Hidden Gem From Jefferson Design Center in High-Profile NYC Exhibition

The late Willi Smith revolutionized the streetwear-fashion game. His works—including one from the University’s collection—will be the focus of a 'Street Couture' show.

Editor’s Note: As the Smithsonian Institution temporarily closed its museums, galleries and zoo as a public-health precaution due to COVID-19, the “Willi Smith: Street Couture” exhibition at the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum is not currently open to the public. This post will be updated when the museum reopens.

When the “Willi Smith: Street Couture” exhibition opens at the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum after the location lifts its temporary public health-precautionary closure, it will shine a light on a fashion designer who—born and raised in Philadelphia—made his mark on the industry in the 1970s and 1980s.

Smith studied drawing at Jules E. Mastbaum High School and fashion illustration at the Philadelphia College of Art before moving to New York City where—thanks to connections gleaned from his grandmother, who worked as a housekeeper—he landed an internship with famed designer Arnold Scassi.

That background helped jumpstart an illustrious career which saw Smith become a pioneer of streetwear fashion. His WilliWear startup became the first clothing company to offer womenswear and menswear under the same label.

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A photo of Willi Smith and his sister Toukie from 1978. Photo courtesy of Anthony Barboza.

Smith died of AIDS-related pneumonia in 1987 but would leave such a legacy in his 39 years of life that the exhibition—slated to run through Oct. 25—will feature some 200 pieces. (The exhibit is named after an iconic 1983 collection that he presented via a series of musical and art performances.)

“Willi Smith cared about ‘style over status,’” says 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.”

The show will feature a mix of Smith’s work, including video, sketches, patterns, photographs and garments, some of which were made in collaboration with artists like Keith Haring and Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company. Among the local ties will be a piece from the Textile and Costume Collection, which is housed at The Design Center at Jefferson.

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Jade Papa—curator, textile and costume collection, and professor at Jefferson—and two students inside the Design Center's collection room.

Jade Papa, curator of the collection and adjunct professor, said one of Smith’s jumpers from the collection is on loan from the Textile and Costume Collection.

The story of how she discovered it—and another Smith piece that won’t be displayed in the exhibition—resonates more than a year later.

Papa was perusing items on “a womenswear rack that was packed with way too much stuff” and the two garments stood out, even before she knew of the designer’s local connection.

“I distinctly remember this piece catching my eye,” she recalls while talking about the upcoming exhibition. “When we look at clothes, an almost-instinctive reaction is, ‘Oh, I would wear that’ or ‘Oh, that’s awful, I hate that color.’ This was an ‘Oh man, I would love to wear that.’”

The label inside exposed her to Willi Smith, whom she immediately began researching and recognized the local designer’s impact in Philadelphia and beyond.

When we look at clothes, an almost-instinctive reactions is, ‘Oh, I would wear that’ or ‘Oh, that’s awful, I hate that color.’ This was an, ‘Oh man, I would love to wear that.’ —Jade Papa

When a Cooper Hewitt curator called to ask whether there were any Smith pieces in the collection, she had two: the pink jumper and another blouse that he had designed.

“Here we had these two pieces in our collection that speak to the rich fashion history in our city,” Papa says. “What Willi Smith did was really make fashion more accessible to the masses, with designs that people were interested in.

“They’re clean, minimal, there’s something really appealing about them, even now, as we’re going through a moment with an ’80/’90 revival getting new life. There’s something timeless about them.”

Upon receiving them, Cooper Hewitt traced the jumper to Smith’s 1984 SUB-Urban collection. It will be displayed with a few other pieces to recreate an ensemble from this collection.

While the jumper is just a small part of the exhibition, it speaks to the depth and unique nature of the Design Center, which houses the University’s Textile and Costume Collection.

Located in a mid-century rancher along Henry Avenue, the Design Center’s collection includes textiles dating back to the 4th century. Papa says its treasures can educate students, faculty and interested parties far beyond students majoring in fashion or textiles.

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The jumper which Jade Papa found at Jefferson's Design Center was part of Smith’s SUB-Urban collection.

“This is a study collection that gives students, faculty and researchers—regardless of who they are or what they’re studying—the opportunity to be up close and personal with these objects that tell amazing stories,” she says. “I’ve had graphic designers, industrial designers and architecture students come in to take a look at our collection. At a recent event where we were making archival hangers, there were students from the health sciences here.”

With a seemingly limitless collection—some boxes have yet to be opened—the inventory dates back to ancient history (Coptic and Peruvian pre-Colombian textiles) and speaks to Philadelphia’s colonial-era history, as well. A quilt block from the first man to print on textiles in America—“one of fewer than a dozen in the world”—is a highlight.

Though you can’t just walk up to the Design Center and check things out, Papa says the collection is normally available for viewing by appointment only, Mondays through Thursdays (215-951-2860). The location is not currently open for tours amid the campus closures, though. It also has a vibrant social media presence on Instagram.

“It’s really a special place to come learn about culture, to be inspired by clothes and textiles,” she says. “We all wear clothes. We are all familiar with fabrics. These are stories about us, about our history and where we’re going in the future.”

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