Essay

Willi Smith: Swervin’ in the Kingdom of Dreams

Will Perkins

Even Death lives on a budget in New York City. But like the city’s most industrious, Death has a spectacular imagination about how to make ends meet. In this kingdom of dreams, it weeds out the weak, preying on the city’s most at risk: people high on determination and their scenes.

Death lurks in the underground here, the lungs of the city. Mostly on blue, red, yellow, orange, green, and silver lines. Rarely brown, even less than that purple. It bumps up against the city’s ambitions, its determinations, these days mostly spooky-eyed transplants. Stop after stop they stare aimlessly biting at the nails of their dreams hoping to catch a break, spitting the remains out in bunches all over town like coins tossed in a wishing fountain.

Death crossed paths with the Notorious B.I.G. here once. On a blue line, the C train most likely. B.I.G. was ready to die but was too distracted to see Death coming. Too possessed by idols framed on his bedroom wall that he left behind back in Bed Stuy. Stop after stop Death looked on, as B.I.G. coolly mumbled rhymes to himself, his eyes rolled to the back of his head, nodding to a beat only he could hear sprinkled over Puff’s rags-to-riches swaggering at D&D Studios. He was just a few station mosaics away from recording “Juicy,” 5:03 from Funkmaster Flex dropping a bomb on HOT 97, running it back to back to back at the Tunnel, and B.I.G. would never be seen on the train again.

It doesn’t always work out this way.

Above ground, Death can spread into the guts of a scene, the social life of dreams. Where dance floors fill up with ideas you thought would last forever. The next, you know who and you know what but vanish at the moment the DJ spins “Verbal Intercourse,” looks death in the eye, and blinks.

By the time the DJ opens his eyes, that scene became an Apple store or another one of those salad bars or a design studio. Where cloudy memories in sticky bathrooms flinch like phantom limbs, sending a rush to the back of your mind every time you walk by. Today, that DJ works at the design studio and owns a 15-inch MacBook Pro. Eats an avocado salad every day for lunch and somehow found a girl who’s never heard of the Purple Tape.

Death brushed shoulders with Willi Smith here once. Most likely while sweating out the dance floor with his sister, the model and actress Toukie Smith, at Paradise Garage or the Mudd Club. Like B.I.G., Smith had Death on his mind too, though unlike B.I.G., he couldn’t ignore Death, because Death was all around him, in him even. Tragically, by the time he found out it would be too late.

But not before, with the help of business partner Laurie Mallet, he recalibrated what it meant to be a fashion designer: Designing clothes for people on the street, not those that looked on from Cipriani’s. Presenting clothes off the runway and at times off the body. Showing menswear with womenswear. Collaborating with notable artists like Nam June Paik, Keith Haring, the Trisha Brown Dance Company, and Futura 2000. Winning the Coty American Fashion Critics’ Winnie award for womenswear and establishing a brand that grossed over $25 million with showrooms in New York, London, and Paris.

New York’s subway system in the eighties was less earnest lung of the city and more ravaged belly of the beast. Horrifying trains muscled through rat-infested tunnels reeking of piss and shit. Whole cars were vandalized end to end, inside and out. Lights flickered on and off, swervin’ on wheels that squealed like spellbinding chills down your spine. Nine-to-fivers took their chances elsewhere, leaving the subway to thick-accented “Lemme get a bacon egg and cheese salt pepper ketchup” city dwellers.

The threat of violence from gangs, petty thugs, and the Guardian Angels safety patrol was enough to keep Death out of there, too. So, Death crept in the streets where Mayor Ed Koch callously let the city fall victim to AIDS and where those marked for Death refused to be victimized.

