Tibi founder Amy Smilovic has seen a lot in the 20 years since she launched her brand, from the explosion of Amazon and Zara to the decline of the department store.
“When I started, I thought ‘It would be so cool to be in every single department store around the world,” Smilovic said. “And now I think about how to have extremely meaningful relationships with some stores.”
Smilovic runs the Tibi brand, which she considers to be in the “advanced contemporary” market, with her husband. The company is self-operated, as Smilovic has intentionally steered clear of the demands of a higher-power board that would accompany an acquisition.
Smilovic joined us on the Glossy Podcast to discuss her first two decades in fashion, and what it’s going to take for her to last another 20 years. Edited highlights, below.
For Tibi, see-now-buy-now is of no interest.
Smilovic said she wasn’t tempted to move her fashion calendar in-season following Burberry’s and Tommy Hilfiger’s move to see-now-buy-now. While that business strategy may work when you’re selling sweatshirts, she’s not interested in dealing in such basic concepts.
“We did not consider it for a minute,” she said. “We’ve made our mark by offering innovative, modern designs that are deceptively wearable. For anything in that category, it takes time for a customer to fall in love with it. I don’t expect her to sit down, see an item run past her on the runway once, then immediately go out and buy it.”
But that doesn’t mean the fashion industry isn’t partially broken.
According to Smilovic, retailers buying a million pieces of inventory up front, putting them on sales floors all over the world, then marking them down six weeks later when they’re not even in-season yet, is a sign that fashion is broken.
To avoid falling into that cycle, Tibi treads carefully when it comes to wholesale partnerships.
“We decided we weren’t going to play in that industry. [Launching] e-commerce, and that ability to sell to our own customer directly let us get markdowns under control,” she said. “Before, we were beholden to a retailer who was doing markdowns all the time. You don’t get a loyal customer with markdowns.”
Being self-owned puts that decision-making power in the brand’s hands.
Tibi is independently owned and operated, something Smilovic sees as the reason the brand is able to remain a creative company: It’s not driven by the corporate demands of a board.
“If we walk in the office tomorrow and decide it’s all going to be about balloon pants, our sewers are right there, and they make it up,” she said. “I don’t have a board to go to or anyone to explain to.”
Zara was scary, at first.
At first, Zara was just in Europe. Then, there was just one Zara store in New York. Not until the fast-fashion retailer started expanding at the rate of a Starbucks did Smilovic grow concerned about its looming threat. In reaction, she moved her brand up-market.
“It was really scary. The writing was on the wall,” she said. “We had to move up to the advanced contemporary market — otherwise, your price points are so close to Zara’s, but yours are always higher, and Zara always wins.”
Downsizing retail isn’t a bad thing.
Smilovic thinks retail is at a tipping point, one that she hasn’t seen before in her 20 years in the industry. But, as a whole, she thinks an industry being forced to do better is a blessing.
“When I started in the contemporary market, one in every 10 blocks in New York had a contemporary store on the corner,” she said. “That doesn’t exist anymore. People are forced to be great and innovative.”