Video by Doug Garland ’10
Miami’s famous South Beach has always been home to colorful people.
Every workday for more than 40 years, Irene Williams dressed in a vibrant, handmade piece from a collection of more than 100 hats and outfits she crafted using unconventional materials like fake-fur toilet seat covers and bath mats. Then she walked to her small stenography office on Lincoln Road – she often referred to herself as “a call girl with a typewriter.”
Before computers, businesspeople needed stenography services and “snowbirds” like Orson Welles would hire Williams as a temporary secretary to handle their correspondence while they stayed in South Beach for the winter.
Williams delighted locals, tourists and even some celebrities touring Lincoln Road mall. During the early 1990s, Gianni Versace stopped her to compliment her unique fashion.
One morning in 1995, Williams was spotted by filmmaker Eric Smith, a New York designer who would eventually capture her on film in his award-winning documentary, “Irene Williams: Queen of Lincoln Road.”
“Our initial meeting felt like kismet, given my endless fascination for eccentric older ladies,” Smith said. “I was wowed by this tiny lady who stood just a little over four feet tall and always dressed herself impeccably.”
In 2000, Williams posed for renowned photographer Annie Leibovitz wearing an outfit she designed from vintage Pierre Cardin towels Smith had given her as a gift. But the self-described “tourist attraction” demanded Leibovitz pay her a day’s stenography fees in exchange.
When Williams died in 2004, she left her colorful collection of hats, photos and letters to Smith, which are included in an exhibit on display at the Jewish Museum of Florida-FIU through Nov. 5. ♦