Door 1: Willi Smith

Photography by © Anthony Barboza/Getty Images.


In the aftermath of Virgil Abloh's untimely passing, many articles pointed out how he blurred the lines between fashion and streetwear and made it approachable to a whole new generation, as he totally understood the zeitgeist. But every pioneer has his predecessor and in the case of Abloh it was the American designer Willi Smith.

Not to be mistaken with the infamous prince of Bel Air, Willi Smith was a prince in his own right. Unfortunately since his death in 1987 slightly forgotten, but through a major exhibition at the Cooper Hewitt Museum and an accompanying book he recently got the attention he deserves.

Photography by © Site/James Wines, LLC.

Born in 1948 in Pennsylvania to an ironworker and a homemaker, he grew up in a household where dressing played an important role. Being a rather shy kid, he spent a lot of time drawing at home but also at Philadelphia Museum College of Art. His talent was nurtured by his grandmother, who then helped him get an internship at the famed couturier Arnold Scaasi.

Photography by © Wolfgang Volz

He enrolled at Parsons School of Design in 1965 and after being expelled he worked as a Creative Director for Digits Sportswear. In 1974 he quit the company and founded in 1976 together with his former assistant Laurie Mallet the company WilliWear. The company, especially in the early 80s with the rise of hip hop culture, was under Willi's guidance a complete success.

Photography by © Andreas Sterzing

What made Willi Smith so ahead of his time and still successful, was how he saw fashion and his clientele. "I don’t design clothes for the Queen; but for the people who wave at her as she goes by." Not only he designed for broad public, but was also inspired by them: "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."

Another point, where he paved the way, was his close collaboration with artists. That included his stores and showrooms, that were designed by the Architectural firm SITE or runway shows with Nam June Paik. He also designed clothes for theater and film. Also he made the workers outfits for Christo and Jeanne-Claude's Surrounded Islands and The Pont Neuf Wrapped. On another level he broke barriers as he invited at that time young artists like Keith Haring, Barbara Kruger or Jenny Holzer to contribute designs for his Artists' T-Shirt series.