Black History: Willi Smith

[Runway Talk]

Black History should be celebrated every month not just one – but unfortunately, that is not the way it is.

Keeping with the times, I thought it only fitting to profile a fashion mogul whose life was cut too short, but left a massive impact just the same. Willi Donnell Smith was a 40’s baby. 1948 to be exact – he died in 1987.

Williwear, his fashion company was worth a reported $25 million at the time of his death – not bad for a humble boy raised in the city of brotherly love. New York Daily News Fashion Critic Liz Rittersporn called him the most successful black fashion designer in fashion history.

So how did he do it?

Smith studied fashion illustration at Philadelphia College of Art. He then won two scholarships to attend Parson’s School of Design. As a freelancer, Smith worked with Arnold Scaasi, and Bobby Brooke’s Sportswear Company. After several stints at other companies, Smith and his sister Toukie Smith started their own label; the same Toukie who is with Robert DeNiro.

After the label flopped, Smith partnered with Laurie Mallet to create Williwear. And like a fashion phoenix, Smith rose from the ashes of a failed business to become a fashion force to be reckoned with.

But that was only the beginning. “I remember being proud when he first come onto the scene. It was the first time that I saw a black designer,” said Lency Whitaker, a Philadelphia area designer of the luxury line, FEMI.

Some designers excel at one gender and merely succeed at the other – Smith was able to gain notoriety in both genders with career highlights that read like a divine Vogue profile.

“He was who I wanted to be like – I was done with words,” said Juanita Beasley a board member for the Philadelphia Network of Designers who will be honoring Smith at the organization’s gala on June 7, 2009. “My own dreams became attainable because I could identify with him. He made it possible for people like me,” Beasley adds.

And with Smith’s impressive and self-proclaimed, “Street Couture” he established himself as a permanent staple in the business. Street Couture indeed – Smith also provided all of the designs for Spike Lee’s, School Daze.

While some designers were designing for a certain type of people, Smith designed for the everyday man and woman.

But that didn’t mean that Smith designed only for the everyday man and woman. His designs were as versatile as they were wearable – appearing on the backs of Kennedy kin, and comic books.

For Caroline Kennedy’s marriage to Edwin Schlossberg, the suits for the groom and his groomsmen were Williwear exclusives. And for those comic bookers that come across this column on their way to the funnies, the dress that Mary Jane Watson wore for her marriage to Peter Parker in the original Spider-Man comic series was from the Williwear collection – Williwedding if you will.

Willi Smith was at the height of his career at the time of his passing – which no one expected. Though Smith looked weaker in his last days, those that knew him thought that exhaustion was the source.

In 1983, Willi was honored with the Fashion Critic’s Coty Award for Excellence in Women’s wear. Two years later, he won the Cutty Award for Excellence in Menswear.

At 39, Smith, who was openly gay was said to have contracted shigella and pneumonia as a result of AIDS while on a textile shopping trip in India. Smith was said to not have been aware that he had the disease – but died shortly after.

“I still haven’t seen a Black designer with as much impact as he,” said Whitaker. Mallet assumed control of the Williwear imprint and stayed on until 1990 when the company filed for Chapter 11.

In 1996, the brand was said to have been re launched with designer Michael Shulman at the helm for a collection exclusively available at the chain retailer TJ Maxx.

In a New York Times obituary for the designer, writer George James quoted Smith as saying, “I don’t design for the queen. I design for the people who wave as her as she goes by.”

Indeed Willi Smith was and still is the standard for designers Black and White.

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