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Willi Smith: Street Couture

Start Date 13 March 2020
End Date 25 October 2020
Venue Cooper Hewitt Museum, Smithsonian Design Museum
Location New York, USA
Curator Alexandra Cunningham Cameron
Designer SITE, in collaboration with Sam Chermayeff Architects
Curatorial assistants Darnell-Jamal Lisby, Julie Pastor and interns Myra Edmonds, Madeline Walsh
Exhibition display of dress
Exhibition display of dressed mannequins
Exhibition display of dress

In March 2020, Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum will present the first museum exhibition of American designer Willi Smith (1948–1987). “Willi Smith: Street Couture” will feature key works by this pioneer of streetwear fashion who founded the iconic brand WilliWear with partner Laurie Mallet in 1976 and leveraged innovative partnerships with artists, designers and performers to break down social, cultural and economic boundaries. On view March 13 through Oct. 25, 2020, the exhibition will include more than 200 works by Smith and 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 which have not been seen in more than 30 years.

“Street Couture” takes its name from Smith’s most iconic collection, which was presented in 1983 as the first event in which he brought fashion, art and music together to present his work. The exhibition’s selection of photography, video, design drawings, garments, patterns and ephemera will position Smith as a groundbreaking designer and cultural producer who laid new roads for fashion before dying suddenly of AIDS-related complications at age 39.

“Willi Smith cared about ‘style over status,’” said Alexandra Cunningham Cameron, curator of contemporary design and Hintz Secretarial Scholar at Cooper Hewitt. “Clothing was simply a tool for him to disseminate ideas about personal freedoms beyond class, beyond gender, beyond race, while still having fun. He shows us that true collaboration, and the inclusivity it requires, is not a marketing gimmick or token gesture, but a way of thinking, of making and of life.”

“Willi Smith: Street Couture” is organized by Cunningham Cameron, along with curatorial assistants Darnell-Jamal Lisby and Julie Pastor.

The exhibition will be designed by SITE, in collaboration with Sam Chermayeff Architects, to recall the WilliWear showrooms and boutiques. Conceived by SITE partners Alison Sky and James Wines from 1982–1987, these retail experiences were composed of construction materials and objects salvaged from the sidewalks of New York City, bringing the improvisational energy of the street indoors as a framework for sales, events and installations. Communication design studio Poly-mode has created the graphic identity for the exhibition and publication, continuing the spirit of collaboration that Smith proudly championed.


Co-published by Cooper Hewitt and Rizzoli Electa, “Willi Smith: Street Couture” explores the emergence of street style in the United States, the history of collaborative practice, the downtown New York art scene of the 1970s–1980s, the relationship between fashion, marketing, race and the impact of black and black queer communities. Designed by Poly-mode, the book will feature more than 300 photographs, essays and transcribed interviews by notable figures in fashion, art and culture, including Oscar-winner Ruth Carter, editor Kim Hastreiter, choreographer Bill T. Jones and artist Lisa Yuskavage.


Cooper Hewitt’s educational and public programs will extend the impact of the exhibition to audiences of all ages through conversations and workshops that expound the themes of the exhibition. Programs will include moderated talks and lectures with Smith’s collaborators, educators and academics, and art/fashion industry professionals.

A symposium of design talks, organized in conjunction with the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, will examine topics such as race and fashion in America, the intersection of fashion, race and queer theory, the history of African Americans in fashion and the economics and sustainability of fashion.

“Willi Smith: Street Couture” is made possible by principal support from Target.

Major support is provided by Gucci.

Additional support is provided by the Ehrenkranz Fund and Edward and Helen Hintz.

Funding is also provided by The Coby Foundation, Ltd., the Esme Usdan Exhibition Endowment Fund, the New York State Council on the Arts with the support of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo and the New York State Legislature, and the Cooper Hewitt Master’s Program Fund.

In-kind support is provided by the National Museum of African American History and Culture, Cargo, and the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden.

Images: Installation views of “Willi Smith: Street Couture”, Cooper Hewitt Gallery, 2020. Ann Sunwoo © Smithsonian Institution