Person

Kelvin Garvanne

Original WilliWear clothing tag showing a cartoon profile view of Willi Smith with thick glasses, a collared shirt, and sweater

Simply “Willi” —because everyone seemed to know Willi Smith—embodied a style and sensibility that bridged the gap between cultures: gay and straight, Black and white. His garments captured the stylish, fast-paced vibrancy of New York City in the eighties.

We were dressed casual by day and ready to be out all night in the evening wearing WilliWear clothes that allowed us to freestyle, hustle, or vogue. Earth tones allowed us to blend in or accent with a splash of some red, yellow, or orange. One could pair a bright plastic belt with jellies or slippers from Joan & David or Susan Bennis/Warren Edwards.

I was starting my modeling career and was fortunate to be booked for Willi’s show at Carnegie Hall. Willi gave me credibility, and I was proud to work for a designer that had street cred. Jeffrey Banks, Fabrice, and Scott Barrie were known, but they weren’t accessible like Willi was. I got there and they gave me his signature loose-fit clothes, wrapped my head in a turban, “beat my face,” and turned me loose. I got it. I didn’t have to think about it. It was so accessible, like he was. He made clothes for everyone.

I remember the first label in a jacket I owned. It was the first “selfie.” That was his face in your garment. Willi was always ahead.

Original WilliWear clothing tag showing a cartoon profile view of Willi Smith with thick glasses, a collared shirt, and sweater

Willi Smith for WilliWear, Graphic Identity Label, 1982