Judith Barry on Willi Smith and Polydisciplinary Magnetism

SITE for WilliWear, Showroom, New York, NY, Photographed by Andreas Sterzing, 1982.
ACT at MIT

On the occasion of the exhibition and eponymous book catalogue of Willi Smith: Street Couture, Cooper Hewitt, the Smithsonian Design Museum located in NYC, created a digital community archive to honor the life and innovations of pioneering American designer Willi Smith. The Willi Smith Digital Community Archive invites friends, collaborators and admirers of Smith to share in writing his history, the site collects and publishes personal recollections, new scholarship, video, photographs, garments and digital ephemera that contributes to a greater understanding of Smith’s life, work, and times.

As part of this effort to create a collaborative history, ACT Director Judith Barry was interviewed, along with Forest Young, by Prem Krishnamurthy. Their conversation, Polydisciplinary Magnetism, is featured in the Design section of the community archive. For Smith, design was a means to widely disseminate his ideas and capture his audience’s imagination. He engaged with graphic, product, animation, interior, set, and architectural designers throughout his career, and created his own graphic patterns, identities, and publications for his brands. WilliWear’s seductive showrooms and boutiques, vibrant identities, and playful zines illustrate Smith’s creative urge to collaborate across disciplines and provide a platform for unconventional design.

During his twenty-year career Willi Smith (1948–1987) united fashion and American culture, marrying affordable, adaptable basics with avant-garde performance, film, art, and design. Smith hoped to solve what he called “the problem of getting dressed,” or the lack of control fashion afforded the everyday person, by using clothing as a tool for the liberation of stereotypes around race, class, sex, and gender, and bringing art into the mainstream. In the wake of the 1974 recession and Vietnam War, Smith founded WilliWear Ltd. with business and creative partner Laurie Mallet to produce clothing, events, and experiences with a wide range of collaborators who used new technologies and progressive ideas to transform their creative fields and instigate social change.

At the time of his sudden death from AIDS-related illness, Smith was considered to be the most commercially successful Black American designer of the 20th century and a pioneer of “street couture”—fashion inspired by the creativity of people from the cities to the suburbs that captured the egalitarian spirit of the age. Willi Smith: Street Couture surveys Smith’s pathbreaking imagination of an inclusive, collaborative, and playful new society.

As Krishnamurthy wrote, “Willi Smith pioneered the idea of collaborating with artists and creative practitioners from other fields, in ways that still seem fresh today….In her critical artistic work since the eighties, Judith Barry has consistently explored the consumer gaze, the politics of display, and the productive frictions between design and art.”

While Barry did not personally know Smith, she was keenly aware of who he was as a designer and artist, and said that:

“My interest in his work was based on the performativity of his fashion in particular, and its functionality, and that it appealed to everyone. I codesigned two shows that considered fashion as a performative collaborative activity: [Impresario] Malcolm McLaren and the British New Wave at the New Museum in 1988 with Ken Saylor and a Geoffrey Beene retrospective in 1994 at the Fashion Institute of Technology with J. Abbott Miller. Both used exhibition space as a way to make visible how fashion transforms physical space while simultaneously embodying the people wearing the designers’ creations. Willi Smith’s clothing does that as well.

“For me, thinking about Willi Smith is also an invitation to think about the place of fashion in our contemporary culture. And that raises all kinds of questions about the body in clothes, the function of the muse in fashion, and the exchange between the wearer of the clothing and the physicality of space itself as a boundary condition. Contemporary films like Phantom Thread address this somewhat, and even though I found that film problematic, I did see it as an attempt to situate fashion within the realm of psychoanalysis, alluding to moments where fashion as fetish takes on a life of its own, recalling the nineteenth-century stories of Guy de Maupassant; whereas Willi Smith’s clothing was active, putting the body into motion, and figuratively provoking dance.”

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