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Celebrating Designer Willi Smith on His Birthday

February 29, 2024
Fashion & Beauty
Credit: Smithsonian via Barbara Kruger / Artventure

In West Philadelphia born and raised, the original fresh prince of fashion was born today.

Willi Smith was a true visionary iconic designer whose designs helped birth what was then a new concept called streetwear—though he preferred calling it street couture. His WilliWear line married comfort, fun, and high fashion within larger silhouettes.

It’s said that he was the first designer to mix and match plaids, stripes, and bold colors especially in menswear. And his line was the first to house menswear and womenswear under the same label.

Willi Smith, born on Leap Day February 29, 1948, in a working-class Philadelphia, PA neighborhood to a homemaker and iron worker father. His grandmother helped him get perhaps his first break, an internship with couturier Arnold Scaasi.

Scassi’s designed for such boldface names as Mamie Eisenhower, Barbara & Laura Bush, Hilary Clinton as well as Diahann Carroll and Catherine Deneuve.

As part of his internship, Smith assisted in designing outfits for Elizabeth Taylor.

In 1965, his creativity and passion for design led him to Parsons School of Design in NYC. However, two years later, he was expelled for openly dating another male student.

But with his resume within the high fashion world, he became the lead designer for Digits.

Smith then co-founded WilliWear Ltd. alongside his business partner Laurie Mallet in 1976. Together, they set out to challenge the conventions of high fashion by creating clothing that was accessible and reflective of the urban zeitgeist.

Central to Smith’s design philosophy was the belief that fashion should be democratic and reflective of everyday life appealing to a broad spectrum of consumers.

“I don’t design clothes for the Queen; but for the people who wave at her as she goes by,” he famously said. Though Smith did touch what was known in the US as “Camelot” designing the suits for Ed Schlossberg’s 1986 wedding to Caroline Kennedy.

Throughout the 1980s, WilliWear became synonymous with the burgeoning hip-hop and street culture movements, earning a cult following among urban youth, celebrities, fashionistas, and models alike. Take, for example, a then-unknown model named Whitney Houston ‘walking’ for Smith.

Smith’s designs captured the spirit of the era, embracing diversity and self-expression while challenging conventional notions of beauty and gender norms. But at this time the HIV epidemic was quickly growing and the fashion industry was no exception.

To point, Willi Smith took part in the American Foundation for AIDS Research’s “The World’s Largest Photo Session: To Care Is To Care” in April 1986. At the time, it was the rare event to fight stigma and find a cure. It was estimated it grossed $500K at a critical time.

Tragically a year later to the month, Smith’s life was cut short when he passed away at the age of 39. At the time and similar to many others, the original cause was stated as pneumonia. It wasn’t until some 10 days later when his family learned it was AIDS-related complications.

His final design is probably current pop culture’s most famous. Two months after his passing as part of a massive PR push, Marvel Comics revealed that Smith was the designer for Mary Jane Watson’s wedding dress, arguably the biggest wedding in comic book lore. Watson is famously the girlfriend and future wife of Peter Parker aka Spider-Man.

Smith’s legacy lives on and likely in the clothes you’re wearing now.