You already know Tibi, the place to go for modern, feminine pieces you’ll love forever. What you may not know is the creative force behind the brand, Amy Smilovic, a brilliant woman with a fearless and honest approach to business and design. She knows what it means to stay relevant while being true to yourself. Read on…
Growing up on an idyllic island off the coast of Georgia, as a little girl Amy knew two things. One: she really (really) liked clothes. Two: she wanted to own a business one day. And as a self-confessed pragmatist, when she finally sat down to list the things she was interested in after a move to Hong Kong in 1997, launching a fashion label was the obvious choice. True, she didn’t have any formal training, but what she lacked in knowledge she made up for in the ability to follow her gut and surround herself by a team of talented creatives who could help hone her vision. These same qualities that allowed her to build a global brand then enabled her to step back from a business that no longer reflected her values or aesthetic, and change everything.
Tibi is now 20 years old – where did your fashion journey start?
I always loved clothing, but growing up on an island off of the coast of Georgia, I had very limited exposure to things. I had an aunt who lived in Chicago who would bring me styles by new designers like Donna Karan that I’d never seen before. So I loved fashion, but I didn’t know it could be a career. It was just something I wanted to acquire. What I did know was that I wanted to own my own company one day. I grew up in a family of teachers, lawyers, doctors and artists. No one was in business, except for a great aunt who I really looked up to.
So how did you navigate those early years of your career?
When I got to college I remember watching a movie about advertising, and I thought, ‘Oh my God, these are creative people and they are doing art but it’s business too.’ So I decided that was what I would do. After graduating, I went to work for Ogilvy & Mather on American Express. The client hired me and that’s where I met my husband. We got married and when he was transferred to Hong Kong in 1997, I thought, ‘Now is the time.’ I took stock and thought of everything I loved and everything I could do. I’m a very pragmatic person and when I made the checklist, it was just obvious.
Let’s go back to the beginning – where did you grow up?
I grew up on St Simons Island, Georgia, and it really was idyllic. Like any kid, I don’t think I appreciated it at the time, but when I wasn’t at school, I was either at the beach or fishing or going to fish on the way to the beach. It was pretty nice.
How do you think that informs who you are as a designer, founder and person these days?
It’s made me fearless in what I do, because I’m not held captive by my surroundings or my belongings. It’s so different for my husband, who grew up in communist Czechoslovakia. His parents were Holocaust survivors, so he has a very different perception of what it could mean to lose everything. For him, that’s hiding in a very cold apartment in Vienna, while escaping. For me, not having very much means that you’re with a loving family, driving an old Jeep and life is good. So I would say that as long as everyone has their health, I’m not afraid, which allows me to take a lot more risk in my work than other people.
What is the most challenging aspect of your job?
It’s getting everyone to stay on point and keep moving forward. That even applies to my own design team. It’s amazing how many times I have to give them a pep talk. For instance, I can always tell when someone brings me a design that has a little bit of fear. I’ll ask them, ‘Why did you not push this?’ and they’ll say, ‘Well, we overheard from sales that it hasn’t really sold and they want to scale back the look of it.’ So I’ll say, ‘But do you like it now? Do you actually want to wear it?’ and the answer is always, ‘No, I want to wear the original way we did it.’ And I’ll be like, ‘Yes, exactly. Go with that.’ We just have to love what we make. After that, it’s a matter for the marketing people to show it to the customer in enough ways that she’ll see it through our eyes. The question I get asked all the time is, ‘How do you know it will sell? How do you know it’s right?’ and I say, ‘Well, because I want to wear it.’ After that, it’s just a matter of finding more people who think like me.
You sound like you’re good at reading people.
I think I’m really good at empowering people and getting them excited. I don’t think I’m very good at reading people. In fact, I’m notoriously bad at it. I’m just too literal and pragmatic in my delivery. But my husband, our CEO, is a great reader of people, so we make a good team. What I will say is that I do think people can feel my enthusiasm, and my genuine desire to design clothes women can wear. I’m always asking: Is it comfortable? Can I get on the train? Can I pick up my kids at school? Can I go to a bar? We have to have that trust.
We see you regularly tagging other designer clothes on Instagram. Is that important to you?
It’s very much part of the design process. Number one, no woman just wears one designer. And of course I want to wear other brands, but the way I can rationalise that is my customers are constantly wearing other brands too. So let’s say Balenciaga has a new jacket shape. If I love it and it inspires me then I buy it, but not to figure out how Tibi can do the same shape. I buy it because if this is something I really love right now, then that means my customers love this shape too. Then for me, I start thinking, what kind of pants shape does this dictate? If everyone is going to have a giant oversized jacket, then what is going to happen to the bottom half? It gives me an eye into the future.
My style is clean and modern and feminine,
but not girly or sexy.
There is such a difference there
Who are the women (or people) who inspire you?
