Open March 2020

Cooper Hewitt taps James Wines for Willi Smith streetwear show

WilliWear Showoom, SITE, 1982 (Courtesy SITE / Andreas Sterzing)

Manhattan’s Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum is hosting an exhibit on Willi Smith, the first solo show for the late fashion designer who was best known for his distinctive 1980s streetwear looks.

Willi Smith: Street Couture, borrows its title from Smith’s best-known collection, where he brought music and multimedia art together to enhance the presentation of the garments he debuted in 1983. That collection, part of the WilliWear line he started with Laurie Mallet in 1976, was sold through a showroom designed by artist and architect James Wines. Wines founded SITE, the firm that famously kitted out the BEST Products stores with form-breaking facades that defied the typical big-box typology.

Pipes and chain link decorate the GRAY interior of the WilliWear Showroom

SITE–designed the WilliWear Showroom in 1982 (Courtesy SITE / Andreas Sterzing)

The Garment District store, above and at the top, was the opposite of a polished Manhattan showroom—it resembles the utility room in a big building styled in monochrome grey. The pipes, chain link fencing, hydrants, construction and demolition waste, and manhole covers doubled as clothing racks and lent the space a grittiness which matched Smith’s oversized, softly exuberant collection meant for everyday people. The showroom office, meanwhile, took a cue from SITE’s deconstructed buildings via a glass-topped work surface supported by white bricks, broken and scattered at the far corner. Piles of bricks on a dolly added a decorative touch.
A white office made from white bricks

Williwear’s executive office (SITE)

This time around, Wines is designed the exhibition, along with the Ingelwood, California–based poly-mode, a communication design studio. The exhibition will feature photos of the store, along with dozens of other outfits, patterns, and artwork by Smith and peer-collaborators: dancer-choreographer Dianne McIntyre, video artist Juan Downey, and Keith Haring, known for his bold line murals. This is the first time in 30 years that much of Smith’s oeuvre has been shown to the public.

The artist standing next to animal print fabrics in black and white

Willi Smith circa 1981 (Courtesy Kim Steele)

“Willi Smith cared about ‘style over status,’” said Alexandra Cunningham Cameron, curator of contemporary design and Hintz Secretarial Scholar at Cooper Hewitt, in a prepared statement. “Clothing was simply a tool for him to disseminate ideas about personal freedoms beyond class, beyond gender, beyond race, while still having fun. He shows us that true collaboration, and the inclusivity it requires, is not a marketing gimmick or token gesture, but a way of thinking, of making and of life.” Along with Cunningham Cameron, curatorial assistants Darnell-Jamal Lisby and Julie Pastor organized the exhibition.

Smith, who was born in Philadelphia but worked in New York City, died of complications from AIDS in 1987. He was 39.

Programming for Street Couture, which opens in March of next year, will include a talk series around race and fashion organized with another Smithsonian institution, the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) in Washington, D.C.

Willi Smith: Street Couture opens March 13, 2020, and will run through October 25. More details on the exhibition can be found on the Cooper Hewitt website.

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