Fern Mallis

Two women sit together smiling on a stage.

I remember Willi from my very early days in fashion during the era of Clovis Ruffin, Stephen Burrows, and DD Dominick. He was a real sweetheart, friendly, talented, and accessible.

It was when the contemporary market was really sowing its oats. I don’t remember it being unusual at the time that Willi was a Black designer, as at that time there were quite a few prominent Black designers and all the hottest models were Black. They ruled the runway. Today, we are extremely aware that there are not enough Black designers and executives in the fashion industry.

Willi and I once collaborated on a project for the prestigious furniture company Knoll International. While I was working at my very first job at Mademoiselle magazine in the early seventies, I was asked by my friend Suzy Slesin, who was doing public relations for Knoll at the time (she later became design editor for the New York Times and is now the publisher of Pointed Press books), to invite a group of ten fashion designers to select an iconic piece of furniture and reinterpret it in their unique fashion way. Willi was one of the designers along with Betsey Johnson, Calvin Klein, Giorgio di Sant’ Angelo, Ralph Lauren, Pinky and Dianne, and Willie Woo, who took a sectional piece of furniture and completely embellished it with rhinestones.

A group of models standing side-by-side at the beginning of the runway

Willi Smith for WilliWear, City Island Spring 1984 Presentation, 1983

Two women sit together smiling on a stage.

Bethann Hardison and Fern Mallis on 92nd Street Y stage filming “Fashion Icons with Fern Mallis.” Photographed by Michael Priest, 2019