Willi Smith

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For other people with similar names, see William Smith (disambiguation).

Willi Donnell Smith (February 29, 1948 – April 17, 1987) was an American fashion designer, regarded at the time of his death as one of the most successful young African-American designers in the industry.[1] His company Williwear Ltd. sold $25 million worth of clothing a year.[2]


Smith was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and studied commercial art at Mastbaum Technical High School and attended Philadelphia College of Art for fashion illustration. He then moved to New York City to go to Parsons The New School for Design, the art and design college of The New School university.


In 1967, Smith quit Parsons to pursue a career designing on his own. In 1969 he designed a label for Digits, a sportswear company. In 1973, Smith, along with his sister Toukie Smith, founded their own clothing company that soon failed. Smith continued to design and in 1976 he went into business with Laurie Mallet and called the company "Williwear."

He designed the wedding dress worn by Mary Jane Watson when she married Peter Parker in the Spider-Man comic book and comic strip in 1987,[3] and the suits for Edwin Schlossberg and his groomsmen when he married Caroline Kennedy in 1986. Smith also designed the uniforms for the workers on Christo's 1985 wrapping of the Pont Neuf bridge in Paris and clothes for Spike Lee's film School Daze (1987).

Smith worked with many other designers and artists during his time at Williwear including Antthony Mark Hankins, James Mischka, Julia Santos-Solomon, Jon Coffelt, John Bartlett and Andre Walker among many others. Smith partnered with Jhane Barnes on some of his earlier shows.

Smith was the costume designer for "Secret Pastures" which premiered at Brooklyn Academy of Music's Next Wave Festival in 1984, one of Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company's first major works.


Smith died in 1987 after contracting shigella and pneumonia while on a trip to India, apparently as a result of AIDS. It is suspected that Smith himself did not know he had the disease, although those around him knew he was fragile in his last days.[citation needed] Most thought it was just that Smith had pushed himself so hard, being such a perfectionist with his work.[citation needed] John Bartlett, who was working at the time of Smith's untimely death, took over design operations and remained until 1993.

Smith, who was openly gay,[4] has a panel in the original NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt and is also lamented in a poem Speak: A Poem for the Millennium March by Keith Boykin, read by its author for the Millennium March on Washington for Equality on April 29, 2000.


  • Smith earned two scholarships to attend Parsons School of Design in 1965.
  • In 1983 he won an American Fashion Critics' Coty Award for women's fashion.
  • Smith won a Cutty Sark Award for Men's Fashion in 1985.
  • He was honored with a bronze plaque for Fashion Walk of Fame along Seventh Avenue in 2000-2002.


  1. ^ James, George (1987-04-19), Willi Smith, Clothes Designer; Creator of Vivid Sportswear, New York Times, retrieved 2007-09-19 
  2. ^ Rapp, Linda (2002), "Smith, Willi", glbtq.com, retrieved 2007-09-19 
  3. ^ Gustines, George Gene. "STYLE; Pow! Kerplow!! Boing!!!," New York Times Magazine (May 4, 2008).
  4. ^ Gates, Henry Louis; Appiah, Anthony (1999), Africana: The Encyclopedia of the African and African American Experience, Basic Civitas Books, ISBN 0-465-00071-1 

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