Real Clothes for Real Dance

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He had great disdain for anything that made him sweat—other than dancing.
Polly Rayner

Willi Smith’s first runway shows for WilliWear took place at lofts, theaters, and galleries in downtown Manhattan in 1978, combining two of the designer’s favorite things: people and dance. A cohort of dancers doubled as models for these events, showcasing Smith’s innovative approach to clothes and performance to crowds of fashion and art world insiders. A funky balance of form, function, and play, his now iconic workwear jumpsuits with sailor collars and lightweight cotton separates defied social norms concerning gender and sexuality as well as those associated with high fashion. For Smith, fashion was more than a lifestyle. It was real people. It was unstructured movement. These characteristics likewise motivated the designer’s pioneering artistic collaborations, from modern and postmodern dance to video art. Against the backdrop of seventies disco and the ostentatious pop and pomp of the eighties, Smith’s designs for the everyday and the stage represented a different kind of dynamism where contemporary public life and performance not only intersected; they commingled and were co-constitutive.

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