B. February 29, 1948 D. April 17, 1987
Birthplace: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Awards: iInternational Mannequins Designer of the Year, 1978 Coty American Fashion Critics Award, 1983
When Willi Donnell Smith died, at age thirty-nine, a New York Daily News fashion writer called him "the most successful black designer in fashion history" (Martin, p. 383). However, as Richard Martin pointed out in a biographical sketch of Smith, there were "countless fans of his sportswear style who may never have known—or cared—whether he was Black,
White, or any other color" (Martin). In fact, Smith was often annoyed by the attention given to the fact that he was black, although he did admit that it had some advantages, explaining that while other designers had to go to Paris for inspiration, he only had to go to Sunday church services in Harlem.
Willi Smith arrived in New York in 1965, at the age of seventeen. Having studied fashion illustration at the Philadelphia Museum College of Art, he was ready to attend Parson's School of Design on a scholarship. During his two years at Parson's he worked as an illustrator/sketcher for Arnold Scaasi, a designer of expensive, entrance-making ensembles and gowns. He went on to work for several other clothing companies, including Bobbie Brooks, Digits, and Talbott. By 1976, after several unsuccessful attempts to open a business of his own, Smith established WilliWear, Ltd., and produced exuberantly charming women's wear, using high color and natural fabrics. In 1978 he added menswear, intending to create a category of clothing that would bridge the gap between suits and jeans, a visionary concept that marked the start of the trend toward the casual dress that became popular in the late 1980s and 1990s. By 1986 WilliWear was enjoying annual sales of $25 million.
Preferring comfortable and functional fabrics, Willi Smith created brightly colored, loose-fitting, moderately priced, and utterly wearable separates. His Indian cottons were especially popular with young people who loved his lively, witty mix of slouchy shapes and easy care. He traveled to India several times a year to supervise the making of his original textiles and clothing, referring to his collections as "street couture." His pieces were consistent in their oversized silhouettes and could be easily mixed from year to year. His blazers, dirndls, dhoti pants, and oversized shirts were youthful and delightfully unserious.
Willi Smith was a designer in demand. He designed textiles for Bedford Stuyvesant Design Works, upholstery for Knoll International, and patterns for Butterick. He created the linen blazers and white pants worn by the groomsmen in the 1983 Caroline Kennedy/Edwin Schlossberg wedding, as well as the double-breasted navy suit and silver tie, both linen, worn by the groom himself. His modern alternative approach to dress was one that appealed to "real people," as Smith liked to say.
The plans for his first store in New York were well along at the time of his death, and it opened several months later. The obituary in the Village Voice said of Willi Smith's clothing that it expressed "the designer's democratic urge: to clothe people as simply, beautifully and inexpensively as possible" (Martin, p. 383). In that, he certainly succeeded. His name continues to be licensed and appears on WilliWear sportswear and Willismith loungewear.
Martin, Richard. The St. James Fashion Encyclopedia: A Survey of Style from 1945
to the Fresent. Detroit: Visible Ink Press. Milbank, Caroline Rennolds. New York Fashion: The Evolution of American Style. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1989.
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