At first it was the way she looked. All of Lincoln Road gawked as she strolled from one end to the other dressed in outrageous outfits that made even Gianni Versace take notice.
The woman was Irene Williams, dubbed the Queen of Outsider Couture. From bright lavender mini-skirts and lemon-yellow leggings and knits, her outfits were impeccable from head-to-toe. During her lifetime, including more than 40 years in Miami Beach, the public stenographer designed more than 100 eccentric outfits — and even made matching covers for her rolling briefcase.
Once one of South Beach’s most beloved characters, Williams graced the beach with her unique sense of style, eventually capturing the eye of gay New York designer and filmmaker Eric Smith.
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The two formed an unlikely friendship that resulted in a nine-year journey — until Williams’ death at 87 in 2004 — to capture her legacy on film.
At 7 p.m. Thursday, the Jewish Museum of Florida-FIU will share that legacy with the public by displaying 33 of Williams’ handcrafted hats, historic photos and letters. The exhibit, “Irene Williams: Queen of Lincoln Road,” shares the name of Smith’s award-winning 2005 film.
“I was mesmerized to see what kind of unique individual was inside the clothes,” Smith said. “Not a lot of people stopped to get to know her — mostly people knew her visually and superficially.”
By showing the film at the opening on Thursday, Smith hopes to share a little of Williams’ wisdom with the world. The centennial exhibit will be available all summer.
“She wouldn’t be happy that I’m telling her age, but I really felt like for her 100th birthday, telling her story. She would be very humbled and proud to have others see what she stood for. It just felt like a really great way to include her in the history of South Beach,” he said.
The most famous piece in the collection was created out of vintage Pierre Cardin towels given to Williams by Smith. She modeled the outfit for a shoot with photographer Annie Leibovitz after a chance meeting on Lincoln Road.
“She called me one day and said, ‘Do you know who Annie Leibovitz is? She asked me to pose for her,” he laughed. “I told her, ‘Do it!’”
Williams eventually agreed — after Leibovitz agreed to pay her day rate as a stenographer. And this wasn’t her only brush with fame; Williams also served as filmmaker Orson Welles’ secretary when wintered several years in South Beach.
To mark Williams’ centennial, museum director Susan Gladstone agreed that it was time to celebrate her life.
“South Beach is renowned as a magical place in Florida that fosters special characters like Irene who exemplify the creative force and individual spirit that make up this a one-of-a-kind mosaic we call home,” Gladstone said. “The 100,000 plus items in our collection represent the heartbeat of Jewish life in the state of Florida. In this case, these hand-crafted items showcase the enduring friendship between Eric Smith and his muse Irene Williams.”
Smith hopes the film inspires others to get to know the people they pass by every day.
“It’s a lesson in individuality. She always said, ‘Follow your bliss and trust what you think you can do.’ For her, it was making these amazing outfits,” he said.
If you go
▪ What: “Irene Williams: Queen of Lincoln Road”
▪ Where: Jewish Museum of Florida - FIU, 301 Washington Ave., Miami Beach
▪ When: Exhibit opening is 7 to 8:30 p.m. Thursday. The show runs through Nov. 5. Regular museum hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays. Closed Mondays and holidays.
▪ Cost: Museum admission $6 adults, $5 students and seniors. To RSVP for the opening reception, please call 786-972-3175. Space is limited and reservations are required in advance.