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.
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.”
“I really felt for so long like I was living a lie. Every day I was coming to work and putting on this costume. If I had to be interviewed I had to go put on my Tibi costume.”
“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.”
“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.”
“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.
“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.
“You can only have regrets if you lost something. But, if you weren’t going to have it anyway, you didn’t lose it.”
“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.”
“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?”
“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?”
“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.”
“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.”
“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.”
“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.”
“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.”
“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.”