I come from a frugal, not cheap family. Trust me, there is a difference. My mother and I enjoy going to off-price stores like Marshall’s and TJ Maxx in order to find what we call “hidden treasures”. Out of all of my various trips to off-price stores along the east coast there is one trip that I distinctly remember. My mother and I went to a TJ Maxx store in Maryland when I was in middle school. I remember looking around in the women’s wear section and noticing some clothing by a designer named Willi Smith. The first thing I thought was, “Since when did Will Smith have a clothing line?” Then I thought that they had spelled his name wrong.
Later that night, I looked the name “Willi Smith” up online and learned that before the “Fresh Prince” inspired people worldwide to get “Jiggy Wit It” there was another man who showed us how to dress in Big Willie Style.
Philadelphia born fashion designer Willi Smith, who is unrelated to the “Fresh Prince”, has been referred to as “the most successful black designer in fashion history.” When it came to his work as a designer Smith preferred to be known more for his raw talent than his skin color. Although he would admit that his skin color gave him few advantages, he would often be annoyed by the attention given to him based on it.
Willi Smith was known for his use of brightly colored fabrics that were comfortable, loose-fitting, and moderately priced.
In 1976 he co-founded his company “Williwear” with Laurie Mallet. Although his clientele include the wealthy by the early 1980s, Williwear had grown to become a popular clothing line in youth culture and was referred to as “street couture”.
Willi Smith died unexpectedly in 1987 at the age of 39 after contracting shigella and pneumonia while on a trip to India. His death was determined as a result of AIDS. Willi Smith once said, “Models pose in clothes. People live in them.” According to Richard Martin, there were “countless fans of his sportswear style who may never have known-or care- whether he was Black, White or any other color”.
The style Willi Smith was accurately summarized in his obituary in the Village Voice which said that his clothing expressed, “the designer’s democratic urge: to clothe people as simply, beautifully and inexpensively as possible”.
Now when I go to TJ Maxx I am proud that I know about the designer, not the rapper, Willi Smith.