Why Tibi Founder Amy Smilovic Could Be America’s Most Fascinating Designer
She reveals her theories for growing a truly modern fashion brand. Surprise: It’s not at all about money.
It turns out America’s most coveted and intriguing fashion brand isn’t a new one. Tibi, created and designed by Georgia-born Amy Smilovic — a former advertising exec with no formal training in fashion —has been operating independently for 22 years (that’s like 122 in fashion years). But unlike countless other white-hot brands that have languished nearly as swiftly as they launched, or some legacy labels that lose their way a little bit more with every passing year, Tibi has seemingly done the industry impossible: Endure while becoming more relevant and interesting with each new season.
While the U.S. hasn’t exactly matched the dizzying leadership drama swirling around so many of the European houses (Burberry, Givenchy, Céline), the untimely exits of Raf Simons at Calvin Klein, Jonathan Saunders at DVF, and Dao-Yi Chow and Maxwell Osborn (of Public School fame) at DKNY indicate no one’s immune to fashion’s recent volatility. Creative star power still ranks high for a brand’s currency, but the consistently unassuming Smilovic never really cared much about that. And in 2010, she managed to quietly and thoroughly overhaul Tibi, and we’re not talking a fresh coat of paint with a new logo and hang-tags, either. To hear her tell it, the move to creatively shift gears in a BIG way wasn’t so much a business move as it was one of the heart. “I was honestly just tired of living a lie,” she admitted from her Financial District studio a few weeks ago.
And so, without much fanfare at all, she and her longtime Design Director, Traci Bui-Amar, went about cutting away anything that no longer felt in line with Smilovic’s genuine aesthetic—which, as it happens, was diametrically opposed to all the sweet florals and prints the brand had at that point become known for.
“I remember doing a shoot for InStyle many years ago,” she said. “And when they arrived at my house in Connecticut, they wanted to know where all the Tibi stuff was…[where the] florals were, when my house represented the aesthetic I really wanted for Tibi, despite what was selling,” Smilovic says.
That Tibi 2.0 aesthetic, as customers know and love it today, is a careful, almost ironic balance of minimalism and maximalism; like, how Smilovic and her team mix powdery pastels and neutral tones with masculine, oversized silhouettes and clever details like a swipe of fluorescent blue, a futuristic corset, a stealth bright orange puffer lining, or an industrial take on a button closure.And the revamp paid off. In 2016, the brand generated more than $45 million in revenue, a 103% increase from 2010, according to The Business of Fashion. “We continue to focus on strategy and healthy growth for the business,” Elaine Chang, Tibi’s President, says. “We are looking forward to a strong year with our business abroad in Europe, Middle East and Asia, especially that we are now managing these regions’ business directly. Direct-to-consumer also continues to be an area of growth.” Such success transcends transactions, with Tibi consistently showing up as a fan favorite among social media’s biggest players, from Pernille Teisbaek to Caroline Issa. And with Fashion Month underway, you’re very likely to see Smilovic’s signature overcoats, bright faux furs, and patent knee-high boots showing up in a multitude of street style roundups. Yet, the respect and loyalty many fans and customers feel for Smilovic extends way beyond just her product.
“She’s the only designer I can think of who grew a business to the size that she has and has done it without taking any outside capital,” says friend Leandra Medine, founder of Man Repeller. “I also really admire the way she stopped…and confronted the reality that even though she was creating exactly what the stores were asking of her (feminine frocks! floral everything!), it wasn’t her. It’s an inspiring reminder for me that you succeed when you live your truth.”
Living her truth seems to be Smilovic’s unofficial formula for success. As the designer puts it, she decided that even if her sales team freaked out, or it upended her business, she had to break the brand “all the way.” Which is ultimately what not only saved it, but finally made it whole. And on the day of her latest NYFW show, it’s clear her strategy is still working. Better than ever.
Christene Barberich: “I’ve honestly been wanting to sit down with you for so long now. The fashion industry has changed so much over the last decade. But especially in the last three years, it’s been a complete upheaval of how things are done and the dialogue around it all. Fabric sourcing, labor practices, marketing, merchandising…it’s all changing underfoot. You’ve been at it now for 22 years…a feat in this climate. How do you build an audience on your own terms now, and in your case, do everything on your own terms?”
