Amy Smilovic isn’t sure she considers herself a designer. As the creative director and founder of Tibi, the contemporary brand she launched 20 years ago in Hong Kong, she is responsible for a ready-to-wear and accessories business with $50 million in revenues. But she has no formal design training. Her previous professional life was in advertising, working at Ogilvy & Mather and American Express in account management, not creative.
“For sure, I always have imposter syndrome,” Smilovic said in her downtown Manhattan office one spring afternoon. “Nothing is more painful to me than walking out at the end of the runway show and waving. I have very firm ideas on what I love and how proportions go together and how things should fit, but I can’t drape a dress.”
What she lacks in technical skill she’s made up for with sharp instincts, a good eye and unconventional business practices that have made Tibi a unique case study in contemporary American fashion. In the two decades since Smilovic decided to launch a clothing line, as an expat who moved to Hong Kong for her husband Frank Smilovic’s job, the brand has had two lives — first, undeniably young and print-driven contemporary 1.0; the second, sophisticated modernist femininity upgraded to advanced contemporary — both successful yet aesthetically very different. Tibi is a rare successful 180-degree re-branding story that has put the company in a healthy, growth-oriented position with the business doubling in size in the last five years. It’s an enviable place for a privately owned company to be in today’s fashion economy.
“This is where every day I wake up and I’m, like, ‘I’m so glad that I didn’t start in this industry. I’m so glad that I had all these other experiences,’” Smilovic said. She was speaking not of the blind naivete that allowed her to produce 1,600 units of her first samples without any stores to sell them, or cold calling then Neiman Marcus fashion director Ann Watson to tell her she would be bringing in her collection, or walking around Scoop in New York for an hour hoping the sales associate would notice her skirt. (She did, and summoned then-owner Stefani Greenfield from the stockroom resulting in a $12,000 order being placed.) Rather, Smilovic was thinking fondly of the full-time distribution center Tibi owns in Brunswick, Ga., nearby Saint Simons Island where she grew up.
The 15-plus person operation grew out of a little garage Smilovic took over after her parents were unable to ship thousands of units from their home, which operated as Tibi’s scrappy shipping facility with the help of her mom’s fellow teacher friends in the early days. Now it’s where the company’s back office support is headquartered.
“It was obviously born out of necessity, but being on that island, we’re one UPS’ largest, if not their largest, accounts,” said Smilovic, noting that her mom is still involved and her sister does human resources. “Somewhere along the way, in I would say year five or six, is when you start questioning, like, ‘Are we doing the right thing? Why is everyone using shippers here or there? Are we being smart?’ Every time when we did any kind of cost benefit on it, it was, like, ‘No, it’s a good thing that we’re doing it.’”
When e-commerce came along, it turned out to be a great thing. Instead of outsourcing to a third-party e-commerce fulfillment facility, Tibi owns 100 percent of its online operations, which now accounts for 26 percent of its sales. “We’re not giving away 50 percent here. Some of these brands they’re making 20 cents on the dollar,” Smilovic said. “To own that outright is a really valuable asset.”
The back office stuff might be a bit dry, but it’s an example of Smilovic’s tenacity and going with her gut to end up ahead of the curve. She initially got the idea to launch a clothing line after visiting a young woman selling 10 different garments available in the fabric of your choosing out of her Upper East Side apartment. “I was, like, ‘That’s so cool,’” Smilovic said. “This was the late Nineties. I was like, ‘What if there’s your basic Calvin Klein slipdress and your basic Donna Karan easy jacket? What if the fabrics were amazing Italian fabrics?’ I came home and said, ‘When we move to Hong Kong, I’m going to start my own company.’”
She arrived in Hong Kong, sketched out four pieces — two dresses, pants and a skirt —and found two open-minded men with a factory — Benny and Ivan — willing to work with a fashion novice. Within two days she had a sample collection. Such things are possible in China. At some point, the Calvin and Donna knockoffs evolved into Lilly Pulitzer-meets-Hong Kong country club, with a focus on bright batik prints on simple silhouettes. She sold them to friends at Hong Kong’s American Club and through the American Women’s Association. Eventually some of those American women went back to the States, wearing their Tibi prints. Karen Golov, the owner of Boston boutique Eye of the Needle, tracked Smilovic down. “She said, ‘I’ve had three different customers from three different countries come in wearing this brand Tibi,’” Smilovic said. “I sent her pictures and she bought $8,000 worth of product.”