Between 1981 and 1987, 40,849 people died from AIDS in the United States.1 Smith, who died in ’87, was one of thousands of Black men amongst them. During that period, New York had become the world capital of AIDS and the disease had become the city’s third leading cause of death. Despite the gravity of the situation, Koch carelessly failed to plan and by the time he got around to it, City Hall’s efforts were dreadfully too little too late. Social services buckled under pressure while infected patients languished on long waiting lists for treatment, hospital beds, nursing homes, home care, and housing.2

New York also faced threats from the outside. North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms, a homophobic hysteric, took aim at programs like New York’s Gay Men’s Health Crisis, the largest private AIDS-service agency, formed by writer Larry Kramer. Fearful that blunt language and sexually graphic illustrations used in GMHC’s materials promoted homosexual behavior and would perpetuate the AIDS problem, Helms introduced legislation that forbade the Federal Centers for Disease Control from funding programs that would “encourage or condone homosexual activities.”3

For his part, President Ronald Reagan didn’t even mention the word “AIDS” in public until 1985, four years after the first cases were reported. If Smith hadn’t died from the administration’s indifference, he might have been killed by any number of Reagan-era policies which crippled the dispossessed in general, and Black Americans in particular. Cut off by inequitable economic policies and the “War on Drugs,” Black people would disproportionately suffer from unemployment, unequal access to education, poverty, homicide, hate crime, and skyrocketing prison populations.4

In an atmosphere where Black America’s social infrastructure was being dismantled, Smith constructed an alternative point of view. Gay, Black, living in New York City grim with addiction, disease, and death, Smith created work that embodied an inclusivity he himself was not afforded.

 

A VHS camera zooms in on a handsome young man sitting on the floor of crowded room, knees folded to his chest. He’s all Willi Smith in the face and style; dark brown skin, high cheekbones, full lips, an average nose, eyes hidden behind circle-rimmed glasses. He’s wearing a black turtleneck with blue denim jeans and his hair is styled in a low natural. My imagination wants it to be him, but the better sense of research knows it couldn’t be because by this time Smith had already been dead for two years.

It’s March 27, 1989, the night before what will become the largest AIDS demonstration on New York’s City Hall, organized by the activist group ACT UP. Hundreds of people are packed shoulder to shoulder at the Lesbian and Gay Community services center in Greenwich Village. Some sit, some stand, others lie on the ground. Their voices travel where bodies can’t, floating above their heads, colliding like clouds of inaudible thought bubbles.

What we can’t hear, we see. White, Black, Latino. Men and women. Young and old. Gay and straight. Some sick, some not. Eyes pacing back and forth.

Suddenly, an unidentified member of ACT UP blows a whistle to silence the room. She makes her way through the crowd, steps up to the rostrum, and delivers the night’s opening remarks. “Welcome to ACT UP. We are the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power. A diverse nonpartisan group of individuals united in anger and committed to direct action.” On “Action,” silence breaks into war cry.

“ACT UP, fight back, fight AIDS! ACT UP, fight back, fight AIDS!”5

This sequence plays out in the opening minutes of How to Survive a Plague, a groundbreaking documentary about the early years of the AIDS epidemic directed by David France. The film chronicles the efforts of activist groups like ACT UP who fought to help develop drugs that turned HIV from a fatal disease to a manageable infection.

In crowded rooms like this all over New York City, a subculture emerged made up of artists, designers, musicians, and professionals from a variety of backgrounds who organized themselves into grassroots organizations like ACT UP, Group Material, and Gran Fury.

Artist members of these organizations were made up of radical outsiders from the New York art scene who operated on the fringes of the gallery system. Brought together by an urgency to break conventions of the art world, they conspired to confront institutional apathy by turning the strategies of advertising and mass media back on the institutions themselves. Their efforts produced a comprehensive campaign that illuminated the AIDS crisis by orchestrating a crisis of their own.6

Public actions were the most frequently used form of attack. At protests, demonstrators would sacrifice their bodies to block traffic before being carried away by police officers. Mass “kiss-ins” were organized to help promote Queer visibility and counter false claims that HIV could be spread through kissing.

Printed propaganda was designed in the Swiss International Style of the 1940s and ’50s which stressed the combination of photography and typography. Like bearing witness to a public execution, the motive was to shock, inform, and leave a permanent mark on an observer’s consciousness. Use of vernacular photography would celebrate Gay pride, memorialize the faces of the dead, call for the heads of the enemy, and when most pissed, would just put a big dick in your face. On the other hand, bold sans-serif type alerted you to reliable AIDS resources and statistics, and mocked government officials with biting aphorisms and political slogans.

 

While the movement gathered momentum, public activism overlapped with private existentialism, as artists began to bring approaches designed to motivate people on the street into their private studio practices.

