(Editor’s note: This article was originally published on March 11, 2020, right before the coronavirus pandemic caused the world at large to temporarily shut down. We’re revisiting the interview on the occasion of the Cooper Hewitt’s reopening. “Willi Smith: Street Couture” will remain on view through Oct. 24; museum admission is free through Oct. 31.)
James Wines, the 87-year-old founder of the New York environmental art and architecture firm SITE, makes structures that invite strong opinions. His best-known work, the 1975 Best Products showroom in Houston, has an unforgettable facade of crumbling white bricks that has been both celebrated and condemned. Such rule-flouting proclivities made him an ideal collaborator for the late fashion designer Willi Smith, a close friend, whose WilliWear label gleefully fused fashion, music, and art. Up until Smith’s death, in 1987, at the age of 39 of AIDS-related causes, Wines designed many of his showrooms using cinder blocks, window bars, shovels, pipes, and other industrial materials he literally plucked from the streets of New York. He painted everything gray, constructing a monochrome dreamscape that made Smith’s clothes—hung nonchalantly from the debris—pop.
Those inimitable showrooms—the first opened in 1982 in New York’s Garment District, with others following in Paris, London, and Los Angeles—have inspired Wines’s exhibition design for “Willi Smith: Street Couture,” a retrospective celebrating his friend’s legacy that opens March 13 at the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, in New York. Organized by Alexandra Cunningham Cameron, with curatorial assistants Darnell-Jamal Lisby and Julie Pastor, it will include more than 200 pieces created by Smith and his collaborators, shining new light on a revelatory but under-recognized figure whose freewheeling, populist approach to fashion presaged contemporary trends in the industry.
Though WilliWear has been defunct for decades, it was a multimillion-dollar powerhouse in its heyday in the 1980s. Started in 1976 by Smith and his business partner Laurie Mallet, WilliWear was stocked by more than 500 stores around the world, and mounted nonconformist fashion shows—with stripping models and video installations by Nam June Park—that doubled as performances and even pushed for social change. Smith designed costumes for choreographer and dancer Bill T. Jones, produced a WilliWear newspaper, made outfits for the workers who helped artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude wrap Paris’s Pont Neuf bridge, and cut his designs into patterns for McCall’s and Butterick, making his work available to everybody.
Ahead of the Cooper Hewitt show’s opening, Surface visited Wines in his downtown Manhattan office to hear about Smith’s pioneering fashion shows and why it’s taken more than 30 years for Smith to get the recognition he deserves.
How did you meet Willi?
In the early 1980s, [the publishing house] Rizzoli was doing a book on SITE, and I got to know the editor. He asked if I wanted to do one of the windows for its Fifth Avenue store, and I said yes. We got all kinds of bricks and equipment from a construction site across the street, filled the windows with everything, and placed the books in the holes. It was really great, totally unique. Sure enough, the store designer went apoplectic. He thought it was absolutely terrible. At some point, Willi and Laurie Mallet walked by the windows. He called me up the next day and said he wanted me to do something like that for his showrooms.
Both of you had an appreciation for junk culture, using the ordinariness of everyday objects and environments as subject matter and a basis for their transformation. Is that why you two got along so well?
From the very beginning, SITE’s work was about transforming junk culture into art. And Willi lived to see his stuff on the street. If we were walking around and he saw someone wearing his clothes coming toward us, he’d get all excited. He wanted to be the opposite of Ralph Lauren or any of the big fashion houses. And that’s interesting, because now all the big houses have streetwear collections—he was really a pioneer of that. Our whole relationship was based on putting art where you’d least expect to find it, which is in a junk world: a shopping center, a parking lot, or wherever. His showrooms were just warehouses—junk environments, falling-down buildings—where we could do this kind of drag street stuff inside. He loved all that debris, and had a team of people going around New York looking for stuff to put in them. Once, we stole a fire hydrant. We found a building made of torn tin, and basically took the whole thing. Everything came from the street. There was an immediacy to the stores, a rough, tough quality, which he liked a lot.
The exhibition design for the Cooper Hewitt exhibition will be a lot more formalized that it would if Willi and I were still in action. But it’s going to be a great show, because he’s really an extraordinary figure. I can’t believe he hasn’t gotten the credit he deserves yet.
Right. The exhibition will include works by Willi and collaborators including Keith Haring, the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, and Dianne McIntyre. Many of these objects haven’t been seen in more than three decades.
The thing I really couldn’t believe, the most unbelievable of all, is that the Museum of Modern Art gave that big fashion show [“Items: Is Fashion Modern?”] in 2017, and Willi Smith was not included. And he’s the father of hip-hop! So this exhibition is a real triumph. I got really enthusiastic when I heard the Cooper Hewitt was going to do it.
