It’s model Anna Mila Guyenz, striding around on set in a button-up denim dress, who really gets to the heart of what makes New York label Tibi so appealing. “When I first saw this dress, I thought it was nice,” says Guyenz. “But now I’ve got it on and I keep seeing more details, I realize it’s a really great dress.”
She’s spot on: blending subtly challenging, interesting cuts with a throw-on-and-go ease, not to mention an insistence on using only the very best fabrics, Tibi is becoming the go-to for women who want to look cool and chic.
“There’s a fine line you have to walk,” says Amy Smilovic, the label’s founder, as we sip coffee in SoHo. “You can’t be too simple and things have to be very modern, but you have to do it in a straightforward way. We have a lot of women in the office and we’re always trying things on. It’s about body language: the moment I start fidgeting or have to tie something one extra time, it’s out.”
Tibi is now 20 years old but, while it’s long been considered a success, its current fashion clout and industry adoration is relatively recent, the result of not so much a refresh as a complete reinvention. Six years ago, Smilovic had a revelation: the contemporary label that she founded in Hong Kong just three days after moving there with her husband had become more about ticking boxes based on analytics than any kind of creative inspiration. Not only was she not enjoying it, she could see that this clinical approach wasn’t sustainable in the emotionally charged age of social media.
Everything I love has clean lines, is slightly feminine and always relaxed. I can’t stand when things are too precious or uptight”
“All of a sudden, it seemed like if you had a voice, you could be heard,” she says. “But if your voice is speaking 20 different languages, no one will understand you. To thrive in the world I saw coming, we had to have a very clear voice and identity, to give people a very clear reason to come to us.”
Smilovic took a leap and went back to basics, putting herself, rather than data, at the center of her designs. She riffed on clothes she had worn in the past that made her feel like her “best self”: the ones she wore on first dates or the suit she wore to her first job interview. “I realized that everything I love has clean lines and is slightly feminine – not girly, but feminine,” she says. “It’s always relaxed – I can’t stand when things are too precious or uptight – and it’s modern: I love new things, that’s why I got into this business. If I wanted vintage, I would open a vintage store.”
She also enlisted Swedish fashion influencer Elin Kling to style the runway shows and help breathe new life into them. This fresh, authentic direction was an almost instantaneous hit. The chunky knits, easy dresses and backless loafers quickly became a firm favorite for industry insiders, then, as word spread, for women across the globe looking for thoughtful, just-directional-enough clothes.
It takes serious courage to completely change course in such a cut-throat industry, but Smilovic is a true hustler and entrepreneur. She began her career in an ad agency, the perfect blend of her twin passions of art and business; she started her label with a handful of sketches and a cold call to a factory; and she learned her now-considerable skills on the job. “People always ask, ‘How did you start a clothing company without a design degree?’” she says. “And I’m like, ‘How would you ever start a clothing company with just a design degree?’”
Not that she’s aiming to build a soulless, big-hitting corporation. The label is still owned solely by Smilovic and her husband of 21 years, Frank, and the pair are determined to keep it personal: “Wherever we can, we put our hand in something; if I can hand-paint an element of the collection, then I’ll do it. We’re constantly challenging ourselves to think small, then big things will happen.”
Did she ever think she’d still be in business after two decades? “In that first year, I thought I’d be like Donna Karan, ruling the world, because you have that ridiculously blind cockiness when you’re starting out,” she says. “Then, my second year in, I didn’t know if I’d be alive the next month. I’d say that feeling has stayed with me for the past 18 years.”
If I can hand-paint the collection, I’ll do it. We challenge ourselves to think small, then big things will happen”
She credits her family and laid-back upbringing with her grounded approach; she was raised on a tiny island in Georgia, US, by her artist and psychologist father and teacher mother, alongside her sister who now heads up the Tibi HR department. Her teenage sons help, too. “I think it must be hard to have some level of humility if you don’t have children, because they’re always putting you down and keeping you in your place,” laughs Smilovic. “But they’re my constant Gen-Z focus group and I love seeing what they’re into. When they move out, I’m going to need to rent teenagers.”
Contrary to what you might expect, Smilovic’s day-to-day style is by no means exclusively made up of Tibi creations. Right now, she’s wearing a Tibi top and matching skirt with sneakers that she picked up in China (she’s tied the laces around her ankle with bows at the back), but she peppers her looks with pieces from Stella McCartney, Balenciaga, J.W.Anderson and more. “I always wear other labels,” she says. “I don’t believe that any woman would only have Tibi in her closet. So when I’m designing things, I’m always thinking about how it’s going to go with other pieces I wear.” Case in point: when you started buying those step-cut Vetements jeans, she was busy creating shorter, voluminous tops you could wear with them.
All women just want to feel their best. They want to feel in shape and strong, whatever size they are”
Smilovic wears a lot of menswear, such as Raf Simons sportswear and suits from Dries Van Noten that she loves to cinch with a belt. But whatever she’s wearing – or designing, for that matter – she’s always focused on the details, using her finely tuned instinct to work out what really looks good.
“All women just want to feel their best,” she says. “They want to feel in shape and strong, whatever size they are. Which is why we’re always thinking about what’s the right cut, the right angle to make a woman feel good. It’s so important.” Try on a Tibi piece and you’ll see that those instincts are right.
The people featured in this story are not associated with NET-A-PORTER and do not endorse it or the products shown.