among permament collections of Black Fashion Museum, Washington, D.C., 1998. Awards: International Mannequins Designer of the Year award, New York, 1978; Coty American Fashion Critics award, 1983; 23 February named "Willi Smith Day" in New York City, 1988. Died: 17 April 1987, in New York.
Lambert, Eleanor, World of Fashion, New York, 1976.
Alexander, Lois K., Blacks in the History of Fashion, New York, 1982.
Milbank, Caroline Rennolds, New York Fashion: The Evolution of American Style, New York, 1989.
Stegemeyer, Anne, Who's Who in Fashion, Third Edition, New York, 1996.
Rogers, Susan, "Willi Smith, a Man with Missions," in Amsterdam News, 16 June 1979.
"Willi Smith: noir et blanc et en coton," in Elle (Paris), September 1984.
"Da New York: Off Off Fashion," in L'Uomo Vogue (Milan), March 1985.
"Designer Willi Smith Suits Groom, Ushers at Kennedy Nuptials," in Jet, 4 August 1986.
"Talents: WilliWear," in Depêche Mode (Paris), January 1987
Filmer, Denny, "Just William," in Fashion Weekly (London), 12 February 1987.
Horwell, Veronica, "The Wonder of Willi," in the Observer (London), 8 March 1987.
James, George, "Willi Smith, Clothes Designer, Creator of Vivid Sportswear," in the New York Times, 19 April 1987.
Rittersporn, Liz, "Designer Willi Smith Dead," in the New York Daily News, 19 April 1987.
"Willi Smith," [obituary] in the Daily Telegraph (London), 22 April>1987.
O'Dwyer, Thom, "Willi Smith is Dead," in Fashion Weekly (London), 23 April 1987.
Als, Hilton, "Willi Smith, 1948-87," in the Village Voice, 28 April 1987.
Buck, Genevieve, "Though The 'Real' is Gone, Williwear Plans to Forge Ahead," in Chicago Tribune, 29 April 1987.
Parikh, Anoop, "The Man Who Had Attitude," [obituary] in The Guardian (London), 30 April 1987.
Lebow, Joan, "WilliWear Without Willi: His Partner, Petite, French and Tough, Looks Ahead," in Crain's New York Business, 4 May 1987.
Smith, Marguerite T., "Sustaining Williwear's Spirit," in the New York Times, 17 May 1987.
"For Willi, 1948-87," [obituary] in Essence (New York), July 1987.
Campbell, Roy H., "Black Creations Long Overlooked, Fashions by Black Designers Find a Home in a Harlem Museum," in Chicago Tribune, 16 September 1987.
"Designer Collection: Garments by Willi Smith," in Elle (London), October 1987.
"Willi Smith Day Held to Aid Needy N.Y. Groups," in Jet, 20 March 1989.
Davis, Stephania H., "The Return of Willi: Company Revives the Stylish, Comfortable Designs of Willi Smith," in Chicago Tribune, 13 June 1996.
White, Constance C.R., "A Paris Store for de la Renta; Willi Smith Meets T.J. Maxx…," in the New York Times, 27 August 1996.
Burch, Audra, "D.C.'s Black Fashion Museum Traces Untold Story," in Chicago Tribune, 20 December 1998.
Johnson, Eunice W., "Black Designers—Shaping the Future," in Ebony, February 2000.***
Without respect for race, Willi Smith was one of the most talented designers of his era. With respect to race, he was indisputably, as the New York Daily News fashion writer Liz Rittersporn declared upon his death in 1987, that he was "the most successful black designer in fashion history." Smith chafed at the attention given to the anomaly of his being a black designer, yet he acknowledged some advantages in the sensibility of being an African-American: "Being black has a lot to do with my being a good designer. My eye will go quicker to what a pimp is wearing than to someone in a gray suit and tie. Most of these designers who have to run to Paris for color and fabric combinations should go to church on Sunday in Harlem. It's all right there." It was all right there for Smith as a quintessentially American designer, of the people and for the people, with a vivid sense of style democracy and eclectic mix.
Perhaps in part due to his Indian cottons and colors, or to his inexhaustible appeal to youth, or maybe just due to his own wit and sense of loose fit, Smith excelled in clothing for summer. His winter collections, too, were especially notable for oversized coats based on classic shapes. His WilliWear News for fall 1986 proclaimed with irony his intention to get "serious" with the fall collection. In a sense, Smith never was serious, preferring instead a lively incongruity he had learned from observation and refined from affordable clothing made in India.
WilliWear, the company he founded with Laurie Mallet in 1976, went from $30,000 in sales in its first year to $25 million in 1986. His soft, baggy looks did not require sophisticated tailoring and benefitted from the Indian textiles that he chose for their supple hand, easy care and comfortable aging, and indescribably indefinite colors. Smith's slouchy softness was a "real people" look, marketed at modest costs with great impact in the 1980s as the informality of designer jeans and other casual wear was replaced by the kind of alternative Smith's designs offered—a drapey silhouette for comfortable clothing with style.
While primarily a designer of women's clothing, WilliWear was also influential in men's clothing. In July 1983 he created the clothes for Edwin Schlossberg's marriage to Caroline Kennedy, including blue-violet linen blazers to be worn with white slacks and white buck shoes for the groom's party; the groom wore a navy linen double-breasted suit with a silver linen tie, outfits that were both traditional and slightly spoofy and outrageous enough to notice and enjoy.
