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A Color-Coordinated Curiosity is Celebrated with a Pop-Up Summer Show Opening July 13 at the Jewish Museum of Florida-FIU

June 22, 2017 Destination North America No Comments Email Email

She is remembered fondly, and vividly for her fashionable strolls up and down her Lincoln Road runway on South Beach during the 1980s and 1990s. Irene Williams’ handmade outfits were so eye-catching she would often turn heads, and this year she would have turned 100.

The Jewish Museum of Florida-FIU presents a summer pop-up show that borrows its name from the award-winning documentary by Eric Smith. The installation features 33 of Irene’s original handcrafted hats, historic photos and her letters that together illustrate the spirited story of one of South Beach’s most beloved characters. All of the objects on view were willed to filmmaker/designer Eric Smith and have been donated to the museum’s permanent collection.

The opening reception at the museum on July 13 will feature a showing of the documentary film by Smith, that won numerous awards on the film festival circuit. Also on view are a series of similarly splashy hats from the personal collections of community leaders Isabel Bernfeld Anderson and George Neary.

Like hundreds of other gay men, Eric fled the New York City winters for quick weekend getaways in South Beach. On one of these trips in 1995 he met Irene Williams on Lincoln Road. Her wild and colorful handmade outfits immediately caught his attention. With video camera in hand he began to realize what an amazing individual was inside these clothes. Over the next decade Eric documents a marvelous journey of Irene’s outsider couture, imparted wisdom, and the heartfelt affection they share. Shades of Harold and Maude meets Grey Gardens come together in this sweet, funny, and thoroughly endearing portrait of a rare bird in paradise and a friendship found.

Irene Williams was called “Queen of Lincoln Road” because she walked back and forth every day from one end of the pedestrian mall (where she lived), to the other end (where her stenographer’s office was located) for over 40 years from the 1960s until 2001 (she passed in 2004).

Irene created her outsider couture from unconventional materials such as fake-fur toilet seat covers, bath mats, and towels. She made a fashion statement every day of her life on the streets of South Beach, decked out in her own creations, including more than 100 handmade hats and carefully coordinated ensembles.

Passersby would stop in their tracks to take in the sight of her head-to-toe looks: she created furry covers for her shoes, leggings, mini-skirts, knitted tops, hats, earrings, necklaces and buttons. Bright lavender, chartreuse, fuchsia, lemon-yellow and candy-pink were the norm. Irene even made covers for her over-sized, four-wheeled briefcase that matched her outfits.

In 2000, the renowned photographer Annie Leibovitz asked Irene Williams to pose for her camera ―

PHOTO CAPTION: Irene called Eric Smith one day and asked him – “Do you know who Annie Leibovitz is? She asked me to pose for her.” Eric immediately said: “YES! DO IT! And wear the outfit you made out of the vintage Pierre Cardin towels I gave you!” Irene proceeded to call Liebovitz back, insisting that the photographer pay her day-rate

for stenography services in exchange for agreeing to the photo-shoot.

In the late 1960s Orson Welles hired her stenography services while he was in town (Irene often referred to herself as “a call girl with a typewriter”).

Before computers, business people needed stenography services and “snowbirds” like Mr. Welles would hire Irene as a temporary secretary to handle their business correspondence while they stayed in South Beach for the winter.

She delighted locals, tourists, and even some celebrities. During the early 1990s,Gianni Versace once stopped Irene to compliment her on the looks she created. In 2000, she posed for renowned photographer Annie Leibovitz.

In 1994, Irene was befriended by Eric Smith, a New York designer who would eventually capture her on film in his award-winning documentary, Irene Williams: Queen of Lincoln Road. Like many gay men from New York during the 1990s, Smith would regularly escape the harsh winters for getaways to South Beach which was becoming world famous at the time as a gay destination. During one of this travels to Miami Beach, Eric Smith spotted Irene and was captivated. He soon developed a rapport that sparked a ten-year project of filming and interviewing Irene to preserve her legacy. “Our initial meeting felt like kismet, given my endless fascination for eccentric older ladies,” said Smith. “I was wowed by this tiny lady who stood just a little over four feet tall and always dressed herself impeccably. The throngs of tourists who flocked to Lincoln Road mall provided Irene with an ideal opportunity to showcase her creativity and individualism, and she became a self-described tourist attraction.” View photos and press about the film at

“She was a survivor who found creative ways to make life thrive. I believe her legacy encourages us to be independently true to our nature, to find and explore our own passion and creativity.” “I am thrilled that the Jewish Museum of Florida-FIU will celebrate Irene’s centennial and will preserve her fashion creations and memorabilia in its permanent collection,” adds Smith.

The pop-show remains on view through the summer, and the museum is located in the heart of South Beach’s Art Deco District that welcomes millions of tourists year-round.

The exhibition remains on view through the summer and is sponsored by Danny and Merle Weiss, Miami Beach philanthropists who along with so many South Beach pioneers also admired Irene Williams’ daily fashion statements on Lincoln Road.

“Our museum’s collection of more than 100,000 items includes a treasure trove that celebrates the heart and soul of Miami Beach,” said Nancy Doyle Cohen, the Membership and Programming Director for the Jewish Museum of Florida-FIU. “When Eric Smith came to us with his donation of Irene Williams’ hats and memorabilia, we realized that her centennial was cause for celebration. This summer pop-up show honors the individualism and character of the personalities that define South Beach’s enduring spirit and tenacity.”

Smith spent ten years interviewing Williams with a hand-held camera, and the friendship and affection shared between the two is evident in this film that has been likened toHarold and Maude-meets-Grey Gardens.

The film was screened at more than 100 film festivals worldwide and won 12 awards (including the Hamptons International Film Festival’s Audience Award and Best Short, Planet Out’s Best Documentary, the Philadelphia Gay & Lesbian Film Festival’s Jury Award for Best Short Documentary, the Fire Island Film & Video Festival’s Audience Awardand Best Documentary, and more). The film will be shown at the opening reception of the pop-up show, Thursday, July 13 at 7:00 p.m.

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