Twelve years ago, GREENWICH magazine featured an up-and-coming designer named Amy Smilovic. She had launched a line called Tibi—it was in its bright infancy then, known for whimsical prints that jumped off hangers into twenty- and thirty somethings’ closets and onto Glamour’s pages, with the endless energy and verve of its creator. Never mind that Amy had a baby and toddler at the time, and ExerSaucers and bouncy seats to trip over on the way to her sketchbook.
Flash-forward to 2016. Tibi is all grown up, and one suspects that the Greenwich home Amy shares with her husband, Frank, and their two teenage boys is littered with tennis racquets and hockey sticks. Although that is hard to confirm, as the stone manor off Round Hill Road is under renovation…for the second time in six years. Amy likes to change things up now and then.
We met, instead, at Tibi’s SoHo showroom, an expansive space accented with sixties décor, where Amy shared her wisdom on business, fashion, family, and the riskiest change she’s ever orchestrated.
THE NEW TIBI
What is most noticeable upon entering the Tibi showroom twelve years later is the lack of flowery prints and pastels that were once something of a Tibi hallmark. Amy wears an outfit of earthy tones: a dark Tibi mock-neck turtleneck and maxi coat, Vetements jeans and Gucci fur loafers. The racks display solid cream, tan, coal, and azure outfits with a chic flair. It looks like a completely different line from its Lilly Pulitzer-esque early days in Hong Kong, where Amy launched Tibi to fill a void in a somber offering of women’s wear.
“When I started it was all about the contemporary arena, all about different trends, whether it be an animal print or a bright color cotton,” explains Amy. “In the last eight to ten years, fast fashion is what is so new to the game: Zara is on Greenwich Avenue, Topshop is on every corner in New York, H&M is everywhere. The trend business is dominated by those types of players now. I saw what was happening and decided to wipe the slate clean.” Amy came up with a bold plan to transition Tibi into the higher-priced, higher-quality young designer segment.
“I decided to make Tibi a brand that is built very much around a lifestyle and a point of view. It’s for a customer who is seeking more than what Zara has to offer. They are not looking for copies. They are looking for fashion that lasts.” A more subdued, sophisticated, urban line emerged, which was completely different from the Tibi brand so many women loved.
“When she told me her plan, I thought, I don’t know,” says Toby Tucker Peters, a former fashion editor at Glamour and InStyle. “She designed these cute, awesome prints and dresses each season—that was her bread and butter. She even decided to redesign the logo, which was so well-known. Elevating the brand was a scary thing to do, but she hired some really amazing people and completely pulled it off.”
Amy says, “I just thought, What are the things I love and my design team loves that we never felt empowered to put in the line? Let’s do what we love and run with it.” Turns out that for Amy and her hip team, that was the opposite of pink polka dots and flowery prints. “My favorite color was always gray. When we were doing bright colors, I’d joke that I had to put on my ‘Tibi costume.’” Amy also sported blonde highlights then, and is now a relaxed brunette, with newly cut bangs. She wears minimal makeup and looks effortlessly put together and cool, like her clothes.
Dresses, which once encompassed 75 percent of the line, are now just a small part, and Tibi boasts a full shoe collection, accessories (check out the earrings inspired by Cuban swizzle sticks), leather, denim, sweaters and outerwear. Deanna Bastianich, whom Amy met when their boys attended Parkway Elementary together, says, “I can’t live without my Tibi gray shearling coat. It’s cozy and chic. I’m also obsessed with the shearling rider jacket—look at it online; words can’t describe how soft it is.”
While Deanna moved from Greenwich to SoHo and lives within walking distance of the Tibi boutique on Wooster Street, she and many women from Greenwich to Asia do their Tibi shopping online. “Our e-commerce business is large and healthy,” says Amy. “Selling directly, or through Net-A-Porter or Moda Operandi, gives us so much creative freedom. There is no merchandiser telling us pink is in or out.” Amy’s focus is designing with “authenticity,” and it’s working—to the tune of well over $40 million in sales in 2015.
