When Amy Smilovic founded Tibi almost 20 years ago, contemporary designer fashion — a broad category that encompassed department store brands as well as the lower end of luxury design — was just beginning to emerge as the highly profitable, trend-driven market it is today. Smilovic began Tibi in Hong Kong in 1997 and, thanks to some well-timed luck and hustle, quickly garnered attention in U.S. for a series of printed silk scarf skirts, which helped launch the brand alongside feminine, print-loving competitors like Milly and Rebecca Taylor. It was a business plan that worked for over a decade.
At the Savannah College of Art and Design on Tuesday, Smilovic, alongside designer Valentina Kova, spoke to students about the challenges of starting and growing their own designer businesses. Smilovic — who grew up in Georgia on St. Simons Island — may have had a fast and fortuitous start, but she explained that only five years ago, she had to completely redefine her brand in order to maintain the business. "I thought, 'I can’t do this anymore,'" she said in a one-on-one interview after the panel. "The Zaras and the Topshops of the world were going to always be doing that contemporary world cheaper, faster, better."
Smilovic realized that, in order to survive, she needed to radically change Tibi's aesthetic to deliver an authentic and clear point of view. "I told my husband that we needed to sell the business or completely change it up to reflect my vision, who I am and what I want it to be, because I’m so not passionate about what it is right now," she said.
So Smilovic and her husband — who still run Tibi together without outside investors — cleaned up the aesthetic, raised the price point and downsized the business. "It was about very much narrowing the focus," she said. "I thought, if it becomes much smaller, that’s not a bad thing. I don’t need to play at this bigger level." Some of her designers left the company, but many were also relieved to be free from the pressure that comes with trying to compete with fast-fashion brands. "Other people were completely invigorated by it and said, 'Thank God we don’t have to hear about what Saks is selling or not selling and base it on that.' It was so much freedom."
Smilovic decided to move the price point up to a newly emerging space: advanced contemporary. "Designer has gotten so expensive over the last five years or so, and then you’ve got Zara in contemporary," she said. "The middle ground that’s occupied by Acne, Phillip Lim, Isabel Marant, Carven — it's a really wide-open territory."
Tibi now defines itself as clean, cool, relaxed and feminine. But it took time to transition there. For spring 2012, Smilovic enlisted the help of blogger Elin Kling — "the epitome of clean" — to style a minimalist collection devoid of prints for the first time in the brand's history. The next several collections focused on "giving things an edgier, cooler vibe," said Smilovic. Femininity was the last piece of the puzzle, which came together in the spring 2014 collection. "That was for us when the rebranding was complete," she said.
The next step has been narrowing down retailers. "There’s been a lot of clean up, getting rid of stores that used to carry us that should not carry us anymore," she said. If stores don't carry Phillip Lim, Isabel Marant, Acne and the like, then it's not the right retailer," she said. And though the aesthetic transformation is complete, getting the message out about that change has been a battle.
"Consumers are in a couple different camps right now," she said. "You have people who have never heard of it and they say, 'I love this, it fits this need.' Then you’ve got people who did know of it and have completely done a 180 and are in love with it. And then you’ve got people who are still skeptics." But the shoppers who understand the transition are shopping differently. Smilovic says that, whereas before, customers typically bought one dress from Tibi at a time, now it's not unusual to have multiple $10,000 transactions in a week from women who are buying a complete wardrobe.
Smilovic's current priority is to get the word out about the new Tibi and open more stores. Outside financial investment could help that execute that, and Smilovic says it's not out of the question. "Probably twice a year, we’ll accept a meeting with someone, and so we do consider it because we feel very much like we’re at this tipping point," she said. "It's not about fixing the brand anymore, it's about telling people it exists. The voice to tell people costs money and so that's when you need the big investment to turn on the spigots. But I haven’t found a partner that would be a good fit. I need financial value without the strings and that's hard to find."
In the meantime, Smilovic understands that it takes a lot of time to impact customers. "The rebranding gave me clarity on where we were going and the challenge is how can I get people to understand us and accept us in that field," she said. "It's got to be real for a very long time in order for it to seep through with authenticity."
Disclosure: SCAD paid for my travel and accommodation in Savannah to cover its week-long speaker series, SCADstyle.