Before celebrity endorsements, brand collaborations, and industry crossovers dominated the fashion world, American designer Willi Smith (1948–1987) was fostering essential relationships across creative disciplines, including design, music, art, and dance. A pioneer in producing affordable, inclusive fashion, Smith launched his wildly popular WilliWear label with partner Laurie Mallet in 1976.
More than four decades later, on March 13, 2020, Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, opens Willi Smith: Street Couture, the first museum exhibition dedicated to Smith’s life and work.
“Smith was ultimately interested in connecting art with everyday life,” notes the exhibition’s curator, Alexandra Cunningham Cameron. “He did this by using avant-garde means to present and style affordable basics. WilliWear’s models danced down runways to music from composers Jorge Socarras and Peter Gordon among installations by influential video artists like Juan Downey and Nam June Paik. He invited Jenny Holzer, Robert Rauschenberg, Barbara Kruger, Keith Haring, Dondi, and many others to put their work on mass-produced t-shirts—which wasn’t done at the time.”
The exhibition—showcasing a selection of photography, video, design drawings, garments, patterns and ephemera by Smith and his peers—positions him as a free thinker and innovator who pushed the boundaries of fashion and encouraged the wearers of his clothes to cut, modify, and alter the pieces to make them their own.
“He was interested in shifting values, in breaking down barriers within a fashion industry that emphasizes class hierarchies, fantasy, and aspirational consumerism,” Cameron says. “He created an elite-feeling product, something well designed and made with care, that was for the masses.”