When you meet a person like Willi, you receive something and you give out something.
Before Off-White, there was WilliWear. Founded by Willi Smith in the 70s, this brand pioneered what we know as “streetwear” today. By 1986, Willi was one of the most high-profile Black fashion designers in the US. He worked across art, architecture, film, performance, and was also a marketing genius, making more than $25 million a year. But what drove him wasn’t commercial success; it was community.
I have imaginary personas stuck in my head from stories I’ve read, so I’m always yearning for fictional experiences. I always feel like there’s more to life. I always want to be in new places with new cultures and new people. I always want to expand my experience of the world, and escape usually seems to be the only way forward. But last year taught me differently.
Last year, I was more grounded than ever. I met a lot of people around me. I spent more time with friends. I got closer to my mum and siblings. I talked to more people more often at work. I got to know a few dozen writers, artists and designers through my projects. I made new friends in Lagos, Abidjan and London. I met a lot of excellent Africans and it was all very meaningful.
So this year, I’m being more intentional about family, friends and peers. I want to be more involved with my support system. I should be. I want to pay more attention to the people I value. I want to celebrate them as often as I can. I want to consistently reach out when someone comes to mind. I want to be in more stimulating conversations. I want to visit and host more. I want to connect people and ideas. I want to help build communities of practice.
The Cooper Hewitt museum compiled an online archive* of personal recollections from Willi Smith’s friends, family and collaborators to celebrate his life and work, and from the stories, you can tell he was an amazing guy. One says “When I think of Willi, I think of him more as a person than as a designer. The world has seen his genius and his accomplishments, but what has stayed with me are his qualities as a person.” Another goes “When you meet a person like Willi, you receive something and you give out something.”
Willi Smith embodied so much of what I value and aspire to. He was easy-going and kind. He was emotionally present for people he loved. He respected creativity and valued collaboration. He was generous and easy to work with. He was commercially successful but not driven by it. He put people first, and it shone through his work. I want to be like Willi when I grow up, and I’m growing up very quickly.