Smith, Willi

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NAME: Willi Smith


His wikipedia entry is here: [[1]]

Willi Smith, the Philadelphia-born fashion designer whose young, lively, moderately priced "street couture" clothes made him one of Seventh Avenue's sportswear stars, died Friday. He was 39. Mr. Smith had been ailing from a parasitic infection that he picked up during a recent month-long visit to India to buy fabric for his designs, according to Mark Bozek, spokesman for Williwear Ltd., Mr. Smith's company.


Source: Roy H. Campbell, Inquirer Staff Writer They remembered Willi with songs. They remembered Willi with words. And then they remembered Willi with his own creations in a blazing fashion show that rekindled the spirit of one of the world's fashion greats. Four months after his death, 100 Philadelphians yesterday paid tribute to their native son, designer Willi Smith, at the Afro-American Historical and Cultural Museum with a commemoration attended by 11 members of his family. "This is to let hisPublished on 1987-08-17, Page E01, Philadelphia Inquirer, The (PA)

[Smith, Clothes Designer; Creator of Vivid Sportswear]

Published: Sunday, April 19, 1987 New York Times
Willi Smith, one of the fashion industry's most successful young designers, known for spirited and trendy clothes, died of pneumonia Friday at Mount Sinai Hospital. He was 39 years old and lived in Manhattan.

Mr. Smith was admitted for tests to the hospital's intensive-care unit Thursday night with pneumonia, complicated by shigella, a parasitic disease. He had been ill about three weeks, said Mark Bozek, a spokesman for Mr. Smith.

He apparently picked up the parasite on a recent monthlong visit to India, where the lightweight cotton fabric Mr. Smith used for many of his clothes was manufactured, Mr. Bozek said.

Mr. Smith, who made inexpensivesportswear under the WilliWear label, was part of a wave of young black fashion designers who came to prominence in the late 1960's. Last year, his 11-year-old company, whose line appeared in more than 500 department and specialty stores, had more than $25 million in gross sales. Love of Art

Mr. Smith's apartment in the Tribeca section of Manhattan, with its collection of African, Oriental and contemporary art, reflected a love of art that gave his simple, relaxed, often oversized creations an extra dimension, especially in the unusual colors he used, including jade, green and coral.

He numbered many artists among his friends. For one of them, Christo, Mr. Smith designed 600 uniforms for workers who helped the artist wrap the Pont Neuf, a bridge in Paris, with pink material in 1985.

Mr. Smith, who won the Coty American Fashion Critics' Award for Women's Fashion in 1983, created a stir at the July wedding of Caroline Kennedy, the daughter of the late President, and Edwin A. Schlossberg, with a nontraditional touch in the groom's clothing, a navy blue linen suit with a silver tie.

Afterward, Mr. Smith was asked to design the wedding gown of a comic strip heroine, Mary Jane Watson, for her marriage to Marvel's Amazing Spiderman.

He thought that was hysterical, Mr. Bozek said. He took the business of having fun very seriously.and it showed very much in his clothes. Clothes 'For the People

I don't design clothes for the Queen, Mr. Smith once said, but for the people who wave at her as she goes by.

But at a fall and winter fashion showing earlier this month, Mr. Smith, who was the first to mix and match plaids and stripes and colors, especially in men's clothing, showed a more traditional, tailored line, indicating a new maturity. It's time to grow up, he said.

Born in Philadelphia on Feb. 19, 1948, Mr. Smith often joked that there was always more clothing than food in his house because his grandmother, mother, and sister were clothes conscious. He attended the Parsons School of Design on a scholarship.

Mr. Smith is survived by his sister, Touki Smith, who often modeled his designs, a brother, Norman Smith, both of Manhattan, and his grandmother, Gladys Bush of Philadelphia.

A funeral service is scheduled for 6:30 P.M. tomorrow at the Frank E, Campbell Funeral Chapel on Madison Avenue. A memorial service is planned later in the week.

Photo of Willi Smith (NYT/bill Cunningham)

Willi Smith

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Willi Smith, cofounder of the WilliWear company, has been called "the most successful black designer in fashion history."

