The culture of fashion: the creative legacy of Willi Smith

WilliWear designer Willi Smith courtesy Bonnie Brownfield

I finally managed to get stuck into the Willi Smith community archive – part of the recent Cooper Hewitt Willi Smith: Street Couture exhibition – with its immersive oral history from friends and customers. It’s so brilliantly done, giving you a real sense of the designer, the man and his influence on his creative community.

Sub-Urban WilliWear fall 1984 collection - photo by Max Vadukul

I didn’t realise what a big fashion name he was in the 80s. According to Apartamento magazine, “his face was easily recognisable by the average American.” He was turning over millions of dollars in profit and would have his driver pick him up from his TriBeCa loft in a limo every morning.

It suggests Halston levels of fame and a similar level of influence. Willi Smith, via his brand WilliWear, helped introduce the idea of streetwear to the masses, along with fashion-art collabs (such as his work with Christo, Barbara Kruger and Jenny Holzer), merch and gender-neutral fashion.

WilliWear X Barbara Kruger collab

The current issue of Apartamento has a big cover feature on Willi Smith and his interior taste (below). He had a ‘collage’ approach to decor and fashion design, mashing together his influences from African art and photography, Indian textiles, European furniture design and many then-obscure design references. Many of those references are now regular (to the point of cliché) parts of our design lexicon, but back in the pre-Internet age were only accessed by deep analogue research.

Interior of Willi Smith Lispenard Street Loft
Willi Smith Lispenard Street Loft - Photographed by Rosemary Peck
Willi Smith Tribeca loft interior

Anyway, I recommend diving head first into these online archives, the stories are pure joy!

WORDS: Disneyrollergirl / Navaz Batliwalla
IMAGES: Willi Smith courtesy Bonnie Brownfield; photo by Max Vadukul; Willi Smith wearing Barbara Kruger collab T-shirt; Tribeca apartment; Tribeca apartment by Rosemary Peck; Tribeca apartment
NOTE: Most images are digitally enhanced. Some posts use affiliate links and PR samples. Please read my privacy and cookies policy here

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