Co-published by Cooper Hewitt and Rizzoli Electa, “Willi Smith: Street Couture” explores the emergence of street style in the United States, the history of collaborative practice, the downtown New York art scene of the 1970s–1980s, the relationship between fashion, marketing, race and the impact of black and black queer communities. Although the term “streetwear” has been much chewed over recently, Smith’s more elastic definition of the term (bringing urban culture to the catwalk) has been incredibly influential. Willi Smith created inclusive and liberating fashion: "I don't design clothes for the queen, but the people who wave at her as she goes by," he said. An exhibition of Smith’s work is at the Cooper Hewitt museum, New York, until … An exhibition of Smith’s work is at the Cooper Hewitt museum, New York, until October. The book Willi Smith: Street Couture by Alexandra Cunningham Cameron (Rizzoli) is out now. Essays by leading figures from the worlds of fashion, art, architecture, and cultural studies paired with never before-seen images and ephemera make Willi Smith essential reading for the history of streetwear culture and the evolution of fashion from the 1970s to today. He was 39 years old. Rizzoli International Publications 300 Park Avenue South, 4th Floor New York, NY 10010 United States +1 (212) 387-3400. African-American fashion designer Willi Smith, pioneer of streetwear and visionary collaborator, finally gets his due in an exuberant celebration of his life and work.Before Off-White, before Hood By Air, before Supreme, there was WilliWear. What would he have done had he lived beyond 39? “He mixed looks from workwear, the military, African and Indian prints,” says fashion historian Darnell-Jamal Lisby. He would burst with pride when he’d see black kids on the streets running around in his stuff or those black ladies at the bank wearing it to work.” The oft-repeated quote from him: “I don’t design clothes for the queen, but the people who wave at her as she goes by,” emphasised his universal outlook. Models pose in clothes. A rising star from the time he left Parsons, Smith went on to found WilliWear with Laurie Mallet in 1976 and became one of the most successful designers of his era by his untimely death in 1987. “[Costume designer] Ruth E Carter commissioned him to make the gowns for the homecoming court,” says Cunningham Cameron. That is all about to change with a new. He was a black man who could change our society’s inherent racist perception of black men in general,” she says. Few books can forever alter your life, but this has proven to be one … And hid a lot. Last modified on Wed 23 Sep 2020 15.31 BST. It must have been a lot of pressure.”. During this period of professional success, Smith contracted Aids. Before Off-White, before Hood By … “He was a huge hero to African American women,” says Hastreiter. “[For black women he became] their dream husband, dream boss, dream best friend, dream leader, their dream son, dream teacher. Smith eventually died of pneumonia, complicated by the parasitic disease shigella, which he picked up during a work trip to buy fabric in India. Smith broke boundaries with his streetwear, or "street couture," and trailblazed the collaborations between artists, performers, and designers commonplace today in projects with SITE Architects, Nam June Paik, Christo and Jeanne-Claude, Spike Lee, Dan Friedman, Bill T. Jones, and Arnie Zane. He represented so many dreams, their dreams for the future of their African American community. He kept close ties to artists he met studying at Parsons, such as Christo and also worked with the likes of Nam June Paik, Bill T Jones and Dan Friedman. His grandmother worked as a housekeeper for one of Scaasi’s clients. Smith was part of a wave of young black American designers who made their names in the 70s. “Smith owned the most lucrative business out of them.” By 1986, Williwear was grossing sales of more than $25 million a year in more than 500 stores. Alexandra Cunningham Cameron is the curator of contemporary design and Hintz Secretarial Scholar at the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, New York. Please check the museum’s website to see how lockdown has affected opening times, How streetwear restyled the world – from hip-hop to Supreme and Palace. Willi Smith’s work is historically referred to as “street couture.” (That was the inspiration for the title of the show and the book.) Smith also broke boundaries when it came to collaborating with artists and creatives (something commonplace among today’s designers such as Dior’s Kim Jones or Rick Owens). That is all about to change with a new book celebrating the designer, who died in 1987. People live in them.” Though he was inspired by New York City, he wanted people everywhere to appreciate the culture