Smith's tenure in the fashion world, however, was terribly short-lived. He died, young and at his prime, in 1987. George James quoted Smith in an obituary written in the New York Times (19 April 1987): "I don't design clothes for the Queen, but for the people who wave at her as she goes by." In Smith's designs there was no equivocation— sportswear was for fun and comfort. He knew this, having first worked for Arnold Scaasi in a rarefied world of fancy dress. Later, he worked for Bobbie Brooks and Digits, among others, but it was on his own, first in a business with his sister Toukie, and later in WilliWear, that Smith found his own voice designing what he affably called "street couture" without apology.
Smith created uniforms for the workers on Christo's Pont Neuf, Paris wrapping in 1985. His work even anticipates much that became casual style in America in the late 1980s and 1990s through the Gap and A/X—loose, slouchy oversizing and mixable possibilities. Hilton Als eulogized Smith in the Village Voice (28 April 1987), "As both designer and person, Willi embodied all that was the brightest, best, and most youthful in spirit in his field…. That a WilliWear garment was simple to care for italicized the designer's democratic urge: to clothe people as simply, beautifully, and inexpensively as possible."
In his short life, terminated by an AIDS-related death at 39, Smith made little issue or complaint of the social disadvantages and difficulty of being an African-American committed to making a mass-market clothing business—he simply proceeded to make an exemplary life of innovative design that both earned him the Coty award in 1983 and countless fans of his sportswear style who may never have known—or cared—whether he was black, white, or any other color. These fans found his designs available for a short time after his death, and then in 1996 WilliWear was relaunched. Available exclusively at T.J. Maxx stores, the new lines were produced by designer Michael Shulman.
updated by Owen James
Born Willi Donnell Smith in Philadelphia on 29 February 1948, Smith studied fashion illustration at the Philadelphia Museum College of Art from 1962 to 1965 and continued his studies in fashion design at the Parsons School of Design in New York City from 1965 to 1967. He died at age thirty-nine on 17 April 1987. According to Liz Rittersporn of the New York Daily News, he was the most successful black designer in fashion history.
On leaving college, Smith worked as a fashion illustrator with Arnold Scaasi for several years. From 1967 to 1976 he also worked as a freelance designer for companies such as Bobbi Brooks and Digits Inc. He specialized in sportswear, injecting an element of playfulness into functional garments such as the jump suit that he cut out of silver-coated cloth. In 1976 he and Laurie Mallet, who subsequently became president of the company, established the successful label Willi Wear Limited, which captured the spirit of pragmatic leisurewear. Together they launched a collection of clothes consisting of thirteen silhouettes in soft cotton, manufactured in India and sold in New York. Such was the demand for the relaxed styling and affordable clothes of the label that the company's revenue grew from $30,000 in its first year to $25 million in 1986.
In 1978 Smith added a men's wear collection, and in 1986 he designed the navy, linen, double-breasted suit worn by Edwin Schlossberg for his marriage to Caroline Kennedy, together with the violet linen blazers and white trousers worn by the groom's party. He was, however, primarily a designer of women's wear. From its origins in a single New York store, the company went on to open offices in London (a boutique in St. Christopher's Place), Paris, and Los Angeles, as well as more than a thousand outlets in stores throughout the United States. The Paris store—his first eponymous store— opened posthumously in 1987. Just before his untimely death that year, he expressed his desire to Deny Filmer of Fashion Weekly to see all WilliWear products housed under one roof. "I want my stores to be a little funkier, like, wilder and fun to go into. You know that wonderful feeling when you go into an army surplus store, they have an unpretentious atmosphere. I don't want to push a lifestyle" (p. 7).
Smith's attitude toward fashion was democratic and the antithesis of the ostentatious 1980s. His main concern was that his clothes should be comfortable and affordable. He was dismissive of the edict "dress for success," identifying with the youth cults he saw on the streets of New York and drawing much of his inspiration from them. To this end he provided comfortable, functional clothes in soft fabrics that did not restrict the body in any way. He very often chose Indian textiles for their suppleness, diffused colors, and attractively distressed quality. His clothes were moderately priced, loose-fitting, occasionally oversized separates. Skirts were full and long and jackets oversized, in natural fabrics that wore well and were easy to maintain.
He disliked the pretentiousness of haute couture. "I would love to have a salon and design couture collections, but it's so expensive … and I hate the theory of 'We the rich can dress up and have fun, and the rest can dress in blazers and slacks.' Fashion is a people thing, and designers should remember that" (Filmer, p. 9).
Smith's obituary in the Village Voice (28 April 1987) by Hilton Als read,
As both designer and person, Willi embodied all that was the brightest, best and most youthful in spirit in his field. … That a WilliWear garment was simple to care for italicised the designer's democratic urge: to clothe people as simply, beautifully, and inexpensively as possible.
For a brief period after his death, the company continued to function, and it opened its own store on lower Fifth Avenue in New York. In 1996 WilliWear was relaunched, designed by Michael Shulman, and available in T.J. Maxx stores.
Although never an innovator, Willi Smith represented a paradigm of casual American style, creating affordable classic separates. Their functionality and informality was not reliant on overt sexuality or on the status implied by high fashion, and they appealed to a broad spectrum of people. Smith received the Coty American Fashion Critics Award in 1983, and New York City designated 23 February as "Willi Smith Day." He was also honored by the Fashion Walk of Fame.
See alsoFashion and Identity .
Filmer, Deny. "Just William." Fashion Weekly (London). (12 February 1987).
Milbank, Caroline Rennolds. New York Fashion: The Evolution of American Style. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1989.
Rittersporn, Liz. "Designer Willi Smith Is Dead." New York Daily News (19 April 1987).