Cesar Moreno

Two young women and one young man make "funny faces" at the camera while standing at the front desk of a clothing store.

This recollection is dedicated to Willi Smith, family, friends, Cynthia Stubbs-Hill, and the WilliWear shop team.

From tragedy, a new generation of artists, writers, and designers will always emerge. But before we look forward, we must look to the past and give thanks to those who paved the way to the present: Perry Ellis, Angel Estrada, Roger Forsythe, Roy Halston Frowick, Keith Haring, Patrick Kelly, Antonio Lopez, Giorgio di Sant’Angelo, and Willi Smith.

These are the names of some of my design heroes who inspired me growing up as a teenager in New York City and who passed on from AIDS complications from 1986–1991. You will never be forgotten.

I would also like to thank the following designers for their contributions that paved the way for other designers of color: Stephen Burrows, Patrick Kelly, Daniel R. Day—Dapper Dan, Tracy Reese, Andre Walker, and Byron Lars.

They are New York City fashion heroes!

My name is Cesar Moreno. I was a young teenager, afraid of the AIDS epidemic like many who lived in that time from 1981 to 1997. The 2020–present Covid-19 pandemic brings back very similar feelings of friends who also passed on in the early 1990s.

I was 15 years old and still in New York City public high school back in 1985 when I landed my first official job in fashion. It was my local neighborhood fashion boutique called Charivari Workshop on Columbus Avenue and 81st Street, and I was lucky and so determined to get it. I became an unapologetic stock boy/bag check/sales assistant. It was a magical time, and I loved it. I learned everything about fashion and clothing firsthand and organized the stockroom to perfection—like Dominique Jackson’s character Elektra from the TV show Pose.

Charivari is where I started wearing and learning about Black American and international designers. Im so thankful for Selma Weiser, her daughter Barbara, and son Jon, for my introduction to brands like Comme des Garçons, Yohji Yamamoto, Matsuda, Catherine Hamnet, Vivian Westwood, John Paul Gaultier, and WilliWear.

New York City in the late 1980s was the Golden age of hip-hop. It was all about individual style, not biting or copying someones style, or you would be called out for it! All of these brands would have a bigger impact on hip-hop culture years later, but at the time, WilliWear was already fusing its way in because of its style, colors, and price range. Hip-hop has, and will always be, the foundation of “street couture” that fashion brands use as a template. Willi Smith understood that very early on from his clothing designs, colors, prints, showroom, and boutiques.

The WilliWear shop at 119 5th Avenue in New York City would become my second job in fashion! It was truly a new experience and look. At the time, most boutiques had white walls with black and chrome fixtures, gray concrete floors, and black clothing. The WilliWear shop was all light gray in color with prints and patterned clothing. It would also become a prototype for fashion brands to emulate for years to follow! These personal photos help give a glimpse of the atmosphere in the WilliWear shop.

Two young women and one young man make "funny faces" at the camera while standing at the front desk of a clothing store.

WilliWear Shop Morning Fun—"I asked the team if I could photograph them, and of course, they all said yes.”
WilliWear 5th Avenue sales team, ca. 1988. Courtesy of Cesar Moreno

A young woman stands holding a corded phone in hand in front of a cash register. Another young woman holds up two fingers behind her head as 'bunny ears'. In the background, brightly colored suits and shirts hang from wall displays.

What’s Up, Doc? Cynthia Gets Her "Bunny Ears": Cynthia Stubbs-Hill at WilliWear shop on 5th Avenue, ca. 1988. Courtesy of Cesar Moreno

A young woman poses in front of clothing racks wearing black pants, a bright purple jacket, and a black hat.

Striking ‘A’ Pose on the Sales Floor!: member of WilliWear sales team poses in store, ca. 1988. Courtesy of Cesar Moreno

A young man poses in front of clothing racks, holding a pink button-down shirt on a hanger in front of his torso.

Member of WilliWear sales team poses in store, ca. 1988. Courtesy of Cesar Moreno

A young man is seated at a desk with a computer and scattered papers, looking back over his right should to face the camera.

Number Crunch: member of WilliWear sales team working in store office, ca. 1988. Courtesy of Cesar Moreno