and inspiration of the city. Smith also contributed to Spike Lee’s 1988 musical comedy-drama School Daze. Willi Smith: Street Couture Edited by Alexandra Cunningham Cameron African-American fashion designer Willi Smith, pioneer of streetwear and visionary collaborator, finally gets his due in an exuberant celebration of his life and work. Although I could tell he was sick for a while. The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho. “We’ve been told that he wanted to move to India permanently, a place he visited constantly,” she says. There was also Jax Jaxon (“the first black designer to be at the helm of a couture house: Jean-Louis Scherrer from 1969-1970,” says Lisby), and Smith’s best friend Alvin Bell. “He might have gone to Hollywood to produce films full-time after making a short film called Expedition.” Of course we will never know but his legacy: streetwear lives on in menswear season after season. Smith’s label, Williwear, was grossing $25m a year before his death in 1987. It’s all right there.” His friend, former neighbour and fashion editor Kim Hastreiter says this philosophy went deep: “He loved street culture and made clothes for people to wear on the street.”. He loved jumpsuits and the utilitarian aspects of the silhouette.”, His clothes were meant for everybody. “He was enamoured with denim and the idea of the romanticised cowboy, often incorporating tweeds, denim or corduroy into his collection. “They worshipped Willi and felt such enormous pride in his success. Though at the time of his death, Williwear was making millions and the New York Daily News called him “the most successful black designer in fashion history”, he has now largely been forgotten. “When he wasn’t well he would disappear,” says Hastreiter. “Like many other successful people with Aids, Willi didn’t talk about it. He said: “Fashion is a people thing and designers should remember that. His clothes were not meant to be untouchable, catwalk-only designs. “What would make him proud was not when a movie star wore his clothes. He collaborated with Keith Haring twice, including on a Williwear T-shirt. (The accompanying book was edited by Cunningham Cameron … “Most of these designers who have to run to Paris for colour and fabric combinations should go to church on Sunday in Harlem. “Being black has a lot to do with my being a good designer,” he said. This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged. You just knew in those days when someone had that very haunted look.” She recalls that the last time she saw him alive: “I saw him in the building elevator and he’d gotten very very thin.”. Smith was born in Philadelphia in 1948 and went to Parsons School of Design on a scholarship in 1965 after getting an internship with the couturier Arnold Scaasi. A lot was projected on to Smith. The book Willi Smith: Street Couture by Alexandra Cunningham Cameron (Rizzoli) is out now. “I think the success of Smith and Kelly set them apart from their peers and predecessors,” says Lisby. Williwear hit its stride in the early 80s (it was founded in 1976 with Smith’s friend Laurie Mallet), when the label incorporated some elements of hip hop culture into its aesthetic, most notably his 1983 autumn-winter collection called Street Couture, which featured music and dance performances. His label, Williwear, was ahead of its time: mixing the relaxed fit of sportswear with high-end elements of tailoring. Cunningham Cameron says that there has been much speculation among his friends and family. The resulting exhibition, “Willi Smith: Street Couture,” opens March 13 and runs through October 25. What would have happened if he had lived? “The lack of scholarship on Willi Smith created a missing link in our understanding of contemporary fashion and visual culture,” says Alexandra Cunningham Cameron, curator of the Willi Smith: Street Couture exhibition at Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum in New York. There was Patrick Kelly, who found fame in France with his controversial designs, and celebrity favourite Stephen Burrows. Willi Smith’s designs presented new takes on elevated basics with a mission to make fashion accessible and affordable to everyone. She says that what really drove him wasn’t ambition but a sense of giving back to his community. He invented streetwear, was the most high-profile black fashion designer of the 80s and influenced a generation, yet fashion history has largely forgotten Willi Smith. ‘Fashion is a people thing and designers should remember that.’ Willi Smith in 1984. e invented streetwear, was the most high-profile black fashion designer of the 80s and influenced a generation, yet fashion history has largely forgotten Willi Smith. That year Smith became the youngest-ever winner of the American Fashion Critics’ Award for Women’s Fashion.