👣 The Story of Willi Smith: The Pioneer of Streetwear
AND: Calvin Klein x Palace collab
Welcome to issue #056. You’ve probably never heard of him (don’t worry, I haven’t either) but you should definitely know him. Willi Smith - the pioneer of street couture and streetwear. Yeah, that’s right. He lived a short life, but boy was it an impactful one.
And I’ve got the story right after the jump.
brand of the week
the story of Willi Smith
what’s in my closet
what’s on the coffee table
upcoming product drops
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In the late '80s, designer Brian Atwood and his friend started P448—a brand that would become synonymous with great sneakers. Their initial concept was to produce athletic kicks for basketball, but eventually, the idea was expanded to include lifestyle products like skateboards and sandals.
With its origins in California, P448 was inspired by street culture and fashion. The sneakers are emblazoned with colorful patterns of dots and stripes set against black or blue suede leather; they're also adorned with low-top lace-ups, high-tops, mid-tops, and lows.
By the end of the '90s, P448 had over 20 different product lines—ranging from apparel to footwear. Today it's still a brand that produces some of the best sneakers on the market (and those are just what we reviewed).
Willi Smith was an absolute pioneer of Street Couture. Known for his blend of streetwear and high fashion, Smith brought avant-garde art to the everyday person with his clothing.
Smith was born in Pennsylvania in 1948 and raised by ironworkers. Studying fashion illustration at the Philadelphia College of Art and Fashion Design at Parsons - Smith would find himself in high fashion working alongside Arnold Scassi. He’d learn the inside workings setting up for an illustrious but short career.
After working at the sportswear brand Digits, Smith and his close friend Laurie Mallet founded WilliWear in 1976. And what’s interesting about this is that both had unsuccessful business ventures and Smith had to be convinced. It ended up being a career-defining move. Their pieces started to catch the eye of department stores like Macy’s and were eventually featured in the front window display.
WilliWear clothing was an immediate success. Earning $5 million in its second year of business, the industry adored him and his work. Women’s Wear Daily would describe it as “unconstructed, colorful, and joyful.”
But Smith would have too short of a stint. He would pass away from AIDS-related complications in 1987 at the early age of 39.
Smith’s African-American identity was extremely important to his work. He was part of a rare generation of black designers who gained mainstream commercial success. And he would garner these inspirations through his travels to Africa and India.
Like I mentioned earlier; before WilliWear was created, Smith had to be seriously convinced to do this. And that started with Laurie Mallet convincing Smith to travel to India. Because of his frequent trips to India, he began to reference silhouettes of dhoti pants and salwar kameez. Large and flowy types of clothing. His trips to Senegal also inspired a ton of his work.
Even though he designed high-end clothing, Smith valued the creative work of home sewists. And he did this because he realized many of them could not directly afford his design for his ready-to-wear collections. He believed in fashion being accessible to all - and created works that could be worn by both the wealthy and working class.
What’s crazy is that I haven’t heard much about Smith and his pioneering of streetwear. His works created a rise of street style as an alternative to traditional fashion. Instead of focusing on trends, he emphasized authenticity and individuality. And his clothes were adaptable and could be worn year after year. Because of his work he garnered special relationships with artists like Christo and Jean Claude. He’d collaborate with several artists on t-shirt designs and would display them in art galleries. He even worked with artist Kieth Haring and became involved in the Brooklyn Academy of Music.
Smith was the youngest designer to ever be nominated for the Coty award in 1971 and won the Coty American Fashion Critics Award for Women’s Fashion in 1983. Although he passed away at an extremely early age, he is the father of Street Couture. You can find virtual exhibits about Smith at the Cooper Hewitt Museum and Black Fashion Designer at the Museum of FIT. So you can thank Willi Smith for all your favorite streetwear styles today.
👕 Polo Shirt → Exude effortless style off-duty by reaching for the Oly Honolulu Shirt from Maison Kitsuné. This Cotton poplin short-sleeve shirt features a collaboration print, camp collar, dropped shoulder, chest pocket, button closure, straight hem, and towel-like terry cloth lining. Pair with seasonal pieces and old favorites.
🧢 Cap → Knock them out with this delightful cap from Victoria. Its unconstructed design, contrasting brim and color, and embroidered logo makes it a stylish choice for any occasion. A fashionable contrast of wine and brown tones? How can you go wrong?
👞 Kicks → The raw beauty of the California sun shines in the Anaheim Factory Authentic 44 DX, done up with its vintage-style logo and colors. Let it light your way through streets paved with gold, in comfort and style, no matter where your road may lead.
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Forget Palm Trees, Prada's Tropico Experience Includes A Bucket Hat Tree [READ MORE HERE]
ON's Cloudmonster Shoe Is, Well, A Monster [READ MORE HERE]
Towel → Tekla towels are extra thick and highly absorbent, thanks to a unique looping technique that maximizes surface area. Made from 100% organic cotton, these towels are free of harmful chemicals, use natural dyes, and are machine washable.
Tray → Jonathan Adler's beautiful Op Art Rectangle Tray is the perfect size for a morning coffee, afternoon tea, or late-night snack. It features gold accents and geometric patterns for a modern, graphic look. Perfect for the home or workspace, it comes with a Jonathan Adler gift box.
Coasters → HUMAN MADE has your table covered with this set of felt coasters. Each of the four pieces is printed with a different Curry Up motif and also features a “Made in Japan” tag.
See you next Sunday,
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