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Milly Designer Michelle Smith Recalls the Toughest Moment in Her Career

When designer Michelle Smith launched Milly in 2001, there were very few brands that fell into the contemporary category. More than a decade after debuting her first collection, Smith's line of hip, made-in-New York City separates is a bigger player than ever. We sat down with to discuss where she's been, how she got there and where she still wants to go.
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This "How I'm Making It" installment is presented by OPEN Forum®.

When designer Michelle Smith launched Milly in 2001, there were very few brands that fell into the contemporary category. Today, the contemporary market generates more than $5 billion a year in the U.S., according to Telsey Advisory Group. More than a decade after debuting her first collection, Smith's line of hip, made-in-New York City separates is a bigger player than ever. We sat down with Smith in her Garment Center offices to discuss where she's been, how she got there and where she still wants to go.

So, you went to Europe right after this past Fashion Week? Yep, I went to Paris for the fabric show. My mom came along. I was working at the fabric show and she was going to the museums. My dad passed away a year ago so it’s a nice thing to do with her.

Where did you stay? Hotel Raphael near the Arc de Triomphe. I’ve been staying there for about 15 years. They take good care of me [laughs].

You kind of got your start in Paris, right? I did, but first in New York. I was always the kind of girl who knew what I wanted to do. Never questioned it. I always knew I wanted to be a fashion designer. It started off as fine arts and at the age of 11, I got into fashion illustration and did an arts school scholarship at Moore College of Art in Philadelphia. I did weekend programs while in high school. That was my first taste of going to a big city. Taking the commuter train home by myself.

Where are you from? I’m from Connecticut but my father transferred back and forth from Connecticut and New Jersey. I was very set on going to FIT in New York. It was a design school I knew about in New York City -- my art teacher told me about it. My parents wanted me to go to a traditional university first. I was really adamant about going to design school and I’m glad they let me do it. But I might do that with my daughter [laughs] -- make her go to university first. But, it was great, it worked out well.

I came to NY in 1990 and went to FIT. I lived on campus and did a two-year program in design. My parents paid for tuition and I had to pay for my expenses. I got a part-time job at Hermès. I’m just a kid from the 'burbs -- anything I knew about fashion, I knew from magazines. I remember at the time they listed the price of all the products on the bottom of the advertisement at Hermès. I couldn’t even fathom that something could be thousands and thousands of dollars. But that’s where I wanted to work, so I pestered the manager and was very persistent and got a job there part-time.

In retail? Yep, in retail. That really opened my eyes to the world of New York, to a whole other level of society, boomers and shakers. I had captains of the industry as my clients. Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, I helped her buy a tie once. And I met a different cross section of people I would have never met before or never been exposed to. It was cool. And working there helped me develop an eye for quality.

Was that when Margiela was there? No, it was before they brought on famous designers to design the line. It was an in-house person, I don’t remember her name. But it was a really cool moment. I wrote a letter to the president of Hermès when I finished my two-year program at FIT, requesting an internship in Paris. And I got the internship -- I was the first American employee that they sent to work in Paris. 
I did a little bit of everything -- I worked in retail, I worked in the buying office. It was a general training program, and it really helped me with my French as well. The Hermès internship was three months, and then I realized I really wanted to stay in Paris. I applied to design schools and got accepted into several. I chose a school called Esmod, but between Hermès and Esmod I interned at Louis Vuitton.

You have a very strong leather goods background. Did that help when you decided to launch a line of bags? Yeah, definitely. Once you’ve been exposed to that...I can spot a fake in seconds. It’s just a part of me, you just know it and see it. It helps me a lot having my own bag collection. And I love working with leather still today.

But back to Paris. While I was at Esmod, I applied for an internship at Christian Dior haute couture. I got it! It was for painting watercolors of the haute couture models -- Gianfranco Ferré was the designer at the time. I started in January after the show, so all of their orders were coming in, but all of the women would make modifications, Betsy Bloomingdale, etc.

So we would create modifications in watercolors, the house would get one and she would get a copy. There were Arabian princesses and all sorts of amazing clients and I would go try on these couture dresses. The girls were so nice, probably the only chance I'll ever have to try on a Dior couture gown. It was like a fairytale. I remember my first watercolor I did for them, my supervisor said, "No, no, no, this is way too heavy." I had a heavy hand with the brush and she said to lighten it up. I remember her correcting me and I really got the technique down, so I know all sorts of illustration tricks. I would have to run into Mr. Ferre’s office and I was scared of him because he was really big and intimidating.

After Dior and Louis Vuitton, you moved back to the U.S.? Yes, I wanted to stay in Paris but it was impossible to find someone who would sponsor an American. The economy in Europe wasn't great. But in the U.S., it was the boom-boom Clinton era. I interviewed around and I had a job offer as a design assistant at Calvin Klein. And I went to Hermès and asked a friend if she knew anyone that was hiring and she was like, "Do you want to go on this date with this guy?" I said, "No, I have a boyfriend in Paris, but do you know of anyone hiring a designer?" She called me a few days later said she wanted me to visit this guy at a coat company on Seventh Avenue. I walked in with my portfolio, we were interviewing and I was falling in love. That man is now my husband! I ended up taking a job at the company. I worked there for two years and it was the complete opposite of my land of couture and French luxury goods. But I learned so much there about the business side of fashion. How to sell clothes, how to make clothes that will sustain a business, how to source -- I had no idea about production schedules or fittings or how to cost things.

When did you decide to launch your own line? I was working for a designer called Helen Wang. I saw that my specific designs were getting orders, and I started to develop my own voice. The look of her collection was changing as I was getting more involved. Suddenly, I had the confidence to launch my own collection.