“Social media is so important now,” says Amy, who socializes with young bloggers—“incredibly interesting, smart women”—such as Leandra Medine of manrepeller.com. “It’s amazing that at any point, we can communicate with 200,000 Instagram followers. Before we had no way to communicate other than buy an ad or wait for someone to walk through the door. Now we can see right away that 600 people ‘liked’ dress No. 32. Just last night Kate Hudson wore one of our outfits from the new spring collection to an event. It’s just so exciting. She posts a picture of herself and we ‘love’ it, then we post it and she ‘loves’ it. Before maybe she would have been photographed by People magazine. Maybe that would have come out a month later. You have so much more control over your own destiny now.”
Amy says Tibi’s highest sales are among thirty-five to forty-five-year-old women. “She is the perpetual thirty-five year old; she wants to look and feel like she did at thirty-five. She’s not trying to look like her daughter’s friend. She knows her style and feels confident. She likes clean, feminine clothes and functionality—looks that with one small twist work for the office, a night out, weekends.”
Toby adds, “What Amy does so brilliantly is to take simple easy-to-wear shapes and make them cool, current and wearable, which is key in Greenwich. Women here want to look pulled together; they are seeking that look that is one step above a jeans outfit but less dressy than what they’d wear out to dinner. That is the golden rainbow, the unicorn of the outfit world. For Greenwich, that is Tibi’s sweet spot.”
STILL A FAMILY AFFAIR
Soon after Tibi launched in Hong Kong, demand caught on in the States and a shipment of 4,000 dresses landed in Amy’s parents’ dining room in St. Simon’s Island, Georgia (where Amy grew up). Rather than complain about the crimp in her social schedule, Amy’s mom quit her job and set up Tibi’s U.S. office. “Now she has a 20,000-square-foot shipping facility, where we fulfill e-commerce orders,” explains Amy. “We can process $175,000 of orders in one day down there.”
Amy’s husband, Frank, also was an early supporter. The couple met on a tennis court—as mixed-doubles opponents—at a sales conference in Hawaii, when they both worked for American Express. Soon Frank was courting Amy off the court, and they were married three years later by the time he was transferred to Hong Kong.
Ironically, the launch of Tibi came about because Amy wanted to avoid having Frank as her boss, which is what would have happened if she’d stayed at Amex in Hong Kong. “When she told me she wanted to start a business,” says Frank, “I said, ‘Fine, but can I see a business plan?’ She sort of looked at me funny, and some time passed. Then she gave me a piece of paper with some stuff scribbled on it. In a visionary way, she had described what she wanted to do.”
“My Dad and my grandfather were both artists. Creative expression was always huge in our house, and being happy in what you do,” says Amy. “But I also had the business bug from the beginning. I had a great-aunt who had her own business. I thought that was so cool. And I knew a woman in Atlanta who owned her own ad agency. I wanted to be her so badly!”
Amy’s scribbled notes swiftly materialized into a clothing line. Along with her friend Octavia Jones, Amy launched Tibi, named after Octavia’s grandmother. “Mine are Bernice and Betty—not that compelling,” says Amy. (Octavia left the company a year later and moved back to the United States.)
“Amy is very smart, and she had a great background,” Frank says. “She studied communications in school; you can’t be successful without the ability to communicate what you want from people and what your product is in a clear way. She had phenomenal experience from Ogilvy & Mather and Amex. She also had the creative part; you can’t buy that. But she learned everything on the production end from scratch.”
Frank was so impressed with Tibi that he left Amex and became his wife’s business partner. “I always felt I wanted to spend the rest of my life with someone who wants to accomplish things and do things,” says Frank. “I must pat myself on the back. That was a good instinct I had about Amy right from the beginning.”
Frank, who is seventeen years Amy’s senior, might have been concerned about his wife becoming his boss, but the pair seems to have mastered the act of balancing responsibilities. “I won’t say
I’m the boss,” says Amy, “but we are a creative-driven company first, so creative decisions can override what seems to be a logical business decision.” They can disagree on business issues, Frank notes. “We like dissention; it makes us more creative.”