In his “dateline” pieces, artist Felix Gonzalez-Torres, a member of the activist organization Group Material, assembled lists of various dates in random order interspersed with the names of social and political figures and references to cultural artifacts or world events. Printed in white type on black sheets of paper, these lists of seeming non sequiturs prompted viewers to consider the relationships and gaps between diverse references as well as the construction of individual and collective identities and memories.7

Gonzalez-Torres’ Untitled (1989), conceived as a site-specific billboard on Christopher Street and Seventh Avenue, confronts one of advertising’s most pedestrian and in-your-face mediums head-on. Two lines of white text set against a plain black background read: “People With AIDS Coalition 1985 Police Harassment 1969 Oscar Wilde 1895 Supreme Court 1986 Harvey Milk 1977 March on Washington 1987 Stonewall Rebellion 1969.” The billboard was installed across the street from the Stonewall Inn to mark the anniversary of the Stonewall Uprising on June 26, 1969, when the response to a routine police raid on the neighborhood gay bar set the stage for the gay liberation movement in the United States.

Gonzalez-Torres used a reduced vocabulary of text and everyday materials to conjure up enigmatic associations to the body and address themes such as love, loss, sickness, and sexuality.

Smith, inspired by the work of artists like Gonzalez-Torres, and frequent collaborators Christo and Jeanne-Claude, combined everyday qualities of art with industrial instruments of fashion to address the politics of the body, of representation, more directly. Designing clothes “not for the queen, but for the people who wave at her as she goes by.”

In the face of a fashion world looking down from the shoulder pads of the glamorous eighties, Smith’s cross-disciplinary engagement developed into an aesthetic project that questioned the validity of widely shared cultural beliefs and imagery and rebelled against the establishment through the collective power of equality across race, class, and gender.

In 1967, New York City was headed toward bankruptcy. Rents were affordable, and below 14th Street a diverse community of artists was forging a radically experimental counterculture. That year, Smith was expelled from Parsons for having an open relationship with a male student. Once admired as the most talented fashion applicant Parsons had ever seen, he was shaken by the rejection but invigorated by the energy pulsating downtown, the womb that birthed the golden age of New York City nightlife and culture.8

Impresario Harrison Rivera-Terreaux introduced Smith to artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude, who hired him to help with the construction of a wedding dress. Photo documentation of The Wedding Dress shows a young woman bent over with her legs spread shoulder-width apart, hands resting on her knees. The image is black and white. She has long dark hair, and pale skin. Barefoot, she’s frozen mid-stride, left foot set in front of the other, twisting the right side of her body to balance out her weight. Her eyes dart straight ahead, locked in on something we can’t see happening just beyond the edge of the photo. She’s wearing a formfitting white satin singlet reminiscent of early-20th-century boxing tights, or by today’s standards a mid-thigh SKIMS body suit. It’s embellished with a rope harness braided across her chest and wrapped around her waist and legs. The harness is attached to a train to drag around what looks like a giant white boulder made from industrial laundry bags packed with large stones.

The Wedding Dress (1967) was created at the height of the women’s rights movement in the sixties and seventies, when women fought for equal rights across every aspect of women’s experience including politics, work, the family, and sexuality.

Like negotiating with anger, the work’s structural complexity distorts its narrative clarity: the braided harness attached to the boulder, a ball and chain; the woman, a stand-in for all women held back by the weight of all-too-powerful White men hoarding America’s freedoms.

Smith’s collaboration with Christo and Jeanne-Claude defied boundaries between fashion and art, fashion and clothing, sculpture and performance. It was exhibited at the Museum of Merchandise exhibition at the Young Men’s and Young Women’s Hebrew Association in Philadelphia, where artists featured in the show brought the aesthetics of consumer culture into the fine-art world. Museum of Merchandise set up the potential for white-walled galleries to open up to wider audiences through cross-disciplinary engagement—a methodology Smith would apply to his own work.9

Six years after the launch of WilliWear Ltd., Smith exhibited Art as Damaged Goods (1982) as part of a multidisciplinary program he joined at Project Space One (Now MoMA Ps1). Art as Damaged Goods filled a classroom-turned-viewing room with a grid of white-plaster clothes laid out on the floor and flagged with evidence markers. Smith would call this ensemble his wardrobe of basics, or “canvases for the body”: hat, blouse, playsuit, jumpsuit, bloomer, slipper, cap, top, shirt, pants short, heel, smock, romper, sneaker. Visitors were blocked from entering the room but could look in through the doorframe while holding red, yellow, and blue color cards to their faces.

