Sunday, April 2, 2023

Weekend Review: Willi Smith, Street Couture


Willi Smith, Street Couture / Alexandra Cunningham Cameron, ed.
NY: Rizzoli Electa, c2020
256 p.

Willi Smith: Street Couture is a companion to the exhibition Willi Smith: Street Couture, which was very briefly on view in person at Cooper Hewitt in 2020 but has a full online exhibit to experience!
It's a great read in its own right, and it was enjoyable to pore over the images. 

It's made up of 21 different sections, plus an introduction and timeline, and each chapter takes on a different aspect of Willi Smith and his fashion career. From personal recollections to examinations of his design aesthetic, retail growth, creation of sewing patterns, to even a look at the graphic design used by his company Willi Wear, there is a huge variety of intriguing info laid out here. There are also lots of images; Rizzoli does these kinds of books so well. It's a great overview of Willi Smith and the ways in which his designs were shaped, sold and have remained so fresh. 

I really became fascinated with Willi Smith earlier this year when I used a vintage Butterick pattern to make my project for the Black History Month Pattern Designer Challenge. I loved this pattern, and had known a bit about him but I felt that I wanted to learn more. This was a superb resource to do just that! 

I enjoyed the range and the organization of the book. There are discussions of his personal life, his business(es), partners, the actual clothes, his design visions, and a very relevant chapter on his work with McCalls and Butterick and why he believed that sewing patterns were an important part of his business. In that chapter, the authors point out that Willi Smith's mother and grandmother both sewed and he saw that you could be fashionable without being rich -- his position was that his designs were for the everyday person on the street, that they should be accessible. And as part of that, he respected home sewers. In fact, his viewpoint is quoted in this chapter: 

Smith respected the home sewers’ awareness of their bodies and willingness to take risks, and saw this audience as more intimately connected to fashion as a means of individual expression than the ready-to-wear shoppers who followed the colors and trends of the runway. He understood how choosing the pattern, selecting a custom fabric, and assembling the full garment allowed many possibilities for invention.  (you can read the full article about his patterns at the Willi Smith Archive)

I also appreciated that the book covers his strong relationships and support from both his sister Tookie (a model) and his business partner Laurie Mallet. The women in his life were huge supporters who helped him succeed, and it is acknowledged and shown here. There is also a frankness about his personal life as a gay black man in the 80s, which is such a key element of his work as well. And it affected his career, as he was one of the many victims of the AIDS epidemic, dying at far too young an age. 

I'd definitely recommend this book, as it is full of information, personal anecdote, fashion talk, and wonderful images. And if you can't find it, do check the online exhibit as much of it can also be found there. Enjoy! 

No comments:

Post a Comment

Share your comments, ideas or suggestions here -- I am always interested in hearing from readers. It's nice to have a conversation!