(1948-1987) Willi Smith has been called “the most successful black designer in fashion history.” He was born in Philadelphia in 1948 and studied commercial art and fashion illustration, earning scholarships to attend Parsons School of Design in New York in 1965. He worked freelance for Arnold Scaasi and Bobbie Brooks sportswear, quitting school in 1967 to pursue further freelance work. In 1969 he met his future business partner Laurie Mallet while working on his line of clothing for Digits Sportswear. Smith started a clothing company in 1973 with his sister Toukie, but it failed. He went back to freelance work before hooking up with Laurie Mallet to launch his own line of women’s wear in 1976 under the label Williwear, adding menswear in 1978. Mallet financed a trip with Smith to India to buy materials where he would spend several months every year working on designs.
The hallmark of Williwear fashions was comfortable fitting, colourfully printed, natural fabrics at a low price. In 1987 Willi Smith contracted dysentery in India and died two months later from pneumonia. The autopsy revealed he had AIDS, which was a surprise to everyone he knew. He had not disclosed his health to anyone. By the time of Smith’s death, WilliWear was selling over 25 million dollars’ worth of clothing a year. In addition to his ready-to-wear retail ventures, Smith occasionally worked for individual clients, including suits for Edwin Schlossberg, and his groomsmen, for his marriage to Caroline Kennedy in 1986, and wardrobe for Spike Lee’s film School Daze in 1987.
Written by kickshawproductions