Smith makes a break from the way clothes are usually shown. Trading a runway for a museum. Defying fashion’s otherworldly preciousness by taking his clothes off otherworldly bodies and laying them out on the floor. Designing an all-white collection and trading the pageant exuberance of clothes that walk by you, for the contemplative transcendence of art that hangs in front of you.

Presented in the context of a museum, his collection functions as a wall text to the AIDS epidemic. Its title, a reference to the stamp retailers use when returning damaged articles of clothing, simultaneously implicates a broken New York City, those living with AIDS, gays, prostitutes, and drug addicts who were burdened with responsibility. The plaster material freezes each garment in place and time, reinforcing “text” with the tactile character of Braille. Evidence markers acknowledge the dead, perhaps here outlined in chalk. The head-to-toe arrangement brings to mind scattered bodies of AIDS activists who lay down in the street to block traffic at demonstrations. They could also refer to hundreds of unclaimed victims buried anonymously in Potter’s Field, a mass grave on New York’s Hart Island where only 17 of thousands of AIDS burials are marked with white concrete tombstones.10 Red, yellow, and blue viewing cards transform visitors into witnesses and his white palette into a kaleidoscopic portrait of a community at risk.

Each in its own way, The Wedding Dress and Art as Damaged Goods both show the emphasis Smith placed on creative expression that deviated from the status quo and cultivated a nonpartisan agenda that sought to celebrate everyday people and thrust marginalized groups into the mainstream.

Willi Smith died at Mount Sinai Hospital in 1987 after succumbing to AIDS. Five years before his death, I was born at the same hospital to the same name. We both grew up in broken homes, nurtured by the sweat of a mother’s love that inspired us to pursue a life in the arts.

Somehow, I found my way through a curiosity with images, words, and people. How they function alone and when they collapse into each other, how they create diverse ways of knowing. Luckily, I’ve had a few jobs to help me figure out what that even means and 49 years after Smith was expelled, I would pick up where he was cut off and graduate from Parsons School of Design.

What Smith didn’t know then that I know now, is there couldn’t be me without Willi Smith or for that matter, generations of Black men who have also pursued a creative life. A life known in the in-between, toes dangling from a cliff of acceptance, on the edge of a come-up. Like, “It was all a dream.”

As a gay Black man in the United States pursuing a career in an industry governed by Whiteness, Smith was cast as pariah in every aspect of his life. His Black skin, a threat to White power. His sexuality, burdened as a health menace. His close proximity to White culture, an enigma to commonly observed assumptions of Blackness in both the US and the fashion world. And within the Black community itself, he was labeled a sellout and criticized for being “too White.”

But Smith’s reality was anything but Black and White or “too White” and “not Black enough.” To reclaim his own individuality, he had to become more than a fashion designer, he had to become a world builder and decorate it with color. In this world, like he appears in this text, he always saw his clothes as just one part of a larger story.

This prolific artistic experiment helped interpret the hero’s journey with a dissenting voice that pushed back against a culture of domination, the censorship of humanity, egalitarianism, individualism, and imagination.

In Smith’s kingdom of dreams, love returns to its rightful place at the center of our lives and the ghost of death has no bearing upon time, present or future, because when the world can be taken from you any day, every day the world is born anew.

A purple and black cassette with white text

Raekwon, Only Built for Cuban Linx, 1995 © Care of RCA Records, a division of Sony Music


Grayscale image of Willi Smith wearing an Artist T-Shirt designed by Barbara Kruger. The T-Shirt features image of an anonymous face in grayscale with the words “I can’t look at you and breathe at the same time” superimposed over the figure’s eyes and chin

Willi Smith. T-shirt designed by Barbara Kruger for WilliWear Productions’ artist T-shirts, 1984. Photograph by Matt Flynn © Smithsonian Institution


A dark-skinned man with a low afro, round glasses, and a black turtleneck gazes away from the camera's lens; three pairs of clasped white hands of people seated behind the man appear in the background

How to Survive a Plague, 2012
©Public Square Films


A black and white advertisement with a penis extending from the bottom right to the upper left of the whole image. In white text it reads "Sexism Rears Its Unprotected Head. Men: Use Condoms or Beat It. Aids Kills Women. Spring Aids Action '88: Nine days of nationwide AIDS related actions & protests."

