Person

Veronica Webb

Photograph of model wearing large black and yellow houndstooth coat, light brown scarf, and black leggings

Bethann Hardison was my agent and introduced me to Willi in the mid-eighties. I used to go and work for him when Mark Bozek ran the studio. Willi was always so excited to see the full collection presented in the showroom.

He would sit behind his desk, and Mark would say, “It’s about to happen; the clothes are about to come out!” Then I’d walk out from behind the dressing screen wearing whatever Willi had made for me, whether it was a pair of big, baggy pants with the perfect pair of Oxford shoes or an off-the-shoulder top with fabulous sleeves. Willi would just light up. I remember wearing his clothes and feeling at ease and at home, but also being aware that he created a fantasy that wasn’t about conforming; it was about authenticity.

Even when I think about the Expedition film, it was a radical idea at the time for a Black designer. True, by 1985 we had gone through Black Is Beautiful and had Afrika Bambaattaa and the Universal Zulu Nation, but we hadn’t had a genuine moment in fashion where we owned Africanism. Now, when Black designers use Africa as a reference, it becomes more about race instead of design. Willi was the first person that I felt broke the visual mode of how fashion was perceived. His success for such a broad audience symbolized that we in our community can move beyond race, be designers too, and make it.

Photograph of model wearing large black and yellow houndstooth coat, light brown scarf, and black leggings

Veronica Webb in Willi Smith for WilliWear, 1984


Close-up photograph of Senegalese dancer wearing large yellow hat and blue and white vertical striped shirt

Theatre National Daniel Sorano dancers on set, Expedition, Willi Smith for WilliWear, Spring 1986 Collection. Photographed by Mark Bozek, Dakar, Senegal, 1985