In honor of Black History Month, I will be featuring influential Blacks in fashion. I will feature journalist, models, photographers, and designers. If you have anyone that you would like to see them featured in 'Black Beauty & Style; A History of Fashion", please feel free to email @ email@example.com or suggest in the Comment Box.
Willi Smith (1948-1987)
Born Willi Donnell Smith, February 29, 1948, in Philadelphia, PA; died of pneumonia, April 17, 1987, in New York, NY; son of Willie Lee (an ironworker) and June Eileen (a homemaker; maiden name, Bush) Smith.
Smith studied commercial art at Mastbaum Technical High School and attended Philadelphia College of Art for Fashion Illustration. Smith then moved to New York to attend Parsons School of Design.
Smith rose quickly in the fashion world to become one of the industry's most successful young designers, Willi Smith was part of a vanguard of hip young black designers who first made their mark in the late 1960s. The sportswear he created for WilliWear Ltd. in the 1970s and 1980s was noted for its relaxed, street-smart, and often oversized look that made it functional but fun.
"I don't design clothes for the Queen, but for the people who wave at her as she goes by" said Smith, according to the New York Times.
In 1967, Smith quit Parsons to pursue a career designing on his own. In 1969 he designed a label for Digits, a sportswear company. In 1973, Smith, along with his sister Toukie Smith (many of you may remember her as Eva Rawley on 227), founded their own clothing company that soon failed. Smith continued to design and in 1976 he went into business with Laurie Mallet and called the company "Williwear."
He designed the wedding dress worn by Mary Jane Watson when she married Peter Parker in the Spider-Man comic book and comic strip in 1987, as well as designing the suits for Edwin Schlossberg and his groomsmen when he married Caroline Kennedy in 1986. Smith also designed the uniforms for the workers on Christ's 1985 wrapping of the Pont Neuf bridge in Paris and designed wardrobe for the cast of Spike Lee's film School Daze in 1987.
New York Daily News fashion writer Liz Rittersporn declared upon his death in 1987, that he was "the most successful black designer in fashion history." Smith chafed at the attention given to the anomaly of his being a black designer, yet he acknowledged some advantages in the sensibility of being an African-American: "Being black has a lot to do with my being a good designer. My eye will go quicker to what a pimp is wearing than to someone in a gray suit and tie. Most of these designers who have to run to Paris for color and fabric combinations should go to church on Sunday in Harlem. It's all right there."
In 1996 WilliWear was relaunched. Available exclusively at T.J. Maxx stores, the new lines were produced by designer Michael Shulman.