Person

Tom Healy

An empty room with two geometric chairs in the foreground aside a zebra skin rug. A lounge chair with large plant sits in the middle of the room in the background in front of three large windows. A black shelf with african masks and figures runs along the walls with stacks of books below.

I’m really surprised I still have it. I found it a few months ago in a tall cardboard Manhattan Mini Storage wardrobe, hung on a bar under an ancient Armani overcoat.

The coat was always too big. There’s a tear in the lining, and the collar is frayed, but I never gave it away because it cost a fortune. And it’s cashmere.

The WilliWear black leather vest, though, is in perfect condition. It was a bargain when I bought it. And after 32 years, the leather is still soft and . . . it still fits. What’s hard to make fit is the time when I got it. Almost everything and everyone I knew from the time of my Willi Smith black leather vest is gone.

In a disaster, time is unnervingly, insanely compressed, and the time of my Willi Smith black leather vest was arguably the worst in the disaster of AIDS, with the word itself barely spoken and anything but a hideous dead end barely conceivable. AIDS sped everything up in the eighties: wasting, lesions, and dying over and over again, by the day, by the hour. I thought for sure there must have been at least a few years between the time when I’d met Willi and when he died. He had that ability to matter. But looking back and counting it out, I realize I only knew him, the little I knew him, for less than six months.

I had just moved to New York and had just really started having sex, and I was lucky enough to get myself picked up by a guy my age and his boyfriend, who was about ten years older. The older guy was Mark Isaacson, the brilliant decorative arts expert who founded the remarkable design store Fifty/50. Mark loved sex. He loved drugs. He loved jazz and big diva voices. But he saved his truest astonishment for intelligently designed and exquisitely made things. I loved Mark because he seemed to know everything I knew nothing about. He taught me that Charlotte Perriand chairs were sensual and one could say, with conviction, that some contemporary Venetian glass was beyond gorgeous.

Everyone else in New York who knew and loved the subtle wonders of modern design knew Mark Isaacson and his business partner Mark McDonald, and they all found their way to Fifty/50. After I met Mark, I met all kinds of artists and oddballs, writers, collectors, drag queens and designers, curators and cool kids. I met Ingrid Sischy and Robert Mapplethorpe at Fifty/50. I shook Jackie O’s hand there. I nodded reverentially at Jasper Johns. Several times I tried smiling in the direction of David Byrne to no avail.

It should be no surprise that Willi Smith was a regular. He was a great collector and had that obsessive, intense love for the unusual, the underloved, or the beautiful-but-only-in-a-weird-way. I met him one afternoon in September or October 1986. With his dark eyes and round, tortoiseshell glasses, he looked like a gorgeous young scholar. He stared unabashedly at things. I remember him staring at some huge, exotic, fresh-cut flowers Mark had arranged on a giant Knoll table in the center of the store. I stared at him. Finally, Willi asked me if I knew what all the flowers were. I told him I didn’t, and he said, “Well, let me name names.” Then he laughed adorably.

We really talked at length just that once. I went to Willi’s famous showroom a few times when he wasn’t there. I went to one of his fashion shows, but he was completely surrounded. I saw him a few times at Odeon. If anything between us might have gone anywhere, the schedule for disaster left no time to find out. Willi Smith’s laugh, his sexy, classic style, his lithe beauty, his love of flowers, his ability to name names, his joyful astonishments, his stare: all dead by spring.

I’m embarrassed that I have no idea who and what the intimates were in Willi Smith’s life—whether he had a boyfriend, what kind of sex he had or wanted, or if the vest he designed and I bought from the glam WilliWear store meant that he himself was into leather or kink. I walked into his store often to look around (and cruise boys), but I bought only a few things: a flannel jacket, corduroy trousers, a silk shirt. WilliWear men’s pieces were sexy and pretty affordable for a kid in my twenties, but I had no idea how to wear them. Plaids with stripes? Baggy pants with pleats? I thought a black leather vest required a lot less imagination.

But that wasn’t true. I only wore it once, to the penultimate Black Party at the Saint. Even before my abs disappeared and my pecs melted, leather was not my look. I remember panicking as soon as I was inside the Saint and saw all the chaps and chains and harnesses and sweat. My WilliWear vest just looked too nice. I remember wimping out and waiting in line forever to leave it at the coat check. It was a relief to walk away from the demand of it, from needing to commit to it. I remember being so disappointed with myself, but quickly retreating to the boring and addictive every-boy thrills and dangers: Ecstasy, coke and poppers, shirtless, mindless dancing, sex with a stranger.

I’m wearing the WilliWear men’s black leather vest right now, writing this. It’s a very different time. Don’t worry; I’m also wearing a T-shirt. And no one’s around to look anyway.

An empty room with two geometric chairs in the foreground aside a zebra skin rug. A lounge chair with large plant sits in the middle of the room in the background in front of three large windows. A black shelf with african masks and figures runs along the walls with stacks of books below.

Interior of Willi Smith’s Lispenard Street Loft, Photographed by Rosemary Peck, 1986