Although his clientele included wealthy and prominent people, his principal aim was to design clothing that was stylish yet affordable and that people would enjoy wearing. He favored natural fabrics and unconstructed clothes since they are more practical for the average consumer. "Models pose in clothes," he said. "People live in them."

A leap-year baby, Willi Donnell Smith was born to Willie Lee Smith, an ironworker, and June Eileen Bush Smith, a homemaker, on February 29, 1948, in Philadelphia. Smith took inspiration from his parents and grandmother, who always dressed fashionably despite being on limited budgets.


After studying commercial art at Mastbaum Technical High School in Philadelphia, Smith enrolled at the Philadelphia College of Art to study fashion illustration in 1962. He soon realized, however, that he wanted to be a designer.

He earned two scholarships to the Parsons School of Design in New York in 1965. Soon after arriving in the city he began doing freelance work for the designer Arnold Scaasi and the Bobbie Brooks sportswear company. In 1967 he quit school to pursue his career full-time. By 1969 his name was on the label of clothing made by Digits, a sportswear company.

Smith and his sister, Toukie Smith, founded their own clothing company in 1973. However, the Smiths, lacking business experience, soon saw their enterprise fail. Willi Smith continued doing freelance work until 1976, when he entered into another business partnership, this time with Laurie Mallet, with whom he co-founded WilliWear.

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Smith and Mallet had met in 1970, when both were working at Digits. After leaving Digits, the two went their separate professional ways, Mallet working primarily in importing textiles and clothing.

WilliWear got off to a modest start. Mallet financed a trip to India so that she and Smith could buy materials and create their first collection. They used the only fabric available, cotton, and, unable to find buttons, designed wrap-around coats. Thus, their initial twelve-piece collection had what would become hallmarks of Willi Smith designs--natural fabrics, a relaxed, comfortable fit, colorful and eye-catching material, and a reasonable price tag.

Smith's talent for making the most of limited resources extended to the presentation of his fashions. Since his company could not afford a runway show, he posed his models in the WilliWear showroom, which featured plain brick walls, parking meters, fire hydrants, and wrought-iron fencing to emphasize the populist nature of his clothes. He was also a pioneer in the use of video as a means of presenting fashion collections.

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WilliWear never undertook corporate advertising campaigns, but Smith's eclectic, whimsical, and inventive designs attracted the attention of fashion editors and buyers from department stores and clothing chains such as TJ Maxx. Customers responded favorably, and the fledgling company soon became established in the industry.

Smith's style has been described as "street couture," a designation with which Smith quibbled. While acknowledging that he was acutely aware of what was being worn on the streets of America, he emphasized that he was not designing "for young people who like to look alike," but rather for people who wanted "real clothes" but with a sense of designer fashion.

At first WilliWear produced only women's clothing, but in 1978 the WilliWear Men line was added. Smith won a Coty American Fashion Critics' Award for women's fashion in 1983 and a Cutty Sark Menswear Award in 1985.

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Each year Smith spent several months in India, working on fabrics and designs. On a trip in February 1987 he contracted shigella, a parasitic disease that causes dysentery. His health declined rapidly, and he was hospitalized with pneumonia in April. Two days later he died. A subsequent autopsy revealed that he had AIDS.

The news came as a complete surprise to his business partner, Mallet, who said that she had "absolutely no clue" that Smith had AIDS. She described Smith as "fragile" and said that coworkers "were used to him not feeling well, not coming to work." If Smith knew the nature of his illness, however, he did not disclose it to them.

By the time of Smith's death, WilliWear was selling over 25 million dollars' worth of clothing a year.

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In addition to his retail ventures, Smith occasionally worked for individual clients. For example, he designed suits for Edwin Schlossberg and his groomsmen when Schlossberg married Caroline Kennedy in 1986. He also designed clothing for Spike Lee's film School Daze (1987).

A commemorative panel for Smith is part of the AIDS quilt. He is also remembered in a list of gay black AIDS sufferers in the poem I Speak: A Poem for the Millennium March by Keith Boykin, which the author read at the Millennium March on Washington for Equality on April 29, 2000.

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Date of Birth: 2/29/1948

Date of Death (delete if non-applicable): 4/17/1987

Age at Death (delete if non-applicable): 39


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