Tibi designer Amy Smilovic transformed her business by becoming a creative pragmatist – WWD
No one would say COVID-19 has been a positive experience, but it has been transformative for Tibi designer Amy Smilovic, who is celebrating her 25th anniversary at New York Fashion Week on Saturday.
During lockdown, Smilovic created an entire philosophy of dressing and being that she calls “creative pragmatism” (she’s also writing a book about it), a tibictionary of her own styling terms to remember when dressing, and became an Instagram Live Star , which increases the brand’s following to more than 500,000.
She’s racking up thousands of views for her weekly “Style Class,” now in its third season, which teaches viewers how to organize their closet, find their personal style, and wear their clothes in different ways. has won customers that matter, while increasing its gross profit by more than 300 percent.
“It really is a community of like-minded people! Amy, you are a revelation! I’ve started refreshing my wardrobe and investing in a Tibi piece every season. They’re always the pieces I go to every time I don’t know what to wear but always feel my best and most myself,” one viewer wrote in the comments to a “style class.”
“Here in Mongolia people don’t know Tibi ‘yet’ but my friends, people I know, sometimes even strangers ask me ‘how do you wear something like that?'” wrote another.
Smilovic is celebrating her brand renaissance by inviting her clients to her first runway show since pre-COVID-19 in New York on Saturday. More than 800 guests are planned, even from Mexico. Some of them have become close friends through direct messaging about the brand’s content.
“Pretty quickly we got 30,000 or more views and we realized people wanted to have a conversation about anything but COVID[-19]’ Smilovic said of her style classes and eventually social media by just getting into the trenches and doing it herself. “I was really able to say so clearly who we are and why we designed what we made.”
“We’re a mindset brand,” said company president Elaine Chang, who has been with Tibi for 10 years, of the impact of Smilovic’s creative pragmatism ethos. “We’re not approaching it like the self-help section of a bookstore, but we’re starting to have conversations about where to go with this,” she added, not ruling out a possible TV show.
“CP [creative pragmatism] It’s about acknowledging that we are individuals, we have our own thoughts, and they may conflict with others, but that’s okay. The good thing about human beings is that you can create something new out of different things. If everything is the same, how do you create something in the world? Amy is very articulate about this. Clients will ask her if she can talk about how to wear a wedge shoe, and she’ll say, “I can’t speak to that, it’s not my aesthetic.” It was a thoughtful conversation about our point of view, and if you’re a part want to be of it, great. That’s very different from the general “listen to your customers,” Chang said.
Restraint has certainly bred creativity at Tibi, who Smilovic founded in 1997 after moving to Hong Kong from New York with her husband. The brand already had a pivot in 2012, from feminine and print-heavy to minimalist. There are 55 employees.
Part of the survival tactic during the COVID-19 downturn has been to reduce inventories by 60 percent and rely on staples like crisp nylon cargo pants, flowy trousers, oversized blazers, crew-neck shirts and sweaters, often with a slight flourish , like a hole in the back, a cut-out elbow, a split neckband or curved legs. Most pieces cost less than $1,500.
The IG Live ‘Style Class’ also helped the brand transition to more direct-to-consumer sales.
“We don’t sell to all these department stores anymore, and the business is just so much more streamlined,” Smilovic said during an interview at her Financial District studio.
It was about finding the true brand ambassadors.
“It was knowing that the world is so big and that it would be enough if we only found those who really think like us,” explained Smilovic. “It’s still not a lot of people, and it’s not every Housewife’s Bravo franchise, those aren’t our customers. We don’t really have a broad appeal, but for the people we reach out to, it means so much to them.”
Smilovic has expanded the Basics line, or “Without Fails” as she calls the collection of tube tops, jeans, cashmere cocoon sweaters and more, and encouraged experimentation.
“People wrote to me and said, ‘I’ve been wearing this for a while, how do I feel new?'” Smilovic said. “And I’m like, oh, try this ring on with that, or grab the band and twist it down. It’s not about going out and buying something new every time, it’s really about taking what you already have and manipulating it in other ways. So when you buy something new, it’s very thoughtful and you understand where it fills a need in your closet.”
Of course, a purchase can also be purely emotional. “I get that and I love fashion, but it really gives people confidence that we don’t have to sell them tons of an item.”
Footwear, including the stretchy Leo boot and fluffy faux-fur Lola boot, is a growing category, with volumes up 124 percent year-on-year, compared to 68 percent for ready-to-wear. But Smilovic resists the idea that she has to be in every category.
“I don’t have to be in the ironic funny t-shirt business,” she laughed, pointing out that the “Frosty’s” shirt she’s wearing with her own blazer and jeans is from a Georgia restaurant that’s in hers is near. “Not everyone has to like what you wear, but what you wear should make you feel,” she said.
She has 117 wholesale accounts including a number of multi-brand stores such as McMullen, Kick Pleat and Hampden Clothing in the US, as well as her own SoHo boutique which opened in 2005.
“Amy has created a collection that allows women to play with proportion and challenged our customers to rethink traditional wardrobe staples,” said Hampden founder Stacy Smallwood. “Customers of all ages look to the brand for its forward-thinking twist on pieces that still work in their everyday lives.”
Smilovic wants to open up new markets internationally by taking her “Style Class” seminars on tour, one of which is scheduled for October 2nd in Paris at Printemps.
“Milan and Florence are two of my top 5 cities on Instagram. I have over 40,000 followers from Italy and I only sell in one store,” she said of the potential in Europe.
She doesn’t plan to own stores anytime soon, but is toying with pop-ups after a successful temporary Tibi-Fit shop on Melrose Avenue in Los Angeles where customers could try on sizes and place orders. She may also start curating like-minded brands on her site, whether they’re fashion brands or something else.
All of this gives her energy for the next 25 years.
“Nothing could have happened here without my husband, Frank,” she said of her partner and chief executive officer, who also has a background in marketing. “Fortunately we get along really well. I also have Elaine and the best team. 25 years later I still can’t believe it. If we hadn’t turned around in 2020 I think we would have been toasted.”