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Toukie Smith Puts New Angles on Style

February 23, 1990|TIMOTHY HAWKINS | Hawkins, a New York free-lance writer, regularly contributes to the Times fashion pages

NEW YORK — Moments after meeting Toukie Smith, you wonder if she's wired with an extension cord that's plugged into the wall. The model-turned-actress is definitely not suffering from an energy crisis. Her late brother, designer Willi Smith, used to say she could light up the World Trade Center. A men's magazine once referred to her as "a cyclone of dizzy charm."

She greets you with a "Hiiiiiiiiiieeeee," and a 1,000-watt smile that would grab anybody's attention if it hadn't already been grabbed by her blond hair against mocha-color skin and her body, which sports more curves than Mulholland Drive. She captured Robert DeNiro's attention several years ago, and the two have been unofficially hooked since then, although she shorts out on this particular subject. ("What's great about a private life is it's private," she says).

Smith just signed on for five more years as a regular on the NBC series "227." She plays Eva, an artist living in the building whose landlord is Marla Gibbs, the show's leading lady. But her first public image was that of a top runway model who started working for her brother in New York and later for some of the biggest name designers in Paris--Hubert de Givenchy, Chanel, Issey Miyake and Thierry Mugler.

She hasn't lost her sense of style. She is wearing a red jacket by Alvin Bell (he went to design school with Willi), a black stretch jersey dress that barely contains her ample form, black suede above-the-knee buccaneer boots, jeweled hoop earrings and five African beaded bracelets on one wrist. The look says "Notice me!" and you do.

But today, she says, she'd rather have people notice that it is Willi Smith Day in New York. The annual event was designated by proclamation in 1988 by David Dinkin, then Manhattan Borough President and now mayor of New York City, in memory of the designer, who was best known for his Coty Award-winning, "street chic" creations.

Smith died in 1987 at age 39 of complications brought on by AIDS. Any commemoration of his death recalls the long list of other fashion talents who lost their lives to the disease, among them Perry Ellis; Laughlin Barker, president of his company; Angel Estrada, the young, rising talent in New York, and designer Antony Moorcroft in Los Angeles.

This year, Toukie Smith will officially celebrate Willi Smith Day on March 11 (because of conflicts with her shooting schedule) at a benefit at New York's TriBeca Grill (owned by DeNiro), which will include a retrospective fashion show titled "Willi's World," a buffet lunch and dancing. Designers Donna Karan, Norma Kamali and Isaac Mizrahi are members of the benefit committee. Funds raised will go to Hale House (for children with AIDS), I CRY (Inner-City Roundtable of Youth Inc.) and several other foundations for the welfare of children.

"Willi always had fun with fashion," Smith says when asked how she'd like her brother to be remembered. "He had a special energy and a love of keeping clothes from being too serious. He also totally designed for the masses."

Since his death, the business has continued, but not as successfully as before. "We had a rough year last year," says Laurie Mallet, president of WilliWear Limited. Three months ago, in an effort to turn the company around, she hired Andre Walker to design the women's collection. He already has established his reputation as a young New York talent. His first line will be for fall 1990.

Toukie Smith says her brother's death "was devastating." She has brought her "traveling companion," Rutus, the English bulldog she inherited from Willi, to the interview. "I lost my mother the year before. I went to therapy, support groups and did a lot of singing. There was the love of family and friends."

So what's a Toukie?

"It was a nickname my grandmother gave me that came from a children's record about a little red fire engine with lots of energy. I've always had lots of energy."

And what about the blond hair?

"It's an accessory. I've had orange, black, blue, white. Tomorrow it might be purple."

And the body that defies the usual definition of model-perfect proportions?

"I'm round, Honey. I'm not angular," says full-figured Smith, whose fondness for food once extended to a catering business, Toukie's Taste, which lasted for three years and included providing a feast for Sean Penn and Madonna's wedding anniversary.

Along with acting, she would like to open a fashion museum where she could place all the contents of what she calls her "storage room."

"I have everything Willi made for me from my sixth-grade graduation dress on. I kept it all ."

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