Willi Smith was considered to be the most successful African-American clothing designer during his time.
Willi Donnell Smith was born on February 29, 1948 in Philadelphia. Growing up he took inspiration from his parents and grandmother, who always dressed fashionably stylish despite being on limited budgets.
While in high school Smith studied commercial art at Mastbaum Technical High School in Philadelphia. After graduating high school, he enrolled at the Philadelphia College of Art to study fashion illustration in 1962. While in college he realized he wanted to be a designer.
In 1965 Smith earned two scholarships to the Parsons School of Design in New York . While in New York he began doing freelance work for the designer Arnold Scaasi and the Bobbie Brooks sportswear company. In 1967 he quit school to pursue his love of fashion full time. In 1969 his name begin appearing on labels of clothing made by Digits, a sportswear company.
In 1973 Smith and his sister Toukie, founded their own clothing company. With little experience in business, they soon saw their enterprise fail. He continued doing freelance work until 1976, when he entered into another business partnership, this time with Laurie Mallet, with whom he co-founded WilliWear.
Smith’s eclectic, whimsical, and inventive designs attracted the attention of fashion insiders, while customers responded favorably, the newly formed company soon became established in the industry.
In the beginning stages WilliWear produced only women’s clothing, until 1978 when a mens 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.
His style has been described as “street couture” 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.
By the time of Smith’s death in 1987, WilliWear was selling over $25 million worth of clothing a year.
”I don’t design clothes for the Queen, but for the people who wave at her as she goes by.” – Willi Smith