How fashion icon Willi Smith became the godfather of Streetwear in the 1980s

At the peak of his career, his clothing line, Williwear, was raking in $25 million in revenue. Photo credit: Multnomah County Library

Designer and fashion icon, Willi Smith, stood out from his competitors in the fashion industry during the 70s because he presented everyday people an opportunity to wear casual clothing with a sense of class that always boosted their confidence. Before his death, he was celebrated as one of America’s youngest fashion icons who introduced the concept of streetwear.

At the peak of his career, his clothing line, Williwear, was raking in $25 million in revenue. He began his fashion journey as an intern with acclaimed couturier, Arnold Scaasi, and got an opportunity to understudy Arnold because his grandmother, who was once a housekeeper for one of the couturier’s clients. Arnold at the time designed high fashion ends for celebrities like Barbara Streisand, Mamie Eisenhower, and Mary Tyler Moore.

It was in this space he honed his art of designing high-end tailored garments. He enrolled at Parsons School of Design, with the hope of enhancing his creativity in the fashion industry. It was also at this stage that he began sharpening his skill, taking notice of the art scene of New York City in the 1970s, according to hype beast.

Interestingly, Willi’s passion for the fashion industry welled up during the Renaissance era when black fashion designers Like Alvin Bell, Patrick Kelly, and Stephen Burrows were asserting their presence and concept in the fashion world.

Before Willi began his career, the industry had been dominated by influential white designers, however, he developed a strategy to penetrate the choked market with a clothing line he created to target the masses. He shared this philosophy with his friend, Laurie Mallet, in 1976 when they established Williwear. His philosophy was not to design clothing for the ruling class, but rather for the ordinary people.

Though the creative philosophy that powered Williwear was quite brilliant, Willi only shot to prominence and got fashion lovers talking in the early 1980s. He showcased a concept that relived the realities of the black community in the clothes he designed. He used B-boys and breakdancers to showcase his denim jeans and slouchy shirts clothing line, and won the Youngest American Fashion Critics award in 1983.

He was of the view that the elite fashion designers during the 80s did not know what many of the masses wanted, and that was the goldmine he thrived on. While other A-list designers like Christian Lacroix and Thierry Mugler flooded the runway with their luxurious clothing lines, Willi thought of providing affordable clothing for the middle-income market.

He relied on Indian fabrics that had an extravagant outlook but were also affordable, meeting the taste of his customers. With such a strategy, Willi did not only dominate the fashion market, but also broke boundaries through partnerships with other artists and creatives. He worked closely with artists such as Christo, Nam June Paik, Bill T Jones, and Dan Friedman. He also worked with Keith Haring on a Williwear T-shirt project, and was instrumental in Spike Lee’s 1988 musical comedy-drama, School Daze.

However, Willi’s success hit a snag after he contracted HIV in the eighties. He usually went into obscurity when he felt unwell, kept his sickness a secret, and continued to work to enlarge his vision. He sadly passed away at the age of 39 from pneumonia complications and shigella, a parasitic disease he contracted during one of his working trips to buy textiles in India. In spite of this, Willi left a legacy that enabled him to make millions of dollars and change how the fashion world perceived black designers.  

Last Edited by:Annie-Flora Mills Updated: May 9, 2023


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