A Merlin of Midtown, possessed of the can-do moxie of a Broadway producer, Willi Smith was a pioneering conjurer of glamour and spectacle whose influence lives on in the experiential multidisciplinary offerings of today’s genre-bending designers and cultural producers, from Council of Fashion Designers of America/Vogue Fashion Fund winner Telfar Clemens to Kanye West and Baz Luhrmann.
Beyond wanting to simply dazzle the eye, Smith was a masterful media manipulator who used every arrow in his quiver to bring his artful message to the masses. In the pre-internet era, before style had highjacked culture, before the star-crossed love affair of the fashion and art worlds, Smith knew full well that these pyrotechnics would help to amplify his message.
WilliWear fashion shows were considered to be more performance art than runway outing, and with good reason. Smith is often compared to his eighties American contemporaries such as Betsey Johnson and Perry Ellis, but in truth he shared more in common with emerging enfants terribles of European fashion Franco Moschino and Thierry Mugler—showmen who, with their increasingly performative runway presentations in Milan and Paris, respectively, were applying the defib paddles to the clinically dead shows of the time.
Smith rejected the lifeless legacy of the couture salon with its soporific music, hippy swagger, and death-stare froideur, preferring instead to collaborate with artists from all disciplines—most notably with the pioneering video artists Juan Downey and Nam June Paik—decades before the word “collaboration” became as hollow as “luxury.”
Though practically unheard of in New York fashion at the time (save for Halston’s shenanigans, which once included Lily Auchincloss’s frying bacon on the runway), Smith’s harnessing of drama and theatrical vision in the pursuit of high-impact fashion moments, his playing limbo with the markers of fashion and art, and his willingness to expand the fashion project into a broad church of creativity are today de rigueur.
Horacio Silva is the head of content and special projects for Metrograph and is a renowned writer and editor for the world’s most prestigious publications and brands.