Monday, August 16, 2021


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...

Venture through the chain-link fence and step into a legacy that was lost two decades ago. Though a seemingly unusual aesthetic for the Cooper Hewitt, Willi Smith: Street Couture brings forward a retrospective of the most commercially successful Black American designer and cultural catalyst of the 20th century. With a modern twist, the exhibit "surveys Smith's pathbreaking imagination of an inclusive, collaborative and playful new society" [Cooper Hewitt]. Curator Alexandra Cunningham Cameron--Curator of Contemporary Design and Hintz Secretarial Scholar--successfully shines the spotlight on an under-appreciated designer whose success was largely eclipsed by the popular European designers of his time. Keep reading for a look inside...

Installation view of the first room of the Willi Smith: Street Couture exhibit with posters, media, sketches and clothing

WilliWear--in the form of casual comfort--hangs naturally against a backdrop of street-side elements, uniquely garbed in grey. An occasional old-style TV, posters or series of strategically placed sketches breaks up the monochrome palette. Expertly designed by SITE (in collaboration with Sam Chermayeff Office), the exhibit embodies the original spirit of WilliWear boutiques and showrooms--with interiors reflecting the exterior by way of construction materials and remnants of the NYC streets.

"I don't design clothes for the queen, but for the people who wave at her as she goes by."

Over a 20 year run, Smith pioneered "street couture" in a way never seen before--with mens and women's lines under one label, artist collaborations, a gender neutral aesthetic and an artistic vision of designed, yet affordable mass market apparel. At his untimely death in 1987 (AIDS related complications), the 39-year-old's WilliWear label was grossing $25Million annually ($55Million by today's standards) and his clothing was stocked in 1,100 shops globally (including Bloomingdales and Barneys).
Jacket and Shirt (1984) designed by Willi Smith and made for WilliWear Ltd.

Born in 1948 and raised in Philadelphia, Smith studied commercial art at Mastbaum Technical High School and went on to study fashion illustration at Philadelphia Museum College of Art. Smith was accepted into Parsons with two scholarships, but expelled two years later for having an alleged affair with a male student. His career break came when his grandmother--who worked as a housekeeper--helped secure an internship through a client at the atelier of Arnold Scaasi (a favorite of Brooke Astor and Elizabeth Taylor). 

Willi Smith illustrations (1984); offset lithograph on tracing paper

Smith's Williwear showroom opened in 1976, and 1983 became a banner year for the designer. His 1983 collection was the inspiration for the exhibit title "Street Couture" and also the same year Smith became the second Black designer to win the Coty America Fashion Critics Award for Womenswear. Incidentally, he was the youngest designer to be nominated in 1967. Smith's creative ability to combine elements of hip hop with suit tailoring and graphics became the foundation of "streetwear" today. Steven Kolb, CEO of the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA), "The Price point made it accessible and the design made it fashion, so his clothes were worn by a range of people who might not otherwise be connected" (here).

Menswear Illustration (1984); pen and ink graphite on paper

Willi Smith made an impact on luxury fashion, with luxe brands like Dior and Gucci eventually all adding "streetwear" to their collections. While fashion historically focused on white, European designers, "the increase in visibility and the topic of cultural appropriation in fashion and design of Black designers, as well as the Black aesthetic being collected in fashion, it's ramping up," says Fashion historian Shelby Ivey-Christie (here). Willi Smith: Street Couture is on view at the Cooper Hewitt until October 24th. Museum admission is free until October 31st, with a timed reservation. If you can't make it, check out the Willi Smith Community Archive, which serves as an extension of the exhibit.

Installation view

"Secret Pastures" Items designed by Keith Haring, costumes by Willi Smith

[L] Spring 1986 collection shirt + skirt // [R] Duster both designed by Willi Smith for WilliWear Ltd.

Exhibit design by SITE in collaboration with Sam Chermayerff Architects

Willi Smith was the first to collaborate with other visual artists on mass-produced t-shirts

The exhibit was patterned after the WilliWear showrooms / boutiques with displays from construction materials + objects saved  from the sidewalks of NYC

Actual Interior of Willi Smith's executive office in NY, NY (via SITE NY)

Art as damaged goods by Willi Smith for PS1

No comments:

Post a Comment

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...