Tibi Founder Amy Smilovic on the Three-Piece Wardrobe and Working with Her Husband
Her composure, the pleasant lilt in her voice and her ambitious yet grounded perspective could lead one to assume that Amy Smilovic, the founder and designer of Tibi, has it all figured out. She might.
Tibi is a contemporary line of beautifully wearable clothes founded by a quintessentially modern woman. With 2017 marking the company’s 20th anniversary, we spoke with Smilovic about self-invention, reinvention and entrepreneurism.
Can you tell me a bit about the genesis of Tibi and your transformation to a fashion designer?
The company is just one and a half years away from its 20th anniversary—it began in Hong Kong in 1997. I had been in business before that, working for both Ogilvy and American Express. When I moved to Hong Kong I wanted to do my own thing. It was a really exciting time in Hong Kong, right at the handover from the British to the Chinese. There was this really entrepreneurial spirit.
In Hong Kong I found two Chinese men, Ben and Ivan, who were very young and entrepreneurial. They were game to do this with me. At the time I didn’t realize how special it was. I was the only contemporary brand producing in Asia. Theory, Rebecca Taylor and others were producing in the U.S. But to have all the resources in China, in Asia, the print designers and production houses there, was exciting.
I’d always loved, loved, loved clothing. And I always wanted my own business. My father and grandfather were artists. I was always creative and wanted to be artistic. That’s why I went into marketing; I wanted to be creative but fell into accounts. It was a great place to learn business, how companies run, how to crunch numbers, how to execute.
In college, I minored in art. Everyone always asks, “How do you do this without a design degree?” But I always wonder—how do people run a fashion label without a business background?
Let’s talk a bit about the transformation of your company. It’s been through several stages, in recent years making the move to modern contemporary.
To me, constantly evolving is very exciting. It is what life is about for me, personally. When I started the company, things were so trend-driven. Everything was about fringe or the jean jacket. It was about what was happening that season. It wasn’t about your identity but what the trends were. We were caught up in that.
As a consumer, I recognized that was hard for a customer to grasp what you were about as a brand. At the time it was a good business, but about 6 years or so ago, when Zara came to the U.S.—Topshop was already there—that trend market became dominated by High Street fashion. For us to stay alive and be successful, I realized we had to be authentic and true. Where we are today, I did that with the same design team. We’re all doing the product we felt a passion to do. It’s ironic that Zara coming in made us more true to ourselves and helped create our true vision.
The roots of what we do are in a DNA that’s clean, feminine and modern. Modern is very critical. Everyone here is an artist in some way. They’re passionate about experimentation. The modern pillar allows us to push each season for something new. We’ve really brought the customer along with us. The customer that we’ve had for 15 years is psyched that the horse they bet on is winning the race. Others are excited to see us as something new.
Well I think everyone has to do what he or she is comfortable with. Working as hard as I do makes me happier at home, and my kids see and respect that. If someone is happy, it’s good for the family. If I had to slog it out in another career, in a law firm or something I didn’t necessarily enjoy, I wouldn’t be a happy person.
I grew up with a father as an artist and my mother is a teacher. Quality of life was important to them. Were you happy, fulfilled? That’s what was important. There is simply no one answer.
How is it working with your husband on a company? What is his involvement like?
He runs the business side of it. Every day. We divide it up where I get the creative aspects, he gets the business, and production and sales is down the middle. So there’s always debate on whom to listen to. [She laughs.] I think it’s great. Even the employees seem to appreciate it. Frank and I got in a huge debate at a meeting recently and I think for the employees it’s refreshing. There are not two executives working behind the scenes, side-barring conversations. We have to work it out. So there are no politics.
It’s all about dressing with ease for us. We encourage people to look at outfits of three pieces. It’s important that you can mix it up to wear it to the park on the weekend, to the office and to dinner. Half my time is spent with my kids at a hockey match or school event. If you look at these three-piece ensembles, you can build a wardrobe. And I like a palette; it makes things easier to dress. When you see entire outfits in shades of blue or burgundy, it looks so chic. It’s very European. But often when you try to replicate it in different colors it just won’t work.
Are there any advances or innovations in fashion that really excite you?
The thing I am most excited about that’s happening now is there’s this huge movement toward self-confidence and individuality. At our most recent show, each hairstyle and makeup look was different. There was a green shadow and a brown shadow. We let the stylist do what looked best on the girl. It was about individual beauty. If someone had a great Afro, we left it. A crimp in the hair, we didn’t touch it. When you look at someone now it’s not about attaining her look but her confidience. That’s happening in clothes. Like what’s happening at Gucci, or as experimental as J.W. Anderson. Fashion should push people to try new things, to do what makes people feel best.
How do you design for individuality?
It’s amazing how easy it is. My design team is five women who look nothing alike, but have similar design principles. My head of design was just saying, “I don’t feel feminine enough in this shoe, but I want it to feel modern.” So we had scissors out and kept cutting until it felt right. There wasn’t a design. We just worked on it until it felt right.
That’s one of the things I love about [buyers at] Nordstrom. They’re always talking about what they love instead of having sheets in front of them, instead of letting the numbers dictate.
Amy Smilovic will be at Nordstrom San Francisco Centre this Thursday, October 22, 4pm–8pm to share a fashion presentation of Tibi’s fall and resort collections. The event will include a Q&A with Smilovic and her styling suggestions.
Shop current season Tibi