Person

Christopher Andrews

Image of brightly colored clothing hanging from gray pipes and worn by two models in WilliWear New York showroom

I cannot remember exactly when I heard the name “Willi Smith” or his label WilliWear, but it must have been in some department store when I saw the tag on a suit.

It was a box-cut suit in a very soft fabric. It was in the eighties, and American sportswear was changing, becoming even more minimal and functional than before. I was entering my teens and discovering clothes for myself. My friends started talking about WilliWear and about Willi Smith being African American. This was something to talk about because, at the time, we scarcely knew of any Black designers, especially ones creating clothes that were young, spirited, and on par with the labels we already knew, like Calvin Klein and Perry Ellis. I remember once a classmate saved his money to buy a WilliWear suit. He proudly wore it to class, complete with the tags dangling from it. Everyone stopped him; everyone asked about WilliWear.

I had a red-and-gray woven WilliWear shirt that buttoned asymmetrically; it fit as if it were made for me. I, too, was asked about it often. Willi designed clothes that were understated, easy to understand, but captured you, the wearer, and anyone you passed. I was never sure how he did that. I dont think anyone has managed that kind of magic since.

Image of brightly colored clothing hanging from gray pipes and worn by two models in WilliWear New York showroom

SITE for WilliWear, Showroom, New York, NY. Photographed by Andreas Sterzing, 1982