Streetwear is big business right now, and the dearth of African-American designers putting their designs on the catwalk is still a topic of discussion. Willi Smith didn’t just create a path for black designers — he created a route for streetwear to connect runways with the concrete. The Philly-born designer (not to be mistaken with the city’s other Will Smith) cut his time at Parsons in NYC short (Patrick Kelly, another pioneering connector of 1980s defining accessible clothes and high-end gear that never liived to see his forties also attended Parsons) and built the WilliWear brand. His own brand of “street couture” (a term that has been thrashed to death in the decades that followed) was something very new, creating a brash, evolving aesthetic since the brand’s birth in 1976, WilliWear came of age with hip-hop culture, managing to keep some edge while happily crossing over. Willi creating Mary Jane’s wedding gown for Amazing Spider-Man Annual #21, the same year that he outfitted the ultra-confrontational Spike Lee musical School Daze was a testament to his versatility and a collective of artists and creatives around executed projects separately that are still reverberating in popular culture, from haircuts to patterning. Willi Smith passed away in April, 1987, with the then successful WilliWear business floundering by the early 1990s and, but the 2000s, becoming a TJ Maxx in-house brand. Douglas Says upped some pretty good VHS footage from the brand’s heyday a few years back. It’s worth watching. Whether Smith’s work strayed too far from hip-hop to be included in the forthcoming Fresh Dressed documentary remains to be seen (I’m looking forward to that film), but the original street couture mastermind’s mindset is present in the industry’s new wave of creatives getting their Raf Simons on and playing with abstraction rather than taking the baton from Akademiks and State Property’s vast fits.


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