TRUE WILLINGNESS: Some of the more outspoken on-the-rise designers might think otherwise, but the old adage “What’s old is new” seems indisputable in the “Willi Smith: Street Couture” exhibition at the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, in Manhattan. It’s the first museum exhibition dedicated to the work of Smith, who died at age 39 of AIDS-related complications in 1987. He was said to be the most commercially accomplished black designer at that time.
On view from Friday through Oct. 25, the show features 200-plus examples of his work, and it’s not just fashion. Smith combined affordable basics with avant-grade performances, film, art and design. Videos, photographs, artwork, drawings, patterns and performance are intertwined throughout the first floor of the exhibition. As the wall text makes clear, Smith was a frequent collaborator, having worked with Keith Haring, Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company, Nam June Paik, Juan Downey and Dan Friedman, among others. Near the entrance, an oversize quote from Smith explains his ethos, “I don’t design clothes for the Queen, but for the people who wave at her as she goes by.”
During a preview at the museum, Alexandra Cunningham Cameron, curator of contemporary design and Hintz secretary scholar, said, “There is a fair arc from what he was doing to today. You see many young fashion designers, who whether or not they recognize Willi Smith as an influence, are pupils of Willi Smith and are incorporating strategies that he did in his work. When it comes to breaking down gender binaries in their collections, advocating for inclusivity and diversity in the runway, what he was doing felt very much of the time. It seemed like a good time to look back in time and understand where some of these ideas originated.”
The “Street Couture” name borrows from the name of Smith’s 1983 fall collection. His experimentalism can be seen in Les Levine’s “Made in New York” short film, a mash-up of men and women wearing neon designs and bold makeup as they sing, dance and stroll along the sidewalk past hansoms near Central Park. Nearby a monitor plays video footage of Max Vadukul’s “Expedition,” which was shot in Senegal featuring a few of Smith’s favorites — Mark Bozek, Linda Mason and Peter Gordon. Smith cast the film with locals and members of the Theatre National Daniel Sorano dance troupe.
Other members of Smith’s inner circle are featured in a group photo that includes a baby-faced Cindy Crawford, Edwin Schlossberg, Bethann Hardison, the artist known as Christo and his wife Jeanne-Claude, Kim Hastreiter and many others. Smith created billowing, sky-blue uniforms for Christo and Jean-Claude’s “The Pont Neuf Wrapped” in Paris.
Museum goers will also see snapshots and a Smith-designed ensemble that were made for Schlossberg and his groomsmen for his wedding to Caroline Kennedy.
Reminiscent of Smith’s streets of New York-inspired Fifth Avenue store, showroom and pop-ups, the show’s backdrop features re-salvaged bricks, wire fencing, ladders and other items. Smith sought individuality rather than wealth and status. The designer once said, “My dedication to life and my curiosity about every part of my existence is reflected in my work. I try to make a point of seeing everything.”
SITE founder James Wines, who worked with Smith on his showroom and retail enterprises, designed the exhibition, and Poly-mode created the graphic identity.
As for why focus on Smith, Cunningham Cameron said, “I’m not a fashion historian or a fashion critic. I come from a different part of design and my interest as a curator has typically been looking at moments when designers are influencing value shifts in society. For me, the axis of influence was for a fashion designer who came up in the fashion system, but he had a much broader message.”
That was funneled through his fashion in that he saw clothing as a tool to change lives, empower people, create community and collaboration, she added. “He saw it as a democratic way to reach people.”