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  • Mikelle Drew

28 Days of Black Fashion History: Willi Smith

In 1988, NY mayor David Dinkins declared February 23rd Willi Smith day, in honor of one of the most talented designers of his era. He was F.U.B.U. before the brand, a man of the people for the people. And though he designed for the everyday man and woman, his line appealed to the wealthy and famous as well.

A native of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Willi Smith studied fashion illustration at the Philadelphia Museum College of Art and later fashion design at Parsons School of Design in New York. Smith had two scholarships to Parsons in 1965 but eventually dropped out to freelance. In 1969, he met his business partner Laurie Mallett while designing at the sportswear company, Digits, and together started Williwear in 1976.

Toukie Smith, Willi’s sister, wearing Willi Smith’s designs.

Williwear’s design aesthetic was comfortable, natural fabrics, looser fit, vivid colors and mixed prints all at affordable prices. He designed 11 collections of Williwear, eventually adding menswear under the same brand, a first for any designer. He was also the first to mix stripes and checks and incorporate two different plaids in a design. He liked using soft fabrics, preferring cottons from India, and often travelled there to source his own fabric. The company went from grossing $30,000 in its first year to over $25 million by 1986 and was sold in over 500 doors.

Williwear, 1984. Model (who appears to be a young Veronica Webb) in yellow and grey overcoat.

Willi Smith collaborated with many other designers and worked on various types of projects during his career. He designed the attire for the groomsmen for Edwin Schlossberg’s marriage to Caroline Kennedy. He collaborated with Jhane Barnes on some of his early shows and worked with designers such as Antthony Mark Hankins, James Mischka, and John Bartlett. He was the costume designer for one of the first major works of the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance company, Secret Pastures. Smith also collaborated with Spike Lee on his film School Daze, designing the Miss Mission Court gowns.