WilliWear Map Print

Grid map print in black ink on white fabric

The WilliWear Map Print design adapted a section of South Flushing, Queens, in repeating grids, including the sites of the 1939 and 1964 World’s Fairs, and a series of parks, botanical gardens, and cemeteries that were mined, landfilled, and landscaped by Robert Moses and private developers for most of the 20th century. 


In this design, Smith renamed Kissena Park, the former home of a 19th-century exotic tree nursery that was once intended to become the Central Park of Queens, as WilliWear Park. With this gesture, Smith appropriated a historic tool of control and segregation, subverting the racist, discriminatory, and violent practices of land colonization and zoning, and centering his own perspective.  


The pattern for the WilliWear Map Print, along with the other eye-catching patterns for the 1986 Urban Optics collection, was designed with Martha Nutt, a young Rhode Island School of Design graduate whom Smith hired as an in-house textile designer after falling for the moiré optical patterns and fabric grid motifs populating her portfolio. Nutt’s sketches were translated into black and white for the collection; then, together, she and Smith conceived the WilliWear Map Print, a grid on repeat to be executed in black pigment on white cotton poplin. The print was used for various garments, including a voluminous skirt (from which this detailed image was taken) with extended back and front panels reminiscent of an early modern-era tailcoat. 

Smith incorporated evocative patterns into his collections for both Digits and WilliWear. These patterns were not limited to garments and could be found on graphic materials and publications. The printed designs carried messages that alluded to Smith’s research, values, and identity. Smith sometimes wove subversive messages into his patterns, which were not recognized by many of his customers but were significant to those who were actively disenfranchised by social norms and understood the messages being conveyed. For the Map Print in the WilliWear Summer 1986 collection, titled Urban Optics, Smith forged new tactics for liberation through subversion and hypervisibility.

Detail of Map Print Skirt, Willi Smith for WilliWear, Summer 1986 Collection, 1986. Photographed by Matt Flynn © Smithsonian Institution

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