by Kim Steele

Entry to Willi Smith: Street Couture show, Cooper Hewitt, 2020 featuring Kim Steele’s portrait of Willi Smith ~ @KimSteelePhotography

~On view March 13 through Oct. 25~
Willi Smith: Street Couture is the first museum exhibition devoted to American designer Willi Smith. The exhibition seeks to restore Smith’s place in the fashion canon as a groundbreaking cultural producer who laid new roads for fashion before dying suddenly of AIDS-related complications in 1987 at age 39.

Willi Smith: Street Couture is named for Smith’s iconic fall 1983 collection, which brought together fashion, video art, and music in a unique event that symbolized the designer’s effort to democratize fashion through the intersection of the arts with affordable basics inspired by his diverse audience. Included in the exhibition are more than 150 works by Smith and his collaborators, such as Juan Downey, Dan Friedman, Keith Haring, Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company, Les Levine, Dianne McIntyre, Nam June Paik, and SITE. Many of the works on view, which include photography, video, design drawings, garments, patterns, and ephemera, have not been seen in more than 30 years.


Kim Steele, wedding attire bespoke design by Willi Smith @KimSteelePhotography (photograph shot by Ben Buchanan)

Kim Steele with his colleague & friend, Willi Smith, all photographs in this post contributed with respect, love & fond memories ~ courtesy of @KimSteelePhotography


My friend Willi Smith was generous of spirit and affectionate. I was a young nobody, he embraced me into his circle, and invited me to parties at his spacious apartment at Two Horatio Street, a neo-classic Bing & Bing 1930’s building, in the West Village. At Willi’s top floor space, with a terrace overlooking the Hudson River and Jackson park below, we partied until the wee hours with artists, designers, actors, and of course photographers. Willi’s sister, Toukie, was dating Robert DeNiro at the time, and they would join us occasionally for the revelry–although DeNiro was a bit circumspect in his deportment, but adequately friendly. DeNiro was already a legend at that time, and imposing.

I recall Willi’s very touching pattern of sending me, by messenger to my studio, a tall, spring branch of flowering cherry blossoms on my birthday, every February, with a very sincere note.  Willi always remembered.


Willi Smith, shot at Kim Steele’s studio, Lower Broadway, Manhattan @KimSteelePhotography


Laure Mallet and Willi Smith @KimSteelePhotography


Often the parties were hosted by Willi’s business partner, Laure Mallet, in her loft on Prince Street, just around the corner from my studio on Lower Broadway. Laure’s place was chockablock full of artwork, including my large black and white industrial prints, and fabulous designer furniture.


WilliSmith logo @KimSteelePhotography


Willi Smith @KimSteelePhotography


Willi was an art collector.  His spacious apartment, which was the entire top floor, was packed with art from Christo to Warhol to African artifacts–that made a striking impression. His home was designed by the infamous Peter Marino, who was at the time part of a duo design team (with Jed Johnson) that designed Willi’s apartment, then his newer place on Lispenard Street below Canal Street–Willi’s office was designed by SITE. I rode out to the Hamptons one time with Marino and Willi, one of the most terrifying high-speed drives of my life, on the Long Island Expressway. We went to Marino’s home, the decor was before his notorious “leather-daddy of luxury” phase.


Jorge Soccarás and MaryAnne Levesque (in the Willi Smith designed wedding dress) @KimSteelePhotography


One of Willi’s most gracious gestures was to design my first wife’s, MaryAnne Levesque, and my suit for our wedding in New Hampshire, in 1985.  There were multiple dress fittings, and yes, it was expensive, but it was totally gorgeous, a white satin floor length number with a train and lovely satin covered buttons running down the back.  My Willi designed bespoke suit was an African inspired print, with pegged legs and shortened pants.  I was also friends with the designer Perry Ellis at the time–he supplied the two toned loafers to accompany the Willi suit.  I made the wild statement.


Willi Smith @KimSteelePhotography / Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, NY


Willi Smith @KimSteelePhotography


This era was tragically stained with the death by AIDS of many of my close friends and colleagues. My dearest friend was Oliver Johnston, a gifted designer who designed my first logo, and who also designed the first AIDS logo, Silence=Death, for the Silence=Death Project, formed by six gay activists in New York City, in 1987: Avram Finkelstein, Brian Howard, Oliver Johnston, Charles Kreloff, Chris Lione, and Jorge Soccarás. The poster was then used by the AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power (ACT UP), as their central image.


Logo design by Oliver Johnson


Willi succumbed to the disease in a slow demise that I sadly remember well. It was a very, very wrenching time for our community. I miss Willi dearly–as much I miss Oliver, and my many other brilliant friends…


Willi Smith @KimSteelePhotography

Cooper Hewitt to Present “Willi Smith: Street Couture”

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