STREET-INSPIRED FASHION: The Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum is planning the first museum exhibition for the late pioneering American designer Willi Smith.
Scheduled to open in March at the Upper East Side cultural institution, “Willi Smith: Street Couture” will showcase an array of streetwear from the fashion label WilliWear. After launching the company in 1976 with his partner Laurie Mallet, Smith dove into the realm of collaborating through partnerships with artists, designers and performers. In doing so, the aim was to erode social, cultural and economic boundaries. In 1980, for example, his models danced, pranced and glided down the runway to the music of a jazz quartet of the airy Alvin Ailey Dance Center.
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When the exhibition is unveiled on March 13, it will include 200-plus works by Smith and collaborators such as Juan Downey, Dan Friedman, Keith Haring, Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company, Les Levine, Dianne McIntyre, Nam June Paik and SITE. Visitors to the Cooper Hewitt will find a number of pieces that have not been shown publicly in more than 30 years. The exhibition will run through Oct. 25.
“Street Couture” takes its name from Smith’s most iconic collection, which was presented in 1983. At that time, the designer merged fashion, art and music to present his work. In addition to some of his designs, the exhibition will feature photography, video, design drawings, patterns and ephemera that is meant to highlight Smith as a groundbreaking designer and cultural producer. In 1987, he died of AIDS-related complications at the age of 39.
In the fall of 1985, Smith unveiled his spring collection with a 25-minute film at the Ziegfeld Theatre, with Smith himself playing a zany Customs inspector amid the music and landscape of Senegal. He also reeled in the fashion crowd to the Puck Building, before many knew where the NoHo landmark was. Cicely Tyson, Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson and the artist Christo were among the designer’s friends.
Museum director Caroline Baumann said, “As America’s design museum, Cooper Hewitt is committed to communicating the power of design and championing the work of under-recognized designers whenever possible.
“Through this scholarship, Cooper Hewitt introduces new lenses for understanding Willi Smith’s experience and how he designed high-quality yet affordable basics that were accessible to a wide audience, expanding the narrative of fashion history and the work of designers of color.”
“Willi Smith cared about ‘style over status,’” said Alexandra Cunningham Cameron, curator of contemporary design and Hintz Secretarial Scholar at Cooper Hewitt. “Clothing was simply a tool for him to disseminate ideas about personal freedoms beyond class, beyond gender, beyond race, while still having fun. He shows us that true collaboration, and the inclusivity it requires, is not a marketing gimmick or token gesture, but a way of thinking, of making and of life.”
Organized by Cunningham Cameron, the exhibition will be designed by James Wines, National Design Award winner and founder of Site, which created WilliWear’s 1982 New York showroom and street-inspired boutiques. Communication design studio Poly-mode has created the graphic identity for the exhibition and publication — wink at the collaborative spirit that Smith was known for.