The history of American sportswear is most often pegged to names like Ralph Lauren, Donna Karan, and Calvin Klein. Rarely do you hear the name Willi Smith, a designer who at the peak of his career in the late 1970s changed the way that men and women dressed, for work, for special occasions, and everything in between. His approachable, affordable WilliWear label became well-known for its bold prints and wearable silhouettes. Before anyone else thought to do so, Smith blurred the lines between high and low fashion, and he did so as one of the very few African American designers working in the business at that time.
Next year, Smith, who passed away in 1987, will be honored with his first posthumous retrospective at New York’s Cooper Hewitt museum. The exhibit will run from March through October 2020 and is titled “Willi Smith: Street Couture,” after an iconic 1983 collection that he presented via a series of musical and art performances. The show will feature a mix of some 200 pieces of Smith’s work, including video, sketches, patterns, photographs, and garments some of which were made in collaboration with artists like Keith Haring and Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company.
“Willi Smith cared about style over status,” says Alexandra Cunningham Cameron, Cooper Hewitt’s curator of contemporary design. “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.” She continues: “Clothing was a tool [he used] to disseminate ideas about personal freedoms beyond class, beyond gender, beyond race, while still having fun.” This is how Smith himself put it: “I don’t design clothes for the Queen, but for the people who wave at her as she goes by.”
Originally Appeared on Vogue