Willi Smith was a streetwear designer long before anyone used the term. He coined the phrase "street couture." He pioneered multi-disciplinary design. And he fundamentally impacted the fashion industry — in life and in death.
No one could have predicted that in the mid-'80s – as the AIDS crisis quietly devastated the fashion industry – a young, Black, gay man could enjoy such success. His secret: a view that everyone deserved quality materials and craftsmanship as well as durable and long-lasting garments.
Long before Telfar's “It’s Not For You, It’s For Everyone” ethos reached the mainstream, Smith was celebrating Blackness, embracing gender-neutral designs, and flouting industry protocol to bring high-quality garments to the people. “Willi once said that he didn’t do clothes for the queen,” recalled Laurie Mallet, with whom he founded his label, WilliWear, in 1976. “He did clothes for the people who lined up to wave at her.”
Their brand found instant success with an approach that appears more closely aligned with the designers of today. “I don’t believe my creativity is threatened by commercialism,” he told Fashion World in 1978. “Quite the opposite – I think that the more commercial I become, the more creative I can be because I am reaching more people.”
Smith side-stepped socialites and opted to work with top names in art, film, design, and architecture. His ongoing engagement with the artworld served as a prototype for today's designers. He would commission Nam June Paik and Juan Downey to create video installations for his fashion shows. He collaborated with Keith Haring on a series of T-shirts, created costumes for Spike Lee’s School Daze, and installed plaster “clothes” for a show at MoMA PS1.
“He knew and worked with everybody in that sort of post-pop landscape,” explained James Wines, the founder, and president of SITE. “And he had this really collaborative spirit, which at that time was really unheard of. Now everybody is trying to do it.”
But as Smith's star was rising, the AIDS crisis was devastating the fashion industry. In a 1987 Vanity Fair article, the publication predicted 179,000 deaths from AIDS in the US alone by 1991, with New York City as its epicenter. AIDS had decimated a broad spectrum of the fashion universe – from showroom assistants, makeup artists, and shipping clerks to designers such as Chester Weinberg, Perry Ellis, and later Lee Wright. These deaths were rarely publicly acknowledged due to social taboo and industry anxiety about the association with the disease.
During a buying trip to India, Willi Smith contracted pneumonia and died shortly after, in April of 1987. Ten days after his death, his sister Toukie Smith would learn that his death was AIDS-related. Toukie acknowledged the disease and pushed back against the stigma. “People die of AIDS,” said Toukie. “It’s life — real and basic. It’s not a sin.” She went on to establish a foundation in her brother's honor, to promote AIDS awareness in inner-city high schools and hospitals across the country.
Each year, on December 1, organizations and individuals across the world bring attention to the HIV epidemic, endeavor to increase HIV awareness and knowledge, speak out against HIV stigma, and call for an increased response to move toward Ending the HIV Epidemic: A Plan for America — a plan that aims to end the HIV epidemic in the United States by 2030.
We should use today to honor the incredible contributions that designers like Willi Smith made to fashion, streetwear, and the way we think about clothes today.