Do you think the lack of recognition stems from the fact that Willi died of AIDS in the 1980s?
Willi was the second African-American to win a Coty American Fashion Critics’ Award [for Women’s Fashion, in 1983]. He won the fashion world’s highest honor, then a few years later, he died. I think a lot of it had to do with the negativity associated with AIDS at the time. He never talked about his illness, though. Why wasn’t he a hero at the time of his death? That’s the real story the press should be talking about.
The show’s curator, Alexandra Cunningham Cameron, has said, “Clothing was a tool for [Willi] to disseminate ideas about personal freedoms beyond class, gender, and race, while still having fun. He showed us true collaboration, and the inclusivity it requires. It’s not a marketing gimmick but a way of thinking, of making, and of life.” In your eyes, is that what Willi was doing?
Alexandra is the best curator in New York. She’s very sensitive, and doing it all during a difficult period—in the Smithsonian under the Trump Administration. I can’t imagine anything worse. But that’s a great statement. The thing about Willi is, all of his showrooms came from his interest in going to those gay clubs on the West Side. But I never heard him mention his gay interests. I knew he had a lot of boyfriends and everything, but he never said, “I’m black and everyone’s against me.” He wasn’t agenda-driven, no chips on his shoulders. He didn’t have that at all. He was far more interested in the actual work, the joy of doing the street couture.
In that sense he was a real artist. He had a mission, a concept, a point of view. I think his finest merit is his integrity.
Collaborations are everywhere now, but in Willi’s time, it was really unheard of. Where do you think his idea to work with others came from?
I think it was timing. I was very involved in the environmental art movement, which started in SoHo in the late ’60s and went through the ’80s, and Willi knew about that. Also, almost every artist at that time was trying to get out of the art gallery—those white boxes with the lights—and into the streets. Willi was the same way. His first designs were obviously not haute couture; something else was going on there. Hip-hop was also coming on strong, and WilliWear reflected the kind of streetwear attitude that was already in the culture. Everything kind of clicked.
The showrooms you designed with him were such a perfect reflection of what Willi was trying to accomplish with his work: It rejected the holier-than-thou perfection of typical fashion houses and favored a raw, inclusive, urban feel.
One time we were supposed to put a pop-up store inside Harrods, in London. They saw our sketch and said, “Over our dead bodies!” [laughs] So I tried to argue a little bit with them. I said we were awfully behind schedule, and since they’d already paid up, I said we’d do something. We started to build it—and left it unfinished. I told them that I was sorry, that we didn’t have time to finish, and we just left. It became such a popular place, a junkyard in the middle of an uptight, antique, ornate environment. It was terrific.
You and Willi collaborated on showrooms around the world, but you also orchestrated fashion shows together.
Yes. There was a lot of nudity in our fashion shows, and they were very popular. If you had a choice of going to a Ralph Lauren show or a WilliWear show, who wouldn’t go to Willi’s? They were really great.
[Flips through a laminated 1980s booklet of a WilliWear showroom in New York.] We did this thing where the models were always dressing and undressing. They’d run around the showroom, and the audience would be in the middle. Models jumped over the fence, took clothes off of the walls, and started getting dressed. We made funny little vignettes about relationships. We had a bondage guy—
Wait, this is a fashion show? I thought these were from a photoshoot taken in the showroom.
Yeah, this is a fashion show. [Points to blonde girl in a photo.] Actually this girl, Megan Hughes, was President Obama’s girlfriend in Hawaii in high school. I’ve been trying to find her because I don’t want her to sue us for using her image! She was a B-movie actress for awhile, and I kept in touch. Just recently I found out that if you Google “Barack Obama high school graduation,” there are pictures of them standing together. Apparently they kept in touch and Michelle got very upset. Anyway, she was quite attractive.
Everything Willi did, down to his shows, was about getting people to interact with one another.
Willi loved that idea. If nothing else, you could have a conversation about his clothes. People would stop each other if they were wearing his things—I encountered that many times. They’d have a whole conversation in the middle of the street about the clothes, their selection, how they wore it. I always thought that was very valuable.
Did Willi have any critics?
If anyone questioned why he did what he did, it was just part of the dialogue. You know, Oscar Wilde is one of my heroes. No one can fault that kind of writing. The fact that it was controversial, and that he was controversial, was part of the game. It made people pay attention, and the quality of the work has stood the test of time. Willi and I both knew we were really talented—and you can’t take that away. I sound like Donald Trump, but it’s true. It took Willi a certain amount of confidence to do what he did. Sooner or later, someone was going to get it.