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The Story of Willi Smith: The Pioneer of Streetwear

Known for his blend of streetwear and high fashion, Smith brought avant-garde art to the everyday person with his clothing.

The Story of Willi Smith: The Pioneer of Streetwear

Willi Smith was an absolute pioneer of Street Couture. Known for his blend of streetwear and high fashion, Smith brought avant-garde art to the everyday person with his clothing.


Smith was born in Pennsylvania in 1948 and raised by ironworkers. Studying fashion illustration at the Philadelphia College of Art and Fashion Design at Parsons - Smith would find himself in high fashion working alongside Arnold Scassi. He’d learn the inside workings setting up for an illustrious but short career.

After working at the sportswear brand Digits, Smith and his close friend Laurie Mallet founded WilliWear in 1976. And what’s interesting about this is that both had unsuccessful business ventures and Smith had to be convinced. It ended up being a career-defining move. Their pieces started to catch the eye of department stores like Macy’s and were eventually featured in the front window display.

WilliWear clothing was an immediate success. Earning $5 million in its second year of business, the industry adored him and his work. Women’s Wear Daily would describe it as “unconstructed, colorful, and joyful.”

But Smith would have too short of a stint. He would pass away from AIDS-related complications in 1987 at the early age of 39.


Smith’s African-American identity was extremely important to his work. He was part of a rare generation of black designers who gained mainstream commercial success. And he would garner these inspirations through his travels to Africa and India.

Like I mentioned earlier; before WilliWear was created, Smith had to be seriously convinced to do this. And that started with Laurie Mallet convincing Smith to travel to India. Because of his frequent trips to India, he began to reference silhouettes of dhoti pants and salwar kameez. Large and flowy types of clothing. His trips to Senegal also inspired a ton of his work.


Even though he designed high-end clothing, Smith valued the creative work of home sewists. And he did this because he realized many of them could not directly afford his design for his ready-to-wear collections. He believed in fashion being accessible to all - and created works that could be worn by both the wealthy and working class.

What’s crazy is that I haven’t heard much about Smith and his pioneering of streetwear. His works created a rise of street style as an alternative to traditional fashion. Instead of focusing on trends, he emphasized authenticity and individuality. And his clothes were adaptable and could be worn year after year. Because of his work he garnered special relationships with artists like Christo and Jean Claude. He’d collaborate with several artists on t-shirt designs and would display them in art galleries. He even worked with artist Keith Haring and became involved in the Brooklyn Academy of Music.


Smith was the youngest designer to ever be nominated for the Coty award in 1971 and won the Coty American Fashion Critics Award for Women’s Fashion in 1983. Although he passed away at an extremely early age, he is the father of Street Couture. You can find virtual exhibits about Smith at the Cooper Hewitt Museum and Black Fashion Designer at the Museum of FIT. So you can thank Willi Smith for all your favorite streetwear styles today.

All, Story of the Week


April 11, 2022

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