I thought he was the most important designer working in America at the time. And now, looking over my shoulder, I absolutely believe I was right.
Ralph Lauren changed the way clothes allowed us ownership of a multi-textured American idea of success. Donna Karan changed the way working women considered the relationship between gender, apparel, and power. Willi changed the way we thought about almost everything else: proportion, fabrication, color, leisure, play, comfort, work, personal expression, and time.
I position brands for sale, for investment, for growth. When Laurie Mallet first called me into her office, I had already worked with Neiman Marcus, Harry Winston, Pierre Balmain, Bergdorf Goodman, and Henri Bendel, among many others. While our office did many creative things, and would design and write most of their promotional materials for those few formative years, it was our positioning skills that Laurie and Willi most required. Like all the businesses that contracted us, WilliWear had a challenge. That’s our job, creatively addressing and solving challenges for businesses. But this was a conundrum as I’d never heard before.
To become optimally profitable, designers were (and still are) signed to licenses: fragrance, sunglasses, lingerie, shoes, bathing suits, etc. Junior sportswear manufacturers, on the other hand, were never invited to those parties, and Willi was considered a junior sportswear manufacturer. Why? Because he was on the junior sportswear floor at Macy’s. He sold millions of dollars’ worth of affordable apparel to happy customers from that junior sportswear department.
To make matters worse, Willi wasn’t carried by the toniest retailers: Bendel’s, Barneys, or Bergdorf’s; nor was he seen by any influential fashion director or fashion editor as an important American designer. Laurie didn’t have to explain that they could hardly afford to turn down Macy’s business. Above all, Willi believed in a democratic idea of style. He liked that his clothes were affordable, and he saw no conflict in creating Butterick patterns along with designer duds. But the fashion press did have a problem with this, and here was the rub: if Willi weren’t ordained with the status of “Designer,” the company could not grow. I said to Laurie, in direct contrast to what I believed she thought I might say, that under no circumstances, despite how wrong they were, could we say to the fashion press, “You’ve got it wrong.”
I went back to my office and talked to my staff. I could see no way to solve this problem, and I was about to turn the assignment down. But someone in my office asked, innocently enough, “Who do the fashion writers look up to? What is their idea of status?”
“Not much,” I said. “Maybe society. And art. But Willi isn’t ever going to be an Astor or a Livingston. And he’s not a fine artist.”
But the idea of art kept going around and around in my head. Willi was on the board of the Brooklyn Academy of Music. He had a growing and increasingly important collection of contemporary art. He’d collaborated with recognized and prominent avant-garde artists and dancers, and Laurie Mallet, his CEO, had a particularly resonant connection, as her own stepfather was a working artist.
I can’t remember whether they’d just contracted James Wines and Alison Sky and their group, SITE, to create the WilliWear showroom as an “art installation,” or whether that followed our decision to present Willi’s fall show as a “shared one-time collaborative art event.”
“Let’s not appear to be talking to the fashion press,” I said. “Let’s make it seem as though everything we do is really being done for the advantage of the art press. Of course, the fashion press will have all the necessary materials, but the editors of Artforum and Art in America and the fine-art editors of the New York Times will all be visibly listed before the fashion editors in our contact sheets. And the material will be written from the point of view of culture, rather than fashion industry sales.”
Works designed to interpret the themes, around which Willi created his collection, were commissioned by Laurie and Willi of video artist Juan Downey, composer Jorge Socarras, and Linda Mason, the British makeup artist who had just taken London by storm, creating a gallery event that used the “face as canvas.”
We told them that they were free to express themselves, but that whatever they did, it had to work in a set number of themed segments that would run about eight minutes apiece. And they had to work with models on a runway, and an audience of about a thousand. But if they wanted an orchestra, they could have it. If they wanted a wall of video monitors or one enormous screen, they could have it. What they couldn’t have was an installation that required personal viewing, a box into which an audience member placed his head or ear. It had to be experienced by the whole audience at the same time.
Everyone seemed to get it, and we all felt very self-congratulatory. Then, time went on, and no one came back to us with anything to see or try or test. As the day of the event got closer and closer, I was sure my career was about to end. Nevertheless, we all stuck to the plan. “Let’s talk about the significance of the art before we talk about fashion. Let’s make the fashion press feel that they’re being ‘allowed’ into an event that has greater meaning.”
What was most remarkable was that in truth, and with very little distance, we all came to understand that indeed, this work did have greater meaning. What had begun as a bit of a ruse to put the fashion press on its back foot, was, in effect, the most authentic thing we could say. Willi was, in every important way, more about art than fashion.
In the end, everything came together in a great show that launched the Puck Building. Nothing had been easy or without anxiety. The Puck Building was late in finishing their building completion details, and the week before the show it looked as though we might not have water or electricity. But we did. I’d been told by John Fairchild’s Women’s Wear Daily office that no one would come down to SoHo during Fashion Week for a junior sportswear fashion show. But they did. The press came and were completely enchanted with what they saw. A great review in the New York Times followed. Willi’s WilliWear showed up in Barneys, and Bendel’s, and Bergdorf’s, and within months, I was working on our first license.
The first signed license WilliWear landed was a sleepwear manufacturer. Willi’s idea was that limiting the line to sleepwear was not particularly modern. He saw the soft flannels and knits as comfortable enough for sleep, but if designed with modern life in mind, just as suitable for walking a dog, or exercising, or staying at home and watching a movie with pals.
Because it was so much broader than nightgowns or pajamas, Bloomingdale’s didn’t think the line fit within their sleepwear department. And so, after a bit of a scuffle, a small, smart WilliWear/SoftWear boutique was created in Bloomingdale’s between their lingerie department and a health food bar called Forty Carrots.
To introduce the line, we took over the model rooms up on the furniture floor, which was where, in truth, most of the excitement in Bloomingdale’s could be found in the eighties. Designer rooms were all the rage, and the press covered them like Broadway openings. Instead of having models walk around the press, we’d have the press walk around the models, who were doing their nails, grooming the dog, doing sit-ups or yoga, making and eating popcorn, braiding their hair. It was a terrific mashup of “apparel in life” and a great success.
Most of all, and especially as I look back at the line and the times, I recognize WilliWear/Softwear for what it was: America’s first athleisure line. Thirty-plus years ahead of its time. But that was Willi Smith. He saw the culture for what it was. Changing and clever and connected to ideas. He saw a way to allow a variety of body types and ages and gender identities, and certainly all manner of activities, to be supported rather than limited by his clothing. He understood his customers. He understood that the idea of personal expression was something to be celebrated. Most of all, he understood his time on this planet as he defined a generation far more than we all realized in that moment.
If you look at your closet, you’ll see that we now all dress the way Willi dressed us. We all look for those soft and easy pants and the big comfortable sweater, the shrunken T-shirt, and the shawl that could be draped for style or warmth. We look for fabrics that feel soft enough to sleep in but can take us from a gallery opening to a jet plane. That’s what Willi had in mind. He always saw us enjoying the life that ease allowed.
When Issey Miyake and Comme des Garçons were celebrated for their brilliant enveloping origami and accommodating shapes, all we could say was that Willi did it first. And today, when Brunello Cucinelli makes an alpaca poncho and shows it over a cashmere slouched legging, we know that Willi did it first. When Gucci creates a caftan of silk twill printed to look like your grandmother’s kitchen curtains—Willi did it first.
It’s been a long time coming, but I am so very gratified to see him take his place as a leader of American style.