It’s a broad range, because it might be someone like Shelly Lazarus, former CEO of Ogilvy & Mather, or someone in fashion like Donna Karan, but then it’s also Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Just watching her documentary on Netflix was incredibly inspiring. There are also a lot of men on the list, too: Richard Branson is right up there for me. Steve Jobs, too. The truth is there isn’t a huge amount written about female entrepreneurs – those stories are still being written.
What is the secret to balancing your work and life?
I think I’m very lucky that I work with my husband; honestly, we’d be ships in the night if we didn’t. So that’s one way I achieve balance. And Tibi is a family business at the end of the day. My mum has worked for the business since 1999 – our very first shipments were unpacked in her house. And my sister is head of HR. So every day I feel connected with my family – and then I go home to my kids, who are now 15- and 18-year-old boys.
What’s next for Tibi?
I don’t know. We have a big focus right now on Europe and Asia. But the great thing is that we’re really focused and clear about who we are; I sell the exact same clothes to Nordstrom as I would to Harrods in London and IT in China. We’re a global business that’s built around the same aesthetic. And so we have tremendous opportunities. My customer knows I’m never going to make her look like an asshole – and that trust is everything.
What was the turning point for Tibi in 2010? Could you share that with us?
A lot of things all converged around that time. There was a market implosion in 2008. There was a Zara, Topshop and H&M on every corner, and I had one store after another telling me what they were buying me for (printed dresses), and what I needed to be. I was pigeonholed into a category that did not reflect my own personal style. And at that contemporary price point, I just couldn’t see the price-value difference between Tibi and Zara. Why would I spend more at Tibi? The only reason was if you had an allegiance to a brand that really stood for something. But I didn’t stand for anything.
How did you take action?
I walked into my husband’s office and said, ‘I’m sick of putting on a Tibi costume every time I do an interview. I don’t know why someone would choose Tibi – and that’s a problem.’ I wanted the brand to speak to my personal aesthetic. And the same for my head of design, who’d come to me three years earlier from Donna Karan. We had the same aesthetic and were constantly designing outside of ourselves. And I just felt very strongly that if we did not have an authentic point of view we were going to get ripped to shreds in the future.
How did you make that identity shift with your customers?
This all happened around the time when social media was really taking off. At the end of 2008 and 2009 you had to be a lot of different things to a lot of different people. But what social media allowed everyone to do was to be something very specific to someone. The challenge then became to just find more of those ‘someones’, who subscribe to the aesthetic you stand for.
How would you sum up your own style and aesthetic?
It’s clean and refined and feminine, but not girly or sexy. There is such a difference there. And it’s modern. For me, when I’m getting dressed every day, honestly, that modernity is the most important part to me. It’s what makes me feel alive. And the style of the Tibi woman is exactly the same as my own aesthetic.
How do you decide what feels modern?
I’m constantly grabbing at my clothes. My closet looks like a sewing room. I’ve got pins and needles and thread everywhere. If a jacket suddenly feels too boxy, I’m nipping in the waist with pins and constantly thinking about silhouette, and then it looks right and I relax.
How has the digital world changed the way you approach fashion and your own style?
It’s been so liberating. If I really believe in something, I don’t need the blessing of an Anna Wintour to say it’s okay and I don’t need the blessing of a store. I can just put it out there and start a conversation. So it’s been liberating in that way, but also in that I feel like I have made this group of incredibly fashionable friends. And I can constantly take a peek to see what they’re wearing. What’s Leandra from Man Repeller wearing? What’s Linda Tol wearing? It’s amazing. If I go to Paris for Fashion Week, I’m meeting up with women I’ve connected with on social media from all over the world.
Social media has been so liberating. If I really believe in something, I don’t need the blessing of an Anna Wintour to say it’s okay
What are your go-to staples? What do you invest in?
A menswear-type blazer has been a wardrobe staple for me since college. As soon as I put it on, I thought, ‘Oh my God, this is why I have never felt like myself until now.’ Great denim is always in my wardrobe. And I always have trainers. I really believe in being comfortable. I know, never say never, but I really don’t think I’ll ever wear a 4in heel again. And a pair of wide-leg trousers is another must for me. I also mix in a lot of sportswear. If you’re on my IG, you’ll see that I’m always mixing in track pants or something. I really like mixing things up.
Can we talk about the bag you designed with Myriam Schaefer? How did that come about?
I actually owned one of Myriam’s bags and absolutely loved it, so I wrote her a letter and asked if she would consider working with me. This is the woman who designed the Balenciaga Motorcycle bag. She is very direct and extremely French, and responded: ‘I won’t make shit for you. Don’t ask me to make shit. I like your clothes and I like you and I know you won’t make me make bad things, so I will work with you.’ It was a real turning point for us because we’ve always been outsiders, and even though we had this incredible group of loyal customers, we never really had that support from within the industry. And we are still selling that first design – it really is a forever bag.
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