Pioneered ‘Street Couture’ : Fashion Designer Willi Smith Dies at 39

Times Staff Writer

Willi Smith, the innovative and witty fashion designer who created his outsized and colorful styles for the man and woman in the street, has died in New York City at age 39.

A spokeswoman for Mt. Sinai Medical Center said Smith was admitted to the intensive care unit Thursday and died the next day of pneumonia complicated by shigella, a parasitic disease that causes dysentery. Mark Bozek, public relations director of Smith’s $25-million-a-year WilliWear Ltd., said Smith contracted the disease during a fabric-buying trip to India earlier this year. An autopsy is pending.

‘Street Couture’

Smith pioneered what he called “street couture,” comfortable, whimsical clothes the ordinary person could afford that also appealed to the wealthy and famous.


“I don’t design clothes for the queen but the people who wave at her as she goes by,” Smith once said.

Although best known for his sportswear, he designed the formal wear worn by Edwin Schlossberg last July when he married Caroline Kennedy, daughter of the late President John F. Kennedy.

Smith, born and raised in West Philadelphia, attended a technical high school there and chose a fashion career while studying at the Philadelphia College of Art in 1964.

“I knew . . . that I wanted to design my own clothes and not draw someone else’s,” he recalled years later.

He went to New York with two scholarships to the Parsons School of Design but dropped out to work full time in the fashion industry. By 1969 he had his name on the label of a company called Digits.

Two years later he became the youngest designer ever nominated for a Coty Award, the fashion industry’s equivalent of the Academy Award. He won the Coty Award in 1983.


Bouzek called Smith “by far the most successful black designer for men and women in America.”

Smith established the WilliWear firm in 1976 and quickly built the firm into one of the leaders in the industry. WilliWear fashions are now sold in more than 500 department and specialty stores in the United States, Great Britain and France.

Times Fashion Editor Bettijane Levine said Smith “brought to clothes a sense of fun and wit, and yet his designs were very wearable and affordable. . . . He was true to himself, knew where he came from, knew what he wanted to give the world. And he had a terrific sense of humor.”

His wit was much in evidence during a 1972 visit to Los Angeles, which he described as “the city with the fabulous vulgarity that New York wants desperately but just doesn’t have room for.”

Smith was the first designer to create clothes for men and women within the same organization. He also was the first to mix bold stripes and checks and to incorporate two plaids in a single design. His clothes stressed comfort and usually were lightweight, oversized and made of natural fabrics.

‘Ground Breaker and Innovator’

“Willi was a ground breaker and an innovator,” said Bernie Ozer, vice president of Associated Merchandising Corp. “People who wore his clothes could make a fashion statement without needing a bank statement.”


To dramatize the fact that his clothes were worn by people in the street, not just models and socialites, Smith’s showroom in New York recreated the environment of the street. It featured raw bricks, street gratings and wrought-iron fences.

Smith was always willing to experiment with new ways to present his clothes. He was the first designer to make his presentations on videotape. Later he traveled to Senegal and created a film featuring his newest collection--in which he played six parts.

A funeral service was planned for today and a memorial service will be held later in the week.