Gran Fury, Sexism Rears Its Unprotected Head (Poster), 1988.
Courtesy of Manuscripts and Archives Division, New York Public Library


On left of the image is a series of concentric orange and black circles. On the right is an image of Ronald Reagan in a suit with words "He Kills Me." in orange lettering over him on the bottom of the image.

Donald Moffett, He Kills Me, 1987.
© Donald Moffett. Courtesy of the artist and Marianne Boesky Gallery, New York and Aspen.


A stark, black bilboard with white text sits above a vibrant New York city corner. The text on the billboard reads "People with Aids Coalition 1985 Police Harassment 1969 Oscar Wild 1895 Supreme Court 1986 Harey Milk 1977 March on Washington 1987 Sonewall Rebellion 1969".

Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Untitled, 1989. © Felix Gonzalez-Torres, courtesy of The Felix Gonzalez-Torres Foundation. Photographed by Nicholas Knight, courtesy of Public Art Fund, NY


A woman leans forward with ropes around her pulling a large sculpture wrapped in white cloth. The sculpture is hidden by the cloth. The room is industrial with exposed brick. She has dark hair and looks to the right.

Christo’s Wedding Dress as worn by Wendy in Christo’s studio, New York City, 1967. Photographed by Ferdinand Boesch. Courtesy of the Estate of Christo V. Javacheff


Grayscale image of white plastered clothes laid out on the ground

Willi Smith, Art as Damaged Goods Installation, January 17, 1982–March 14, 1982, P.S. 1, Long Island City, NY. MoMa PS1 Archives, I.A.656. The Museum of Modern Art Archives, Photograph © Ivan Dalla Tana. Digital Image © The Museum of Modern Art / Licensed by SCALA / Art Resource, NY


MoMA PS1 hallway with view of plastered articles of WilliWear clothing and accessories laid upon the floor behind a translucent scrim

Willi Smith, Art as Damaged Goods Installation, January 17, 1982–March 14, 1982, P.S. 1, Long Island City, NY. MoMa PS1 Archives, I.A.656. The Museum of Modern Art Archives. Photograph © Ivan Dalla Tana. Digital Image © The Museum of Modern Art / Licensed by SCALA / Art Resource, NY


Will Perkins

Will Perkins is a creative director and writer who holds an MFA from Parsons School of Design. His writing has been featured in Franchise, Office magazine, Morán Morán Gallery, and Purple Fashion magazine.


  1. CDC.Gov, HIV and AIDS United States, 1981–2000, Link.
  2. Bruce Lambert, “Koch Record on AIDS: Fighting a Battle without Precedent, New York Times, August 27, 1989.
  3. Edward L. Koch, “Senator Helms’s Callousness toward Aids Victims,” New York Times, November 7, 1987.
  4. Graham C. Kinloch, “Black America in the 1980s: Theoretical and Practical Implications,” Humboldt Journal of Social Relations, 14:1–2 (Fall/Winter & Spring/Summer 1986/87), 1–23.
  5. How to Survive a Plague, directed by David France, Public Square Films, Ninety Thousand Words, 2012.
  6. Tommaso Speretta, Rebels Rebel: AIDS, Art and Activism, 1979–1989 (Ghent, Germany: MER. Paper Kunsthalle, 2014).
  7. Guggenheim Museum, Collection Online, Link. Accessed October 2020.
  8. Alexandra Cunningham Cameron, Willi Smith: Street Couture (New York: Rizzoli Eclecta, Cooper Hewitt, 2020).
  9. Alexandra Cunningham Cameron, Willi Smith: Street Couture (New York: Rizzoli Eclecta, Cooper Hewitt, 2020).
  10. Corey Kilgannon, Dead of AIDS and Forgotten in Potter’s FieldLink.
  11. Susan Sontag, Illness as Metaphor and AIDS and Its Metaphors (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1978).