Elyn Rosenthal

A light-skinned woman hugs a dark-skinned man. The woman wears a loose white shirt with white pants; the man wears round glasses, a button-up shirt with rolled sleeves, and grey pants. Two dark-skinned men in button-up shirts stand behind them in the background.

In the late 1970s, I was working in the fashion office at Macy’s Herald Square when my friend Marilise Flusser, the fashion director of juniors at Saks Fifth Avenue, contacted me. She knew Willi was looking for a new assistant and made the introduction.

She thought we would make a good team. I don’t remember much about our first meeting, but we had great chemistry, and we began our journey together. My background was in merchandising, textiles, and fashion events. From 1979 until 1981, I wrote the press releases, showed the collections to the press, assisted Willi with design and textile research, fashion show production, and traveled with him to India and Hong Kong.

I have vivid memories of our trips to India. The workroom in Mumbai where WilliWear was made was in a large factory. Mohammed was the head pattern maker who also ran the workroom and worked directly with Willi creating the samples from his sketches. They did not speak a common language but were able to communicate through signs and drawings. Although sometimes the ideas didn’t translate. One time, Willi requested two pairs of pants to be made, one in solid and one in plaid. The end result was one pair of solid pants lined with plaid print.

The factory didn’t have air conditioning, and my first trip to India was during the monsoon season. It was so humid in Bombay and at the factory. If you left scissors out overnight, when you returned the next day, they would be rusted. Willi had a large air-conditioned room built in the factory that we called “the cabin.” In the cabin, there was a large worktable and a wall of mirrors. When we were creating a new design, Willi wanted to make sure that it worked for women of different heights; I was the short model, he was the tall model. We loved Velcro, and one season used it on a jumpsuit that you stepped into. The Velcro was on the straps and made getting in and out of it fast and simple—no buttons, no zippers—the problem was back then that people didn’t like the sound of the Velcro being pulled apart. We were early adapters in the fashion industry.

When we were in Mumbai, we always stayed in the old wing of the majestic Taj Mahal Hotel. The rooms were lovely, especially when they overlooked the Arabian Sea. Many of our local walks were to the antique shops where Willi had a sharp radar and always found the most interesting objects to add to his collections. There were several specialty shops in the hotel. One was the Nalanda Bookshop. They had a huge assortment of art books, the classics, local newspapers, many books in Hindi, and two-year-old dog-eared fashion magazines. What they didn’t have was many current international newspapers, and finding Western news was hard.

While waiting for the fabric to be finished and the samples to be completed, Willi and I once traveled to New Delhi, visited the Taj Mahal, then traveled to Jaipur, Rajasthan. We stayed at the Rambagh Palace, which was being renovated at the time. It was a surreal experience as we were the only guests at the hotel. Willi had the guest room that had once been the bedroom of the Maharani, with a bathroom that was as big as my apartment.

We also traveled to Hong Kong to work with the factories. It was not a direct flight, and we had a layover in Bangkok. We took a tour of the Floating Gardens and had to wait until the next day to fly out because we missed our connecting flight. After we checked into a hotel, we spent the evening in the city. We went to dinner, and then a bar where women were in the boxing ring and men were cheering them on. It was quite bizarre. We must have been an original sight, a Black man with braids, an Indian man (Vijay Agarwal), and me, a young White woman. The next morning, we headed out to the airport to get to Hong Kong, still amazed by the city of Bangkok’s nightlife in the early 1980s.

A light-skinned woman hugs a dark-skinned man. The woman wears a loose white shirt with white pants; the man wears round glasses, a button-up shirt with rolled sleeves, and grey pants. Two dark-skinned men in button-up shirts stand behind them in the background.

Elyn and Willi Smith in Mumbai, 1980

A light-skinned woman and dark-skinned man sit together on the steps of an ornate building with decorative windows and exterior walls.

Elyn and Willi traveling in Rajastan, 1980

A dark-skinned man with glasses and a medium-skinned man with a mustache pose with heads placed in a photo cutout of two ornately dressed Indian dancers

Willi and Vijay Agarwal in Thailand on a stopover from Mumbai to Hong Kong, 1980

Four men stand side-by-side in a stairwell smiling at the camera

Willi & Hong Kong agent staff, 1980–81

A light-skinned woman poses for photo with lips puckered toward camera and hands in short pockets

Elyn in WilliWear harem shorts and ticking bandeau top, 1980

A light-skinned woman with short brown hair smiles at the camera while steering a boat. The woman wears orange sunglasses, a beige jacket with white trim, and dark pants

Elyn in WilliWear poplin and terry cloth anorak jacket, 1980