Willi Smith Snags a Coty with His Street-Smart Threads

updated 11/14/1983 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/14/1983 AT 01:00 AM EST

He had failed to win her all these years. But last month she was finally his. At a glittering black-tie affair in Manhattan, he bounded onstage to claim his due, and a few hours later, celebrating his victory back at the Seventh Avenue showroom, he planted her on his desk for everyone to admire: a 17-pound bronze statuette of a lady in a diaphanous White Rock wrap. After 15 years in the rag trade, Willi Smith had taken home the industry's most coveted award, the Coty, and thus became only the second black designer so honored for his contribution to the field of women's fashion. (Stephen Burrows won it in 1977.) "I'm sure it sounds corny but it was a wonderful feeling to be recognized by my peers," says Smith. "It's high time he won," says fellow designer Betsey Johnson.

A boyish 35, Smith turns out low-priced sports clothes that are fast becoming the street classics of the 1980s. Unlike chichi designers Bill Blass and Oscar de la Renta, who churn out pricey ball gowns for wealthy socialites, Willi designs for The People. As he himself once explained, "I don't design for the queen. I make clothes for the people who wave at her."

Smith may have lined up on the side of ordinary folk, but over the years he has bagged a generous number of celebrity clients as well. On any given day, Cher, Diana Ross or Susan Saran-don can be spotted in his showroom, trying on his trendy civvies—the latest pair of roomy pants or an oversize shirt with a characteristic Willi touch, a teeny, tiny collar. Still, Smith makes sure his priorities are right in front of him. Last year he had his showroom transformed into a permanent urban landscape with gray brick walls,
fire hydrants, parking meters and wooden police barricades.

Such surroundings may remind Smith of the streets of Philadelphia where he grew up, the son of an ironworker and a housewife. "I was Mr. Bookworm," remembers Willi, "the artistic child no one quite understood. But my parents supported me. If I was doing a little drawing, my father didn't say, 'Why don't you play baseball?' " Willi's parents were both passionate clotheshorses. "The family sometimes used to say there were more clothes in the house than food," says Smith with a smile.

Willi concentrated on commercial art at Philadelphia's Mastbaum Technical High School and then headed for New York, where he worked for designer Arnold Scaasi. After six months with Scaasi, Smith enrolled at Parsons School of Design on a full scholarship. He stayed there for two years but in 1968 signed on at Bobbie Brooks, a major sportswear house. After another stint at a trendy designing firm called Digits, Willi and his sister Toukie decided to launch their own business. That was in 1973. "We thought," says Smith, "that we were going to knock the world off its feet." They didn't. Three years later Willi and his new partner, Laurie Mallet, with $25,000 between them, tried again. The rest, in spite of occasional rough spots, is a Seventh Avenue success story. WilliWear, which employs 85 people and ships its men's and women's line to more than 1,000 department stores across the country, expects to gross $30 million in 1983.

Over the years Smith has had relatively few problems working in the field as a black designer. But he is tired of being labeled that way. "I never hear of any fashion shows featuring a 'white designer,' " he says. And the memory of a promotion trip he took to California a few years ago still rankles. "I was helping this little girl in a department store out there," recalls Smith. "She was absolutely in love with my clothes and was trying them on for me and her mother. Then she went to find her father. When he saw us, he got outraged and said, 'I am not paying money for these nigger's clothes.' None of us knew how to react."

A bachelor, Smith lives alone in an airy loft in lower Manhattan. During the three-mile hike to his office, he looks for new trends. As he puts it, "I am an explorer." Smith also likes to tot up the number of people he spies sporting WilliWear. On a recent stroll he counted 27 New Yorkers wearing his designs in a 30-block stretch. "Willi is very street-conscious," says partner Mallet. "Even though he may dream sometimes that he would like to be a Chanel, I think he wants to see a million people wearing his clothes."

From Our Partners