A precursor to streetwear brands such as Off-White and Supreme, the designs of Willi Smith, the most commercially successful Black American designer of the 20th century, served two purposes. First, they solved what he called “the problem of getting dressed.” Second, they waved away stereotypes of class, race, and gender. Smith arrived in New York City in 1965, but he arrived in the early 80s, when his brand WilliWear became synonymous with downtown energy. Artists, choreographers, musicians, filmmakers—all took part in his inventive shows and spaces, his ethic of inclusion. Smith died in 1987, at only 39, from AIDs-related complications. This exhibition focuses on the jubilant culture of collaboration he created. His “street couture” was a means to that end. “I don’t design clothes for the Queen,” Smith once said, “but the people who wave at her as she goes by.” —J.V.
Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum 2 E 91st St, New York, NY 10128, United States Get Directions »