Willi Smith looking into the camera, his hand on a model with a red bathing suit, facing away.
Courtesy Anthony Barboza

The Cooper-Hewitt’s Exhibition on Willi Smith Is a Must-See

By Aileen Kwun
March 7, 2020
2 minute read

“I don’t design clothes for the Queen, but for the people who wave at her as she goes by,” the late designer Willi Smith once said. For a time, Smith—who died in 1987 from AIDS complications, at the age of 39—was the toast of New York City, and the proprietor of a wildly popular fashion line that fused sportswear with street style and high fashion, pioneering a hybrid approach that was far ahead of its time. With his label WilliWear Limited, launched with business partner Laurie Mallet in 1976, Smith’s work voiced a different sartorial aspiration, using clothing—as well as events, installations, and experiences—as an expressive medium, traversing boundaries across class, race, and gender.

The first exhibition dedicated to Smith’s prolific and multifaceted work, “Willi Smith: Street Couture,” curated by Alexandra Cunningham Cameron, opens next week (and will be on view through Oct. 25) at the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, also marking the institution’s first show dedicated to a black designer. “It’s a project that is about fashion to some degree, but also about architecture, performance, identity, and avant-garde art in a way that felt really important to do, especially at this moment,” Cameron says. “Street Couture” is accompanied by a catalogue, as well as an online community archive of remembrances and ephemera crowd-sourced from Smith’s rich network of friends, artists, and collaborators—which included everyone from Bethann Hardison and Christo to Maira Kalman and Kim Hastreiter.