Willi Smith was one of the most successful African-American fashion designers of the 1970s and 1980s. In 1976, he founded the Williwear company with Laurie Mallet, and he eventually grew it into a business with $25 million in annual sales. He was the recipient of a Coty Award and the Cutty Sark Award for fashion.
Willi Smith is famous for designing the suits for the groom and groomsmen at Caroline Kennedy's wedding in 1986, as well as designing the uniforms for the workers that wrapped the Pont Neuf Bridge under the direction of the artist Christo in 1985. He served as the wardrobe supervisor for the Spike Lee film "School Daze." Smith also designed the wedding dress Mary Jane Watson wore in the 1987 issue of the Amazing Spider-Man comic in which she and Peter Parker were wed.
Smith's philosophy was to find a middle ground between high fashion and real, comfortable clothes. His creations often used more sensible and comfortable designs than what was in vogue on the runway, while maintaining a distinctive sense of style. He often used alternative means to display his creations, staging static shows at his own gallery and taping presentations for distribution on video. Smith died in 1987 of AIDS-related pneumonia after a trip to India.