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Art of Style

The designer interview: Tibi

Tibi designer Amy Smilovic (left) with model Anna Mila Guyenz. Guyenz wears Tibi CR18 throughout

It may be 20 years old, but Tibi’s recent reinvention has made it relevant for our closets all over again. Founder AMY SMILOVIC talks about her new direction with EMMA SELLS

Photography Hanna TveiteStyling Tracy Taylor
Top, pants and shoes Tibi
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.

Dress Tibi; earrings Charlotte Chesnais
Dress and shoes Tibi

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.”

Catwalk call outs
From left: FW12, FW13, SS14, FW15, SS16, FW17
If I can hand-paint the collection, I’ll do it. We challenge ourselves to think small, then big things will happen
All clothes Tibi; earrings Charlotte Chesnais
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.

Sweater and jeans Tibi

The people featured in this story are not associated with NET-A-PORTER and do not endorse it or the products shown.