Amy Smilovic created her fashion brand Tibi almost 22 years ago in Hong Kong, then in 2000 she returned to New York and set up her independent studio in a SoHo loft. A former advertising executive, Smilovic started her fashion brand without training but knew she wanted it to be a place for smart and modern women to shop, full of wardrobe basics. Frequently worn by influencers as Camila Coelho, Aimee Song and our very own Tamu McPherson, her designs channel the best of the ’90s and the essence of the Manhattan-style à la Sex and The City.
Meet Amy Smilovic
For All The Pretty Birds, we chatted with Smilovic about the importance of having her own voice, independence and perseverance to pursue a career in the fashion industry anywhere.
All The Pretty Birds: You’ve been working in the fashion industry for over 20 years, what’s the most important lesson you’ve learned so far?
Amy Smilovic: I’ve learned that people have very interesting and different contributions that they can make and that my job is about constantly putting this puzzle together made up of people and ideas that speak to one universal idea. When I started, I had always looked for the “whole ball of wax” in someone. When you do that, you tend to get something that resembles a ball of wax – it’s good, it may be functional but it is bland and never super great. I’ve learned to really focus on what is great about people, find ways to make up for the weaknesses, and build a great team with all this in mind.
ATPB: What was the biggest challenge for you with building your brand?
AS: Not having a voice initially was the biggest challenge. In anything, people want the clearest explanation of who you are. I had to rely on stores or magazines to tell that story. Well, they don’t have time for that and they’re not set up for that. So if your store is a little complicated (clean modern effortless clothing that taps into a curious person’s spirit of individuality) then the current matrix for many bigger stores doesn’t allow for that (classic, edgy, sexy, frilly – choose one). So if you don’t fit that mold, yet you have to sell to those places in order to have revenue coming in (a reality) then, of course, that is a challenge. Quite frankly, it’s still a challenge today with those stores. But the difference now is between our own website, very strong relationships with specialty stores, and my Instagram, we are able to penetrate through this.
ATPB: How do you balance both need to appeal to the market and need to appeal to your creativity and customer?
AS: Here’s what I believe: if I focus nearly exclusively on what I and my incredibly diverse yet like-minded team around me want to wear, then that is good. I’ve surrounded myself with curious and creative individuals – so that’s going to nail the creative checkbox. We all wear clothing, like live in it, so you certainly can’t argue that what we’re creating is “art for art’s sake.” So, the answer is if it appeals to us, then it will appeal to the market. If it doesn’t appeal to us, then we will move on from it. Life is too short for us to make stuff we don’t believe in.
Spring 2020 runway (commercially available in February 2020)
ATPB: Your collections are simple, structured, and timeless and could be summed up as exactly what women want to wear. There are tons of men designing clothing for women that is beautiful, but what advantage do you think you have as a woman designing for women?
AS: I wear the clothes for nearly a year before they’re introduced. In fact, I’m wearing fall 2020 [collection] right now – a prototype. This tells me a lot about the functionality, my comfort level, do I feel like a better person wearing it. I’m sure men struggle with that “intuitive” part of the equation. When I put something on and it feels “fussy” and maybe you can’t really see it loudly, but it’s a feeling, something I just know it is not right. I do get envious that men maybe can design with an abandonment of pragmatism. That would be nice sometimes, but curious interesting functionality is my sweet spot.
ATPB: Who is the Tibi woman, what does she do, what does she like?
AS: The Tibi woman, she cares about the world. She is super curious and she is an individual. No one has ever written me saying they want styling advice so that they can “fit in with a group of women.” They usually want advice because they are looking to stand out – but in a way that is appropriate, chic and not crazy. She recognizes that clothing is a reflection of her, she wants people to know she’s a creative curious individual and she understands that the more you dress the part you become the part. She hates anything that is average – that’s the worst. She’d rather have terrible than average, at least that’s something to talk about.
ATPB: What’s been the biggest change you’ve seen in the industry over the past 20 years?
AS: The amount of new talent, coupled with the amount of averageness that is pushed out there every day in front of customers. There are exciting new brands entering the market every day. That has to be confusing for a lot of customers. Then, you have the massive factories, or these venture capital-funded brands, that are really nothing more than big-box fashion brands – but they have a sexy new tech-facing tagline that makes them seem more than they are. These are the wolves in sheep’s clothing. So as an independent brand, you’re constantly looking around you and behind you, what do you need to do to stay ahead of the curve. Every time I write up a “state of the business” report, I go back 12 months later to find it’s outdated. If I had written a “state of the business” report in 1997, that report would have looked the same in 1967, and through 2007. But since 2007, the rate of change is exponential. So staying nimble, yet focused, is key.
ATPB: As a designer who has been in the game for a long time, is there a secret to staying relevant and keeping your business afloat?
AS: Lead with your gut. Have people around you that inspire you. Make you competitive with yourself. Don’t take money from people who don’t share your vision.
Resort 2020 campaign (commercially available now)
ATPB: We associate your brand name with New York, but you are from the state of Georgia, what from the South do you incorporate into your clothes?
AS: I hear all the time that Tibi is filled with really nice people. People from the south are unapologetically nice. And I like that. And that filters to our clothes as well –they’re conceptual but pretty happy at the end of the day. That is good.
ATPB: Everyone is talking about sustainability and fashion. What does that look like to you? How have you incorporated that into your brand? How do you plan to change your brand in the future, when it comes to being eco-friendly?
AS: Yes, this is very important and we are tackling it on two fronts. First, in a new way – we are working with many mills using 100% recycled goods, organic goods, or certified sustainable materials. In addition, we are continuing with always being mindful of our footprint. We try never to produce more than we need, never waste fabric, and certainly don’t design for dumping unsold merchandise into landfills. We’ve always designed with an eye towards really wearing your clothes. That is sustainability that always has come naturally to us or through just flat out business needs that never allowed us to get too crazy with inventory or waste fabric.
ATPB: Hellish pace, six collections per year, nervous breakdowns. How do you know when to stop working and call it a day?
AS: I don’t know how to stop working. So I’ll just say you better love what you do. I am obsessive this way. Honestly, when I worked for American Express I would lay in bed at night and think about cool ideas for promoting credit cards, that’s just how I am.
ATPB: Brands are shuttering, department stores are closing. What do you think needs to change in the fashion industry in the next 10 years?
AS: I will email you from my new penthouse the day I get that figured out. In the meantime, I have no bloody idea at the moment other than to say that being nimble and owning the key parts of your business seems like it would be incredibly important, right?
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Image credits: Courtesy of Tibi