Willi Smith: The Father of Streetwear

As the concept of streetwear seems relatively new, its themes and goals have been thriving in
the fashion scene for much longer than many remember. Willi Smith was a pioneer of
streetwear; working with some of the most cutting edge and wild minds in fashion, yet gaining
his own inspiration from the people he saw on his daily outings, quite literally creating and
molding what we hold as streetwear today. Willi Smith was the pioneer of wearable looks; the
original essence of streetwear, and his influence shines through in modern functional fashion
each and everyday with each and every style.
Born to an ironworker father and a homemaker mother in Pennsylvania in 1948, Smith enjoyed
studying and fashion from an early age; pursuing drawing at Mastbaum Technical School and,
later, fashion illustration at the Philadelphia Museum College of Art. We do not often see artists
launch into fashion illustration as much as design, but his study in fashion illustration assured
his perfect designs and dimensions later as he began designing his own collections. Smith was
a more or less unknown fashion student until his grandmother and housekeeper, Gladys Bush,
of all people, set him up with one of her client’s connections, Arnold Scaasi with an internship.
Smith’s original internship duties were acting as an assistant to Scaasi, but turned into creating
outfits for the likes of Brooke Astor and Elizabeth Taylor, as well as learning the ins and outs of
managing an atelier went on his internship resume. This happenstance opportunity was where
Smith learned exactly what he did not like to design.
Advancing on to the Parsons School of Design in 1965 equipped with both scholarships and
immense talent and confidence, Smith not only studied, but also partied; two parts of the whole
that would make up his design influence, influence revealing itself in part in the SoHo arts
district. Smith’s eventual expulsion from Parsons, for allegedly having romantic affairs with
another male student (sign of the times), launched a kind of creative freedom for him, as he
began collaborating with Christo and Jeanne-Claude on fashion and art mash-ups that proved
ridiculously innovative for the time, as a similar vibe of work from new-age artists would pop up
all over SoHo in the coming years. After that, Smith and Christo and Jeanne-Claude would go
on to create The Wedding Dress, a garment constructed to almost resemble a large pile of
laundry and described as “a housewife’s burden made plain.” Smith and the notorious couple
went on to create their famous wrapping installations of Paris’s Pont Neuf and 11 islands in
Miami’s Biscayne Bay; Smith designed the uniforms for the personnel at each of the events.
Unlike many great streetwear designers, Smith had, and continued to have a heavy hand in the
art scene in addition to the fashion scene. Notably, his influence in fashion almost came after he
solidified himself in the art world. He worked with some of the best through his career:
commissioning Nam June Paik and Juan Downey to create video installations for his fashion
shows, and working with Keith Haring and other of his artist friends (imagine!) to create a series
of t-shirts, as well as an installation at MoMA PS1, just to name a few of his endeavors.

Apart from his hand in the art and pop culture world, Smith never lost his focus on fashion. But
he would die when referring to his endeavors as “fashion,” because Smith claimed that
everyone did one small thing in clothing and called it fashion, when in actuality, they were in the
apparel business. Through his work and outlook, Smith proved that fashion was much more
than clothing.
His first major fashion role was at a start-up sportswear called Digits in 1969; making a name for
both himself and the brand with his usage of bright colors and flowing fabrics; featuring women
in street and out-and-about settings wearing his clothes in the campaigns, a feat ahead of its
time on its own. He became the youngest designer just two years later to be nominated for a
Coty Award. Smith resigned from Digits in 1974 as the economy fell to bring up his own label
alongside his sister, Toukie. While this business ended in lawsuit and almost a lack of creative
license for Smith, it forged a path for Smith to gain influence from India, and even the naissance
of the one-size-fits-all genre; brought forth by a pair of pants inspired by the Indian police
uniforms. Smith, alongside his business partner, Mallet, set up their business from these pants,
WilliWear Ltd., in 1976.
Smith’s design and eye for the unique coupled with him being Black and gay in the world of
fashion certainly made him an anomaly of the time. He was well-connected and worked with
some of the most well-known and most famous, yet he was fully committed to creating
wearable, affordable, and accessible clothing at large-scale, perhaps our first look at fast
fashion’s most wholesome beginnings. He saw the mass creation of clothing as a chance for
his creativity to reach more, and not as dumbing down his looks, as many other designers would
have. His fashion shows and exhibitions were immersed in art as well, he held them at local
gems such as the Holly Solomon Gallery and the Alvin Ailey Theater. It is evident that Smith
wanted to be the exact opposite of any luxurious designer on the scene at that time, while still
remaining inherently luxurious and wearable.
We often praise streetwear as being effortlessly cool, and looking like you did not try, when in
actuality, you really did. Smith attempted to create a market of really well-made, beautiful and
wearable clothes to reach a larger audience, rather than creating an elitist air to his brand and
only allowing a certain few to have it and to afford it. We must thank Willi Smith largely for many
of the ideas and styles we have in fashion and streetwear today, and thank him for making
fashion universal. By Adi Shoham