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Willi Donnell Smith Edit Profile

Fashion designer

Willi Donnell Smith, American fashion designer. Recipient Coty award, 1983, Cutty Sark award, 1986; named Designer of Year, International Mannequins, 1978. Member League in Aid for Crippled Children, Bedford Stuyvesant Children's Association.


Smith was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and studied commercial art at Mastbaum Technical High School and attended Philadelphia College of Art for fashion illustration.


Student, Philadelphia College Art, 1962-1965;student, Parsons School Design, New York Citystudent, New York University, 1965-1969.


His company Williwear Ltd. sold $25 million worth of clothing a year. He then moved to New York to go to Parsons The New School for Design, the art and design college of The New School university. In 1967, Smith quit Parsons to pursue a career designing on his own.

In 1969 he designed a label for Digits, a sportswear company. Smith continued to design and in 1976 he went into business with Laurie Mallet and called the company "Williwear." Smith also designed the uniforms for the workers on Christo's 1985 wrapping of the Pont Neuf bridge in Paris and clothes for Spike Lee's film School Daze (1987). Smith worked with many other designers and artists during his time at Williwear including Antthony Mark Hankins, James Mischka, Julia Santos-Solomon, Jon Coffelt, John Bartlett and Andre Walker among many others.

Smith partnered with Jhane Barnes on some of his earlier shows. Smith was the costume designer for "Secret Pastures" which premiered at Brooklyn Academy of Music's Next Wave Festival in 1984, one of Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company's first major works. Smith died in 1987 after contracting shigella and pneumonia while on a trip to India, apparently as a result of AIDS. It is suspected that Smith himself did not know he had the disease, although those around him knew he was fragile in his last days.

Most thought it was just that Smith had pushed himself so hard, being such a perfectionist with his work. John Bartlett, who was working at the time of Smith's untimely death, took over design operations and remained until 1993. Smith, who was openly gay, has a panel in the original NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt and is also lamented in a poem Speak: A Poem for the Millennium March by Keith Boykin, read by its author for the Millennium March on Washington for Equality on April 29, 2000.


  • Smith earned two scholarships to attend Parsons School of Design in 1965. In 1994 he won an American Fashion Critics' Coty Award for women's fashion. Smith won a Cutty Sark Award for Men's Fashion in 1985. He was honored with a bronze plaque for Fashion Walk of Fame along Seventh Avenue in 2000-2002.


  • Other Work

    • Sketcher, Bobbie Brooks, New York City, 1969, designer, Digits, New York City, 1969-1975, designer, vice president, Willi Wear, Limited, New York City, 1976-1987, also London. Designer patterns for, McCall's Company, furniture for, Kroll Associates, textiles for Bedford Stuyvesant Workshop.


Member League in Aid for Crippled Children, Bedford Stuyvesant Children's Association.


Willie Lee Smith

June Eileen (Bush) Smith