Black History Month celebrates the many talented people whose contributions to politics, medicine, science and education have gone overlooked largely because of their race. But what about Black people’s contributions to style? Every Friday in February, Styleite will bring you the stories of Black men and women who made a big impact on the way we live our stylish lives — and celebrate their memories and their influence the way they should be. Today, Willi Smith, a young Black designer who by the time of his untimely death had been hailed as one of the most successful people in the fashion industry. You can read about the others here.
Designer Willi Smith would have turned 64 at the end of this month, and he may have even just presented a collection during New York Fashion Week, but he died in 1987 due to complications related to AIDS. At the time, his 11-year-old clothing label Williwear was doing $25 million a year in gross sales (almost $50 million in today’s money) and he was recognized around the industry as a champion in the business.
Smith was born in Philadelphia and must have known that he wanted to be in fashion for most of his life. He went to the Philadelphia College of Art to study fashion illustration. Shortly afterward he won two scholarships to study design at Parsons, designing for Arnold Scassi and Bobbie Brooks in his free time.
He dropped out in 1967 to start his own career, but he didn’t find success until he founded Williwear with Laurie Mallet in 1976. From then on until Smith’s death in 1987, he and Mallet built a brand known for turning out vivid, creative yet inexpensive sportswear. The brand was carried in over 500 department stores in boutiques all over the United States, and Smith took custom orders for a number of private clients. He created the scandal-inducing wedding clothes for Caroline Kennedy‘s husband Edwin A. Schlossberg, who wore a highly untraditional navy blue linen suit and a silver tie when he walked down the aisle. He also made some 600 uniforms for the workers who helped the artist Christo wrap the Pont Neuf bridge in Paris with pale pink cloth.
But it was his dedication to making innovative clothing that everyone could afford that set him apart from other designers of the day. His obituary in The New York Times quoted him as saying, ”I don’t design clothes for the Queen, but for the people who wave at her as she goes by.”
You can take a look at some of his designs in the video below.