1948 - 1987

“I don't design clothes for the Queen, but for the people who wave at her as she goes by.”

 – Willi Smith

Leap year baby Willi Smith was born in Philadelphia on February 29, 1948. He often joked that growing up there was more clothing than food at home because the women in his household were so clothes conscious. After high school, Smith enrolled in the Philadelphia College of Art to study fashion illustration and decided to become a designer. In 1965, he earned two scholarships to the Parsons School of Design. While attending school he began freelancing for designer Arnold Scaasi and Bobbie Brooks sportswear. In 1967, he quit Parsons to go out on his own and two years later designed a label for Digits, a sportswear company. In 1976 he partnered with Laurie Malley, creating the company WilliWear Ltd., a line of fun, stylish, and inexpensive sportswear. As Smith said, ''I don't design clothes for the Queen, but for the people who wave at her as she goes by.'' WilliWear Ltd. eventually had annual sales topping $25 million. Smith designed the outfits worn by the 600 workers who helped the artist Christo wrap the Pont Neuf, a bridge in Paris, with pink material in 1985. The out gay designer outfitted Edwin Schlossberg and his groomsmen when he married Caroline Kennedy in 1986 and the following year he designed Mary Jane Watson’s wedding dress when she married Peter Parker in the Spider-Man comic strip as well as the clothes for the Spike Lee film School Daze (1987). Smith won an American Fashion Critics' Coty Award for Womenswear in 1983 and a Cutty Sark Award for Menswear in 1985. In April 1987 Smith was admitted to the hospital. He had developed pneumonia, complicated by shigella, a parasitic disease he had picked up in India. On April 17th, Willi Smith died at age 39. A subsequent autopsy revealed that he was HIV-positive. In 2002, the man called "the most successful black designer in fashion history" was posthumously honored with a bronze plaque on the Fashion Walk Hall of Fame. He also has a panel in the original NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt.


Gender Male

Sexual Orientation Gay

Gender Identity Cisgender

Ethnicity African American Black

Nations Affiliated United States

Era/Epoch AIDS Era (1980-present) Information Age (1970-present) Post-Stonewall Era (1974-1980)

Field(s) of Contribution


Fashion Designer

US History

Commemorations & Honors

American Fashion Critics' Coty Award For Womenswear (1983)

Cutty Sark Award For Menswear (1985)

New York City Mayor David Dinkins Proclaimed February 23 Willi Smith Day (1988)

Posthumous Fashion Walk Hall of Fame Bronze Plaque (2002)


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Original Biography Author
Owen Keehnen
Biography Edited By
Allo Kerstein
Resources Coordination
Carrie Maxwell