The fashion designer Willi Smith grew up working class in the 1950s in a family where, he once said, “there were more clothes in the house than food.” His father was an ironworker; his grandmother cleaned houses for a living. His mother and grandmother sewed their own clothes. Decades later, when Smith was nominated for a fashion award, he remembered, “My mother and grandmother were always ladies of style and still are. I guess they taught me that you didn’t have to be rich to look good.”
Making clothes that anyone could afford to look good in turned out to be the force that powered Smith’s career. Now, with the exhibition “Willi Smith: Street Couture,” the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum in New York City, is looking back on the work of one of the country’s most successful Black fashion designers.
Smith, who died in 1987 at age 39, was a rising star in fashion in the mid-1970s when with a partner he founded his own company, WilliWear. With a mission of combining high-end design with mass-market production, WilliWear made clothes priced and sized for everyday people.
At the time, other designers, at all price points, tended to focus on one particular slice of the fashion market, says Alexandra Cunningham Cameron, the museum’s curator of contemporary design, who organized the exhibition. Smith, she says, was different: He was “interested in a clientele of diverse body types, who had diverse bank accounts, who were up all night or who had a career and were in the office all day,” she says. “He was interested in people who lived in the city, he was interested in people who lived in the suburbs. He was very cagey about not saying specifically who he was designing for, because he was designing for everyone.”
The exhibition opened in March 2020 for a single day, before New York’s museums were ordered shut because of Covid-19. Now Cooper Hewitt is reemerging after its 15-month pandemic-induced closure.
For the museum’s reopening day, June 10, masses of blossoms spilled from the building’s sweeping entry staircase onto the sidewalk, in a temporary installation by Lewis Miller Design, which has created flower flashes like it in New York and elsewhere. Now through October 31, there’s no charge for admission at Cooper Hewitt. It’s the longest period the museum has been open for free since it moved into the Carnegie Mansion as part of the Smithsonian in 1976. The Immersion Room, museum shop, café and Arthur Ross Terrace and Garden all remain closed. But with Covid-19 restrictions limiting the museum to only 25 percent capacity, the mansion feels roomy enough for Andrew Carnegie himself.
Born in 1938, Willi Smith grew up in Philadelphia and studied commercial art in high school. He got his first break into fashion through his grandmother, who cleaned house for someone who had a connection to the luxury designer Arnold Scaasi in New York. Smith apprenticed with Scaasi while still a teenager, learning about the business of designing expensive dresses for society women and movie stars—or what Smith later called the “clothes I didn’t want to make.” He was admitted to Parsons School of Design in 1965, but expelled two years later, reportedly because he openly had a relationship with another man.
He found success designing for sportswear businesses and was nominated twice for a Coty Award, then a top honor in American fashion. In 1976, he and his former assistant Laurie Mallet founded WilliWear; she handled the business side and he the design. WilliWear was a hit. Its affordable, wearable clothes were picked up by Macy’s, Bloomingdale’s and eventually hundreds of stores. After 11 years, the company had reached $25 million in annual revenue when Smith died, from complications of AIDS.
The clothing on display at Cooper Hewitt has recognizable, simple shapes: a pair of striped cotton shorts, a voluminous tweed coat, a belted tunic. He hoped his customers would combine them with items from thrift shops or their closets—anything to make it their own. Cunningham Cameron acknowledges that the “garments themselves may not be extraordinary,” and says that Smith called his own designs “background clothes” because, he said, he wanted to “let the person come through.”