Amy Smilovic: “We started in 1997. But I would say that the last four years have been the most exciting and fulfilling.The internet and social media gave us unbelievable freedom once that became the vehicle of choice for buying your clothing, or absorbing your content. We finally had a place where we could control the message, and I never had that before. I was able to take control of everything and really see our potential. It’s just now that I feel like I know what our voice is; it was squashed for a long time.”
CB: “Because you thought that’s what customers wanted?”
AS: “Honestly, the most illustrative way I can communicate this is when we did bikinis and swimwear for a hot minute. With our bathing suit bottoms, I remember the Northeast was like, oh my God, these bathing suit bottoms are great! But the South was like, this is pornography! And, then in Miami, they’re like, these are diapers! Everyone had a different perception of how big the bottom should be on a bathing suit. So, if you don’t have a way to say who you are, then really everything’s a focus group.”That’s also a product and a pitfall of scale. As soon as you start to see success, you feel an obligation to capture all these potential audiences. But then, you can begin to lose the core. “For the first, say, ten years, I really went at this as an entrepreneur, I thought I had a real knack for identifying trends, and when they came up, I could zoom in on them. But that meant every couple of months you were recreating the wheel and it wasn’t a brand, but—”
“I’m not constrained at all by how things are done. [So] when we busted things apart, it was so logical to do it; how could you not? You were going to die the other way.”
CB: “Fast fashion?”
AS: “Yeah, [and then, eventually,] you are the geometric printed dress company. You cannot be anything else but geometric printed dresses; that’s what they buy you for, and when that dies, you die with it, so I was locked into that. Then, around 2008, when a Zara began to pop up on every corner… I had no brand proposition vis a vis those stores. Why would I buy Tibi over Zara? I had no idea why.
That’s when I told my husband, ‘Listen, the writing’s on the wall, I don’t like anything that we’re producing; Zara and Topshop are doing it faster and better, and I see a downward trend in sales, so we’ve got nothing to lose here.’ And, I really do believe, as long as you have your health, that you have nothing to lose. My husband grew up in a Communist country, his parents were in concentration camps. For him, when you lose things, it’s really bad. But for me, I grew up on an island off the coast of Georgia, and we had everything. My parents have been married for 52 years; they’re healthy, we fished all the time, my mom still works for the company, my sister works for the company. Now, if I lose everything I [can] go live on an island, fish, and paint.”
CB: “That doesn’t sound so bad. So, what exactly was the revelation that you needed to change in a big way?”
AS: “It's crazy, having not come from this industry and [what] I know now. I [recently] took a personality test [which revealed that] I’m the most logical, pragmatic person to a fault. So, when I started Tibi, the first three people I talked to [told me] do not start a company, do not get into this business. That is not what I wanted to hear, and so everything I did then was done in a very logical way. Why wouldn’t I hire my own salesperson? Why wouldn’t I have my own shipping facility? Everything was done in a way that made sense to me. I’m not constrained at all by how things are done. [So] when we busted things apart, it was so logical to do it; how could you not? You were going to die the other way. The message we just kept focusing on was: If plan A does not succeed, it doesn’t mean that the old way was right, and I think that’s what companies do all the time.”“It’s crazy, having not come from this industry and [what] I know now. I [recently] took a personality test [which revealed that] I’m the most logical, pragmatic person to a fault. So, when I started Tibi, the first three people I talked to [told me] do not start a company, do not get into this business. That is not what I wanted to hear, and so everything I did then was done in a very logical way. Why wouldn’t I hire my own salesperson? Why wouldn’t I have my own shipping facility? Everything was done in a way that made sense to me. I’m not constrained at all by how things are done. [So] when we busted things apart, it was so logical to do it; how could you not? You were going to die the other way. The message we just kept focusing on was: If plan A does not succeed, it doesn’t mean that the old way was right, and I think that’s what companies do all the time.”
“You can only have regrets if you lost something. But, if you weren’t going to have it anyway, you didn’t lose it.”
CB: “So, you didn’t have regrets or feel tied to that responsibility?”
AS: “No, because you have to remember that what you were doing wasn’t working, and people forget that all the time. You can only have regrets if you lost something. But, if you weren’t going to have it anyway, you didn’t lose it.”
CB: “What’s your opinion about influencers right now and how they’ve impacted the fashion industry?”