From there, a real business grew. The South Morning China Post did a story and Lane Crawford picked up the line. An in-house sales person was hired. There were Coterie shows, big orders from Neiman Marcus, Fred Segal and Scoop. It was the height of the first wave of the contemporary market — Theory, Cynthia Rowley and Juicy Couture were all hot, and so were Tibi and its signature prints.
“Then each season it was like more prints, more prints, more prints and all of as sudden I became the printed dress brand,” Smilovic said. “I never wore prints growing up, ever.” Before she started Tibi, she envisioned herself as the career woman in Donna Karan ads, shopped Barneys private label and outfitted her bridesmaids in dresses made from Calvin Klein patterns. She refers to the period between 2004 and 2011 as “the dead zone,” during which prints cooled as a trend and she felt completely uninspired by them. But to some extent she was still bound by printed handcuffs. By that time her husband had joined the company as chief executive officer, she had two kids and a business that practically ran itself, vacillating between $12 million in a good year, $5 million in a bad one but never losing money.
Historically, a drastic change in brand identity is a great way to alienate the core customer. Remember what happened when St. John tried to go Hollywood sexy with Angelina Jolie? But Smilovic was restless and determined to think this out, green-lit to some extent by the fact that around 2010 a new tone was being set from the top tiers of fashion, for example, the new era of feminine minimalism ushered in by Phoebe Philo at Céline. That aesthetic jibed with what Smilovic wanted to wear and attracted the kind of woman she dreamed of dressing. It also made sense with the design/business philosophy with which she launched Tibi: “It was what I thought would work,” she said when asked how she approached the design process. “It was definitely a more intellectual approach.”
It took a minute to home in on exactly what the new Tibi would be. “We wanted to be perceived as edgy,” Smilovic said. “It wasn’t until I let go of that need to be edgy that we settled into clean, feminine, relaxed. We substituted edgy for modern. We were, like, ‘If it’s modern, modern is cool. Let Alexander Wang own edgy.’”
She hired retail consultant Robert Burke to help reposition Tibi’s image, and was early to the influencer phenomenon, recruiting Swedish blogger Elin Kling to help her style the collection and working with Man Repeller’s Leandra Medine while she was still in college to publicize the line on her blog and in-store appearances. Spring 2012 marked the debut of the new Tibi.
“Beside her being a strong creative visionary, Amy is also a very good business person, which rarely happens,” Burke said. “She had the foresight to see where the market for contemporary was going and what the future was. Women wanted more design at a good price.”
In another creative business move, Smilovic found away to satiate Tibi’s core retailers who still wanted prints by creating a new company, 4.Collective, in 2012 that sold the line’s classic fare to stores like Saks Fifth Avenue, Neiman’s and Shopbop under a different label to the tune of $3 million in its first year. 4.Collective closed two years later when it began to require more resources.
In five years, Tibi has become a premiere advanced contemporary brand. One of its claims to fame is being the frontrunner in the now-ubiquitous off-the-shoulder trend, which reached its height, at least for Tibi in spring 2015. “We did about $2 million in sales for the style,” Smilovic said. “We could have done more but knew that it was time to move on.” In addition to rtw, there are shoes, which have grown 75 percent year-over-year. Bergdorf Goodman picked up the shoes for fall. In November 2016, Tibi collaborated with Myriam Schaefer on a small selection of handbags.
Nordstrom picked up the collection in 2015 beginning with six stores and online, and expanding to 25 stores last year. This year, Tibi is carried in 37 Nordstrom doors plus online with the brand doing 4.5 times the volume it did when Nordstrom launched it. “The main reason Tibi is so successful at Nordstrom is because it really stands out on our floor. Tibi’s colors, fabrics and silhouettes are elevated and always on-trend but never over-the-top,” Andrea Foster, Nordstrom vice president and divisional merchandise manager for women’s contemporary apparel.
Smilovic has been stringent with the brand’s wholesalers, limiting markdowns to twice a year, no friends and family, no special promotions, and pulling out of department stores that wouldn’t comply. In 2006, it had 500 domestic wholesale accounts. Now it has 112. The company has also been cautious with it’s own retail strategy. It has one brick-and-mortar store in New York and an outlet in Saint Simons Island, Ga.
As for where Smilovic sees Tibi and the advanced contemporary market going in the future, “I think that’s a really good question right now, because you see some disruption in advanced,” she said. “I can go onto a floor right now and some of the advanced brands that I look like and I’m, like, ‘Someone let the merchandisers into the house here.’ You just start listening to the buyers. It’s amazing, especially in this industry, how many people come up with solutions that are to do exactly what you’ve done in the past.”