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Duo dancers in outfits Willi Smith

Before streetwear, and before Virgil Abloh and Matthew Williams, there was Willi Smith. The African-American designer remains one of the great heroes of contemporary fashion, forgotten due to his untimely death at the height of his career in 1987. His work marks the beginnings of the streetwear movement. A clever mix of casual clothing with more edgy and innovative pieces, while celebrating a mid-80s vision of inclusive, collaborative and accessible fashion, at a time when extravagance and bling prevail.

Willi Smith is the epitome of the American Dream's complexities. Paying homage to this shooting star—fallen, forgotten and eventually reinstated—is a monograph published by Rizzoli, and a retrospective presented at the Cooper-Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum in New York. Both works retrace the designer's career path. Coming from a modest upbringing in Philadelphia he studied fashion illustration, later attending New York's prestigious Parsons School of Design. Talented and dynamic, he got a job with the designer Arnold Scaasi, who was dressing American high society of the time, including the Clintons and Eisenhowers. The young black stylist learned the rules of Haute Couture, at the same time challenging and developing a contrasting vision of this limited concept of fashion. As Ralph Lauren and his "Ivy Leaguers" were filling window displays on 5th Avenue, Willi Smith, disregarding the idea of "dressing for success" concept, stated: "I don't design clothing for the queen, but the people who wave at her as she goes by."

His mission? To combine street fashion with couture expertise. The designer excelled in the art of layering styles and influences. Initially working with sportswear labels, Digits and Bobbie Brooks, he quickly made a name for himself and. At the age of 23, he became the youngest designer to be nominated for a Coty Award. He eventually won the prize 10 years later, after five nominations. His Willi Wear label, created in 1976 with his friend Laurie Mallet, became one of the most dazzling successes of the American industry. Street couture was born.

The 1980s were a glorious period for the designer, adored by both the fashion and art scene. Willi Smith's commercial and collaborative successes include the duo Christo and Jeanne-Claude, choreographer Arnie Zane, and director Spike Lee. Although he unexpectedly passed away at the age of 39, his aesthetics and philosophy nevertheless spread across borders, leading the way for emerging brands such as Off-White, 1017 Alyx 9SM and Telfar.

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