AS: “Every day I thank God for influencers, because they took the power out of the few hands that were controlling everything, and that makes me really happy. To me, influencers are Tamu [McPherson] and Leandra [Medine], and they’re people that I know, and when I’m in Paris, I get to have breakfast or lunch or drinks with them. They’re all these women who are really incredibly independent, strong business women. They’re my visual circle: could I see Linda [Tol] wearing this or Tamu, what will she think of this?”
CB: “Do you think anything was happening in your life that catapulted you in this direction, to transform the company? Did you feel personally that you needed to change?”
AS: “No, it was more that I saw the opportunity for it, and again, the sales were declining. It was just exhausting fighting with the sales team all the time.The client wants more plunging necklines! She wants more turquoise! Things that make me cringe, and I was just so sick of [it.] If it’s declining and they’re asking for things that are the best of what’s not doing well, then what am I doing here?”
CB: “Not worth it.”
AS: “Another question I get asked which confounds me: Do you think runway shows are still relevant? Honest to God, I can’t even believe I used to do runway shows! Now they’re more relevant than ever. If you look for any of my shows pre-2012, good luck! I can’t even believe that we spent money on shows for those editors and buyers to come sit there, and then it disappeared. If a tree fell in the woods and no one saw it, did it really fall? Did I really have a show in 2007? I don’t know, because the Internet apparently says no. Now, when you have a runway show, you can feast on that show for years. It can live on in so many different permutations, so I can’t even believe that that’s a question right now. The question should be, why were we doing shows in the past?I wish I could have that money back.”
CB: “Do you have a process when it comes to laying the foundation of each new collection?”
AS: “The process that we have [now] is fueled with so much more confidence. By the time we have our runway show, Traci [our Design Director] and I will have lived with this idea for over six or seven months. We’ve been kicking it around every night in our head, and when we get dressed in the morning we think about these new shapes. We’re in a position where we can confidently say to a lot of our stores, you may not be absorbing it yet, but we’ve never steered you wrong, so just believe us. If this waist is supposed to be dropped, believe us, we know that we’re right. And, a lot of our stores [tell us] yes, you were right.”
CB: “How are you investing in your e-commerce and your digital/mobile experience?”
AS: “Well, it’s about 30% of our business, our own e-commerce site. Marketing is a big focus for the future, because we still have very little brand awareness. We have our top spenders, and it’s a big chunk online. We’ve got a large group who purchase anywhere between $25k and $50k a year on Tibi. The challenge is, how do we find more of these customers? Whenever we’re in a store, if our product gets anywhere near a designer department, the sales soar. It’s not about wearing a Céline pant with a T-shirt, it’s about wearing a Céline pant with a really nice blouse that’s not gross but is much less expensive.”
“Every day I thank God for influencers, because they took the power out of the few hands that were controlling everything, and that makes me really happy.”
CB: “What do you think about the departure of Phoebe Philo from Céline? How do you think it impacts the work that you’re doing and, really, the industry right now and other women designers?”
AS: “I think it’s crazy what they did, but I certainly don’t think it would have been an option to bring someone else in to carry forth her message. It seems like you gotta break something all the way right now. I think what Balenciaga did was genius, I think what Gucci did was genius. They broke it, they made you step back, they made you question it, and then they made you curious, and you wanted to dive in deeper. When I look at the [new] Celine, for me personally, I don’t wanna dive into that pool at all now.”
CB: “Tell me a bit about your thinking behind the latest collection you’re showing this week.”
AS: “I’m obsessed with the concept of curiosity. I love curious people. Everything is so fast and fleeting and throwaway right now, so I’m craving pieces that I can explore forever: how a hem can curve and stand on its own; how a staple can be embedded into a skirt; or how a jacket can float on the body. And how all this modernity and workmanship can also be so simple and clean at the same time, and utterly wearable and functional.”
CB: “To me, the thing that is really special about Tibi is that a lot of brands specifically appeal to a certain age group or demographic, and you don’t have that at all, or at least it doesn’t seem so.”
AS: “Really, it’s 18 to 80. All I care about, honestly, is to appeal to people who want to be better, just be something. For me, because I equate how getting dressed makes me feel modern and new and alive, then that’s how I feel better. That’s what I want women to feel. If they don’t, and they get it through other things like gardening or cooking, that’s great. But for me, this is how I get it, and so this is what I do. I don’t have to be everything for everyone.”