Tibi, the designer fashion label, founded by Amy Smilovic and her husband Frank Smilovic, celebrated the company’s 20th anniversary this year. This is a feat for any business, and especially one in fashion, where brands can captivate and fade as quickly as an instagram post.
Tibi remains one of the best kept secret for “it girl” dressing among fashion editors, filmmakers and architects. This is for it’s razor sharp design sensibility defined by edgy, yet understated cool. Webb On The Fly sat down over a take out lunch with serial entrepreneur Smilovic in her New York headquarters, steps from the Wall Street New York Stock Exchange, for her take on defining your style, running a global family owned business – not to mention maintaining her sanity as a mom.
Veronica Webb: Women can be afraid to claim money and success. How did you get comfortable with it?
Amy Smilovic: My parents are artists and we never had any money. My family drove around in a yellow volkswagen with a hole in floor so big you could see the road through it. When I interviewed Ogilvy Mather for my first job in my 20s, my prospective boss asked me, “What your work ethic?”. I was like at 11 years old, I had newspaper route, and at 12 I was the number one Girl Scout Cookie sales person. Then, I had a babysitting company and I made scarves and I made belts. Then I made monogrammed sweatshirts. I was just hawking anything I could make. I never just made something for fun. It would have to sell.
VW: How’d you start Tibi?
AS: I worked at American Express in sales. That’s where I met my husband Frank – we worked together. He got reassigned to Hong Kong and I went with him kicking and screaming because I didn’t know what I would do there. I started Tibi in Hong Kong. Being away from everyone gave me the courage to start the business, because I didn’t have a lot of people around who were worried for me telling me that I might fail.
VW: As a serial entrepreneur how do you fight the fear of failure?
AS: I think for me the great thing is that because as my husband and I kept this our own company, we’ve never sold out to anyone. We’re fortunate not to report into other people who could be controlling your destiny. I don’t have that gigantic fear of losing everything, unless that were to happen because of a horrible misstep on my part. It helps having a former a communist as my co-owner (As a child, Smilovic’s husband Frank family escaped from Soviet persecution of Jews). We balance each other out. To me, “no money” means a little less of lifestyle. To Frank, “no money” means your life being in danger.
VW: How has e-commerce and social media changed your business?
AS: It’s really exciting that there are so many new crazy things going on. But I do stay up at night late wondering what’s our endgame here? and then making sure we’re kind of headed towards that because it’s not regular retail.
VW: Can you define that for me?
AS: I don’t think it’s this recipe where you you create a trendy piece, then have a runway show, and then you sell it to a wholesaler and then you mark it down and then you start all over again. I think technology is going to be incredibly important for us just because we’re a vertical company. So we own every aspect other than the manufacturing side. So kind of when I look at like what the future could be I know that we can tackle it because I own all the different components of the company so I can just shift in the direction that we want to go. Technology is important to creating a brand.
VW: What’s your position on fair trade?
AS: You don’t hear about XYZ corporation opening a garment manufacturing center in the United States. Where in Asia it might be Mitsubishi from Japan is investing in them in China. And so they treat it like a serious proper industry. So when you do that, the worst that China has to offer is better than the worst that America would have to offer. Still, the best that China has to offer in terms of manufacturing is better than 90 percent of what America offers. And I think it’s just because of the importance that they place on it as an industry. We value and pay all of our workers very well.
VW: Looking back at all of Tibi’s collections from 97’s you could take almost anything and wear it and it would look super fresh today.
AS: Everything has to hit on all four design codes that we follow: Relaxed. Feminine. Modern. Clean. When it hits on all four of those codes that means you’ll wear it and keep it forever.
VW: How do you dress?
AS: I need to feel each season like I’m learning something new through my wardrobe. Like to me, I find that is a real way to express myself and feel current, you know, when you’re in your 50s. I love figuring out how to make women my age and older feel current without feeling ridiculous.
VW: How to be on trend not look tragic is a problem women of every age share.
AS: There’s a belief in design that you need always need to have someone other than you that you’re designing for. But, the thing is, in my case especially, when you’re selling around the world you’ve got to be so clear about who you are. That translates. I’m really proud of the cultural range and the age range of the women who wear our clothes from 25 -75.
VW: How do you know if the clothes are working?
AS: It’s been about the last three or four years that we’re totally confident in our look and our style. I wear everything in advance. I don’t ever just try something on once and hope that it will work out – I always wear a prototype a year in advance of showing it. Am I in the mood for bigger shoulders. Will I feel like an asshole in it? Will I not? Sometimes I do feel like an asshole for the first month and then all of a sudden my eye adjusts. I think the fact that we’re constantly wearing the clothing and pushing ourselves makes our company a success.
VW: Who are your toughest critics?
AS: Literally, the one of the first things I about is what is my older son Gabriel going to say? I love when I turn him around and later I’ll see he’s posted it on his Instagram. He wants to be Bernard Arnault build an American LVMH.
VW: How did he get into fashion?
AS: He’s a flipper. He loves Grail – where guys go online to learn about real designers buy and resell streetwear. It’s really exciting how guys are open to experimenting with clothing right now. Kanye and Pharrell, as cool as they are, they care about clothing too. The last time you had it was the 60s. Steve McQueen was the cool guy who actually cared about how he dressed.
“I don’t think women need help finding a black tie dress. I think they need help finding casual clothes that make them look great everyday.”
VW: What do you wear on the weekend?
AS: I don’t think women need help finding a black tie dress. I think they need help finding casual clothes that make them look great everyday. I make the ultimate tracksuit. It actually is appropriate in the office with a jacket. But then, with a big cashmere sweater at home it’s put together, but you’re not wearing your daughter’s tracksuit. I could have worn this to soccer with the right top. I could wear it out at night. I always get the ultimate compliment when I’m wearing this, which is “you look great!”. If someone says “You look so good, where are you going?”, unless you’re going somewhere special, that means you’re overdressed. You always want to look like the moment that you’re in.
VW: What’s the most difficult thing about being a working mom?
AS: I feel so guilty when I’m doing stuff that doesn’t have to do with the kids when I’m not at work. When I’m home we’ll get so busy with the kids that we don’t take the time to shower. If I shower and make myself presentable, I’m a new person. I just think that like you’ve got to force yourself to do that, and as I’m saying it to myself, it’s a lesson because I know that type of guilt. I am so lucky because my husband and I are in this 50/50. It’s such a unwritten thing. He makes breakfast. I make lunch. We’re always trading off – but I always feel guilty.
VW: Once I’m done taking care of my family I always feel rushed to get back to work.
AS: I don’t think men feel that as much as we do. But the guilt kind of validates it. I feel like I have my priorities straight. My family is my priority. I think if I didn’t feel guilty at all I’d kind of maybe need to check my pulse.