But there is no doubt this pair is a true team. “I get to see my husband 300 percent more than I would if I didn’t work with him,” says Amy, adding, “There is no way I could do what I do if Frank weren’t in it with me in every respect. He doesn’t leave the home stuff up to me at all. He is in charge of breakfast, school, and all the school activities.”
Frank says, “We have a rule that once we are in the door, we don’t discuss work while the kids are up. Once the kids are in bed, Amy usually is done but I’m not. Amy will be watching TV or reading and I have this of-course-brilliant idea. I say something like, ‘Why is our margin in this area below budget?’ She just looks at me and I say, ‘What?’ And then I walk away quietly. My timing is bad.”
A PURPOSEFUL LIFE
Amy Smilovic no doubt is a powerhouse in the fashion world. But ask anyone close to her and “powerful” is not the adjective they pick to describe Amy.
“Powerful implies intimidating or conceited,” comments Frank. “Amy is a strong woman. She can exercise the strength of her willpower and she has strong beliefs and conviction, but she knows when to back off and listen. She has tremendous patience. When that runs out, I’d say, Watch out!”
What Frank, who grew up in the Czech Republic, admires most about his wife is her “inexhaustible positivity. Coming from the communist world, I’m more in the school of Andrew Grove, the [former] chairman of Intel, who says he’s ‘always running scared.’ In business, it’s good to have both outlooks.”
Former fashion editor and friend Toby Peters comments: “I would say Amy is a purposeful woman. She has a life that is incredibly full. She segues so smoothly from running her business to raising her sons. I have younger children and am always asking her for advice.”
“I travel a lot,” says Amy. “But when I’m around we are homebodies. My oldest is into fashion. I took him to Paris and London for work this summer. He really enjoyed it. He has expensive taste and speaks his mind. He’ll tell them at Richards, ‘These pants aren’t tight enough.’”
Amy’s two worlds inevitably get woven into her brand. “In Greenwich, I’m taking kids to school or to hockey, I’m in drop-off lines with moms and thinking about how not to be that person shopping at Lululemon. Then I come through Grand Central in the morning—and see so much diversity—and work in an office where everyone is twenty-five and from Brooklyn. I’m always thinking about all those worlds and staying relevant.”
When she is not saving women from Spandex, Amy is making people laugh, which is its own form of power. “When she was at Amex, she was always called upon to roast people,” says Frank. “She is very funny. It would be good for her to get on a speaking circuit. She can capture an audience. It’s the way she sees the world, with humor. In our office, all of a sudden I’ll hear some screaming. I know it’s Amy making fun of someone and they make fun right back. She has a great way of loosening up the atmosphere.”
Toby adds, “Amy is incredibly self-deprecating and really, really funny.” When Toby was upset by a breakup years ago, she found herself at Amy and Frank’s loft, which doubled as the Tibi office at the time. “She let me hang out on the couch and gave me a glass of wine at 2 o’clock in the afternoon,” recalls Toby. “She has a wonderful open-door policy.” A humorous sketch Amy made for Toby, when she had her last baby, features Toby’s four children on leashes. “It’s framed in my office,” says Toby. “I’d much rather have that than a traditional card.”
“As a friend, Amy is inspirational to be around,” says Deanna Bastianich. “Her creative juices are always flowing; she has a great sense of humor; and she has, and comes from, an amazing family. Most important, she does not take herself too seriously and is a loyal friend. One of my fondest memories was when I met her in the city mid-week, and she snuck out of the office and we went to a matinee of Bridesmaids. I’m not sure who laughed harder!”
Where will Tibi be twelve years from now? Frank philosophizes: “We will move forward, and with Amy’s help be positive and with my help we’ll be a little cynical, and all will be good in the end.”
Amy replies, “We will be even more established as a worldwide young designer brand. There are a lot of opportunities in the young luxury market. We’ll open more stores. With e-commerce, the ability to work directly with the consumer is so exciting. Each day gets better and better. Every morning, my team and I come in so excited to create beautiful things.”