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How did you come up with the funds? I started in a very modest way -- I didn’t start with a big fashion show. I started by making a sample collection, and my husband -- who was my boyfriend at the time -- agreed to back me. The initial investment was $50,000 -- that’s not that bad to start a business. I sublet a little office with a pattern table and a sewing machine. I bought sample fabric, and I applied to be in fashion Coterie -- the trade show. It was a juried show, and I was selected to get in and was so excited! Barneys bought my debut collection. So did Fred Segal. From that show, I launched my business.

Was it very quick moving in terms of orders? I feel like a lot of designers, if they get a ton of orders early on, they don’t know how to manage it. I felt really prepared because my husband was my business partner. He has a lot of knowledge about production, coming from his family business, but he was still just helping me out at night. We went out and we found factories. I know every part of my business and how to do it -- it’s good to know it from the inside out. It was great -- I couldn’t have done it without him. And the most successful designers -- not that I’m putting myself in the lot -- but people like Marc Jacobs, Yves Saint Laurent and Valentino, they always have a very savvy business partner. Creative people don’t want to be worried about accounts payable. It’s impossible to do everything and do it well.

How did the business grow from there? The mid-2000s was an exciting time. The contemporary floor was born, and the business just self-financed itself. I showed in September, my first collection shipped in January -- it just propelled and grew at an amazing pace. It was doubling, I think, every year until 2009. And then there was the collapse and it went down. Now it’s climbing back up. That was the first time that it was not fun. It’s pretty lucky to sail for eight years. It was just fun and song and games.

What was the toughest moment during that time? It was very tough because stores were going out of business. I always had tried to balance my accounts between independently owned stores and department stores. But a lot of the independents were going out of business and the department stores were becoming very insecure about things like, "What does our customer want right now? Does she want dependable, basic clothing that she can wear for several seasons, or does she want the, 'Oh my god, I have to have it' piece?' But then, is that too frivolous?" There were too many questions in the air. I look back now and I laugh -- everyone had it so easy before 2009. Everyone just had money, or people thought they had money and they were living on credit. We lost a whole customer segment that was maybe living outside their means, and that will never come back.

As things got back to the new normal, do you think your design process changed? Yeah, I do. I think about it harder. I used to always go into the collection just having fun and designing exactly what I want to wear. Now, I think a lot harder about the different regions. I have to incorporate a lot of heavy weights for the North, lighter weights for the South, Europe wants something else.... There are a lot of different markets to think about, not just me and my happy bubble in New York City. I think more practically about what the wants and needs are of different markets. But I still love what I do. I’m skipping to work every day. Development, for me, is the most fun.

In two sentences, what does that entail? It’s the fabric research. I was just in Paris at the fabric show collecting swatches. For the next few weeks, I’ll lay them all out on my floor and make boards. Some fabrics I like as they are but often I want to customize them and change them, redesign them, add lamination. A lot of customization happens during this time. So now we’re getting into heavy workload. Mood boards used to be ripping tear sheets out, now I’ll have them on my phone. I create my fabrics, order my fabrics and then design into the fabrics.

You’re in a ton of different product categories, and I’m assuming that built up as you went along. From the ready-to-wear perspective, I always wanted to have a complete collection -- dresses, tops, bottoms, coats -- because there are always cycles in fashion where it's like, “Oh, the hot item is a top! Oh, the hot item is a dress!" so I never wanted to be the one trick pony. I never wanted to be pigeonholed.

Milly Minis was very natural. I had a daughter -- when she was three or four I started making clothes for her. The collection started with one little shift dress. I took it to Bergdorf Goodman and asked them if they were interested in having the exclusive. They’re my No. 1 single standing store in the world, my best account other than my own store. I let them take a look and it built from there. But again, it was natural -- I don’t like to take on too much work. I guess you get to the point in your career when you have to decide, are a few extra zeros going to make a big difference in my life? Or am going to be happy and have a nice balance? I go through my exercises with myself.

It seems, too, that you like to do a lot of the work yourself. You’re not a delegator. I do like to do it myself. That’s why I got into it, that’s what I love. If I had to delegate it to a team, it wouldn’t be personal.

You’ve got a store here in New York, a summer pop-up in the Hamptons, shops in Japan -- any other plans to expand, retail-wise? I’m opening several stores in the Middle East -- one just opened in Doha, and I have two opening in Dubai. I’d like to open more here in the U.S. After opening Madison Avenue, we still have a lot to learn from the business, and we wanted to focus on the website this year because I just felt like there was huge potential there. So we redesigned and relaunched it.

What was your goal with relaunching the website, other than drawing more people in? Well, my brand has evolved over time, and my old logo no longer represented my brand. So I modernized it. The website had to reflect that as well. So I cleaned it up a lot. I also launched a blog, the Milly Mag, fun stuff. It’s updated every day.

What’s your strategy for the next couple of years? I’d like to open more stores. I love being able to control my image and perception of Milly. I love my accounts, but they’re always going to show it in the way they want to, or put it next to a brand maybe I don’t want it sitting next to. I just want to have my own world. And I’d love to have a shoe collection when the time is right. I feel like shoes have gotten so expensive over the past 10 years. I don’t know why! I used to be able to find great shoes for $400, now you’re lucky if you’re able to find something for under $1,000. That could be the next opportunity.

If you had one piece of advice on how to succeed in the fashion business, what would it be? It sounds like a cliché, but you have to have such determination -- I never thought for a second that it was not going to happen for me. Now I realize, looking back, “Who the hell was that girl?” Because you get burned by life and things happen, eventually things don’t go your way. I never thought for a second that I wouldn’t get that internship. Each door opens up a new door. I think it's just about having the will, determination and working. I sound like an old lady! But the younger generation needs to work hard. You have to believe it yourself.

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