ESSENCE Fashion House was not only a celebration of those making strides in fashion today and those on a path to carry on the torch well into the future, it was also an ode to the Black style pioneers who paved the way.

Among the six panel discussions that took place as the immersive celebration of all things Black fashion returned to NYC was a conversation celebrating the life and legacy of late fashion designer, Willi Smith.

Photographer Dario Calmese, The Ground Crew founder Audrey Smaltz and Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum curator Alexandra Cunningham Cameron joined ESSENCE Fashion Director Marielle Bobo to speak to the everlasting impact Willi Smith had on not only the fashion world, but across multiple industries.

Over the course of his career prior to his untimely death in 1987, Willi Smith became one of the most successful African-American fashion designers in the world. In 1976, his signature label, WilliWear grossed over $25 million in sales. He later became known for showcasing his designs through other creative mediums like film and fine art. In 1986, he teamed up with over 20 artists to design a t-shirt collection showcasing their work and even contributed designs to Spike Lee’s film School Daze, which debuted in 1988.

Calmese remembered first discovering Willi Smith at the Fashion Walk of Fame on 7th avenue. “He really subverted fashion and how fashion was understood at that time,” he said. “He knew that you didn’t have to spend a lot of money to look fabulous.”

Cameron revealed that there will be an exclusive exhibit at the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum in New York City to honor Willi Smith and his legacy on March 13th. Calmese and Smaltz also contributed essays to an accompanying book on the late designer that Cameron penned as well. “His career is truly a model for the way that young people are working today,” she said. “He made people feel good and heard, so they can create and express themselves freely.”


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