Willi Smith, a product of the pop era, was influenced by agenda-setting visionaries like Malcolm McLaren, Andy Warhol, David Bowie, and the clamor and glamour of his beloved Harlem church ladies. His fashion presentations also suggested a love of drag ball culture, a budding scene whose efflorescence coincided with Smith’s move to New York in 1965.
Friends recall his being a Harlem habitué and a regular at drag dives like the Gilded Grape. Fittingly, his collections were often broken down into sections whose nomenclature—Varsity, Work Epic, Renegades, Igloo—bring to mind the categories of the balls. It’s hard not to hear the hyperarticulated, stentorian pronouncements of ball emcees when reading WilliWear program notes: “drill cloth, poplin, corduroy” and “architectural outerwear ready for layering.”
Horacio Silva is the head of content and special projects for Metrograph and is a renowned writer and editor for the world’s most prestigious publications and brands.