Amy Smilovic on Tibi, Celebrity Influence, and Reinvention

Tibi Amy Smilovic
Photo courtesy of Tibi
Tibi founder Amy Smilovic

While many designers describe an early, practically fated calling to the world of fashion, Amy Smilovic's entry into the industry was something slightly more pragmatic: She wanted her own business.

A lifelong entrepreneur, Smilovic got her chance when she was living in Hong Kong, where she launched Tibi in 1997.

The brand has undergone something of a transformation in the last few seasons: Rather than the cute, printed dresses she was known for, the designer now gravitates toward a cleaner, more grown-up aesthetic.

FashionEtc chatted with the designer about her business-minded beginnings, the phenomenon of celebrity dressing, and how the Web has changed everything for her.

Let's start from the beginning.

I started Tibi in ’97, when my husband and I moved to Hong Kong. I had an art background, and it was something that I wanted to do—although I’d say that I always wanted to have my own business rather than growing up knowing I would be a clothing designer. Thinking about it from an analytical perspective: I’m a woman, I love clothing, I love to draw, and I’m in the land of manufacturing—this all kind of makes sense. And then you find your true passion from there.

As a child, what did you think you’d grow up to do?

I live in Greenwich, Connecticut now with my kids, and I would say on a daily basis my kids discuss what they’re going to do when they get older and they’re only 8 and 11. Growing up in the south, you didn’t talk about it. I never thought, ‘Oh, I’m going to be this when I get older.’

It really wasn’t until my sophomore year at the University of Georgia when I saw the movie Nothing in Common with Tom Hanks and Jackie Gleason. Tom Hanks plays an ad exec, and I thought, ‘Wow, there’s this whole career out there that includes art and business.’ I switched to an advertising arts major at that point, literally the day after I saw the movie. I went on to work at Ogilvy & Mather when I graduated then switched to American Express. That’s where I met my husband, who later got transferred to Hong Kong.

Did you have a creative/entrepreneurial spirit when you were little?

I was always starting my own companies when I was younger. I’d crochet sweaters. I wouldn’t just babysit, I had a babysitting company, with employees that were babysitters that I would book. If I painted a painting, I sold it in the neighborhood. My dad was an artist who would just paint, and I was like, ‘No, you need to sell that and make money!’

How hard was it to start from scratch in a whole new industry?

I think it was much easier being in Hong Kong. Starting at an older age and with a business background, I wouldn’t have been content to start off in New York with, say, two designs. I had big plans—I was going to have more designs, bigger production—so to be able to have access right away to factories with such a capacity was amazing. And Hong Kong is such an entrepreneurial place; when you start a business in New York, people tell you all the things to watch out for and all the negatives, but in Hong Kong they help you by telling you the positives.

Tell me about your Spring 2012 collection.

I think it really shows our core DNA. It’s very clean, feminine and minimal at the same time. When I started, I listened to a lot of people and ended up creating something that catered to the needs of the market but wasn’t necessarily purely my vision. I think for us, the biggest liberating thing has been having our own e-commerce site, and then having the blog and Facebook and all the social marketing that we do. It really allows you to communicate that vision to others.

Before, I might have wanted clean, minimal, blah blah blah, but then [a store like] Saks Fifth Avenue might say that’s great, but we’ll take that floral dress. It was hard to be true to what I wanted to do. But now, through social media and e-commerce, we’ve been able to create a lot of demand for the kind of clothing that I love. The runway show was [an example of] that.

Tibi’s social media is great, but you have also really embraced bloggers, whether it’s working with Leandra from Man Repeller or Elin Kling. How did that all come about?

When you look at the work of stylists in Vogue or Harper’s or any of the magazines, it can be a little hard to dissect. Are you buying the stylist’s point of view? The magazines that they work the closest with? I think that what’s interesting about the bloggers is that you’re really getting their point of view, unedited. When I look at Elin’s blog, I don’t have to worry that Anna Wintour’s filtered anything—I know what her style is because it comes across very clearly. Her style is something I really identify with, so I thought she was the perfect choice to style the spring show.

Do you consider yourself a tech-savvy person?

No. Not at all! I’m the type of person that if I don’t know how to fix the computer, I hit it. So I don’t think I’m a techy person, but I do almost 100 percent of my shopping online.

E-commerce is just our vision, and I don’t have to filter it for anyone. Thinking about what my vision looks like versus my vision as interpreted by a department store like Bloomingdale’s—they’re two totally different things. It lets the consumer understand exactly what you’re about—and hopefully that filters down to the stores. You’re represented the way you want to be represented.

We do so well with the little waisted printed dress, but after awhile, you want to nix it. And we did! We’re continually pushing our girl to evolve, and e-commerce and social media have given us the confidence that the girl wants to do that. Department stores come in with these sell-throughs—they’re constantly looking at the past. To me, when you love fashion, it’s exactly what I bought in the past that I don’t want to buy in the future. That’s why I’m shopping! I just don’t get it.

Do you have plans to open up more standalone retail stores?

We do. I think L.A. will definitely be next on the agenda, and then we’ll see. We have a license agreement in Japan, so we have 13 shops throughout the country.

Tibi Spring 2012

Photos: Imaxtree

Three looks from Tibi's Spring 2012 runway.

How important is celebrity dressing to your brand?

It’s really important. It’s probably the bane of any designer’s existence—like really, should it be this important?—but it is. E-commerce is where you really see how important it is. Literally, when the picture goes live in the world of the Internet, you’ll sell out right away. Olivia Palermo just wore this skirt in black, and now it’s almost gone. The things that she’s photographed in, they’re gone. I can look at my top sellers online, and they’re practically all [things Palermo’s worn].

Would you say as a brand you’re aggressive about getting your clothes on celebrities, or it is just something that happens?

We’re aggressive in that we have a PR agency in L.A., but we’re not aggressive in that we don’t send out boxes of clothes to movie stars. It’s done in a thoughtful way. We don’t just send Gwyneth Paltrow 10 boxes of things—because Gwyneth gets 10 boxes a day already. It’s got to be something that’s more thought out.

Do you remember the first time a celebrity wore Tibi?

The first time was Sarah Jessica Parker on Sex and the City. It was huge. I was living in Hong Kong, and my mom called me to tell me!

What kinds of things are you working on when you’re not designing?

Painting. I love to paint. I would love, when I retire, to have a studio and just be an artist.

What do your kids think of what you do?

The older one [11] has just figured out that he can leverage this at school with the girls. Emma Roberts was at the last show and he was sitting next to her, and he figured out that this girl in his class is obsessed with Emma Roberts. He goes like, ‘Emma Roberts touched my shirt. You can touch my shirt if you want.’ I think he tried to charge her for doing it!