WILLI SMITH/ WILLIWEAR
Willi Donnell Smith was an American fashion designer, born in Philadelphia in 1948. His grandmother helped him get an internship with Arnold Scaasi, where he helped with the design of clothing for Elizabeth Taylor. He received a scholarship to study at Parsons school for design in New York.
After graduating, Smith worked as lead designer for the junior sportswear label Digits from 1969 to 1973. He hired Laurie Mallet as his design assistant in 1971.
In 1972 and 73, Smith was nominated for a COTY award.
He began designing patterns for Butterick in 1973 and resigned from Digits. The company went bankrupt soon thereafter.
He set up his own company in 1974. He struggled with the business aspects of operating a label and it closed just a few months later.
In 1976, he travelled to India with Mallet to design women’s clothing using natural fabrics. With its success, Smith and Mallet formed WilliWear Ltd. and had their first fashion show in 1978, showcasing a collection inspired by nautical uniforms and Southeast Asian dress. The label was a huge hit, providing chic, affordable clothing in natural fibres.
In 1981, Willi Smith participated in the Black Fashion Museum’s Bridal Gowns of Black Designers exhibition.
He finally won a Coty award on his fifth nomination in 1983.
Willi collaborated with artists throughout his career and designed costumes for many performances.
In 1984, he made a fashion film with silk screened T-shirts featuring artwork by artists like Keith Haring and Suzan Pitt. In 1985, another film made in Senegal showcased a collection inspired by Senegalese street fashion. He also worked with Spike Lee on School Daze in 1987.
Additionally, Smith designed the suits for Edwin Schlossberg and his groomsmen when he married Caroline Kennedy in 1986, and designed the wedding dress worn by Mary Jane Watson when she married Peter Parker in the Amazing Spider-Man Annual #21, in 1987.
Smith contracted shigellosis and pneumonia while on a fabric buying trip to India in February 1987 and was admitted to hospital that April. He died the following day at age 39. Afterwards, tests revealed that he had been HIV positive. Smith, who was openly gay, has a panel in the original NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt, the largest piece of community folk art in the world.
At the time of his death, he was regarded as one of the most successful African-American designers in fashion. WilliWear was the first clothing company to create womenswear and menswear under the same label. The accessibility and affordability of Smith's clothing helped to democratize fashion. He bridged the gap between sportswear and commercial streetwear, as well as blurring the lines of gendered fashion.
After Smith's death in 1987, Mallet continued to run WilliWear. However, without its visionary namesake, the company faltered and ceased production in 1990. In 2002, Smith was honoured with a bronze plaque on the Fashion Walk of Fame along Seventh Avenue in New York.
Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum hosted the first retrospective exhibition on Willi Smith from March 13, 2020.
It was scheduled to display until that October. Due to the Coronavirus pandemic, the exhibit was closed at the end of its opening day. However, the exhibition can be viewed digitally.
“I don’t design clothes for the Queen; but for the people who wave at her as she goes by.” - Willi Smith
He rose to fame in the disco era, creating the defining styles worn by Cher, Diana Ross, Pat Cleveland, Jerry Hall and other divas. He graduated from FIT, and sold his clubwear designs from his boutique “O”, which was strategically placed across from Max’s Kansas City in New York. He designed a RTW collection for Bonwit Teller, and then met film director Joel Schumacher who was the then visual display director for Henri Bendel. He introduced Burrows to the president of Henri Bendel. He brought a melton bathrobe coat to their meeting, which was intended to be menswear, and she put it on and offered him his own boutique within the store which he called “Stephen Burrows’ World”. It lasted from 1973 - 1976.
He was the first Black designer to win a Coty Award, and he was the youngest American, and only Black designer in the Battle of Versailles. His collection was the finale of the show, with a cast of Black models, shining a light on Black femininity and helped to diversify the fashion world at the time. He received a standing ovation, and was only 30 years old. Yves Saint Laurent said that Burrows was *the* American designer, and he became the first internationally famous African-American fashion designer.
Burrows’ signature was his innovative use of thin, jersey fabric that skimmed the body and moved with fluidity and grace while being sexy and fun. He finished his garment edges with zigzag stitching, which curled the hems creating a lettuce effect. This had originally been a mistake from overstretching the fabric, but he embraced it and would often use contrasting red thread to make it pop.
His aesthetic was influenced by dance and movement, as he used to make Mambo dancing outfits for his friends. The soft, thin jersey fabric gave his pieces a slinky, unstructured silhouette that helped American fashion differentiate itself from the influence of Parisian couture.
He won two more Coty awards, one in 1974 and one in 1977. Farrah Fawcett famously wore one of his gold chainmail dresses while presenting at the 1978 Academy Awards. Michelle Obama also wore a Stephen Burrows Suit in 2010, to speak to a group of young dance students from the Joy of Motion Dance Centre and the Duke Ellington School of Arts.