This is how you keep a fashion brand alive for 25 years

Photo credit: Thomas Concordia - Getty Images

Photo credit: Thomas Concordia – Getty Images

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It’s a Wednesday morning at the headquarters of 25-year-old contemporary women’s line Tibi, and everything is business as usual. The brand’s tall, ash-blonde founder, Amy Smilovic, peruses a rack of clothes with her style director, Sarah Brody. They are about to travel to Dubai, where Smilovic will host styling sessions and film content for retail partners in the region.

Smilovic is dressed in exactly the kind of minimal, sophisticated look Tibi’s devotees love: a taupe silk shirt tucked into tonal trousers. She adds an almost identical blouse and pants to the rail, where they are paired with an oversize brown suede bomber, blue wide-leg jeans and a lavender sweater. Once that’s settled, she and Brody rush into Smilovic’s office to host the brand’s biweekly Instagram Live, a stream-of-consciousness styling chat that lasts about an hour.

That’s par for the course for a brand that’s reached its quarter-century milestone. But most modern brands never get that far. If you look at the list of designers who appeared with Tibi at New York Fashion Week in 2008 – to pick a year at random – it looks like a memory of names long gone: DooRi, Abaete, Behnaz Sarapfour, Erin Fetherston , Richard Chai , LAMM Even the brands that survived past the ten-year mark did not have it easy. Milly, who would have stood next to Tibi in department stores, took on Michelle Obama, only to part ways with founder Michelle Smith in 2019. Rebecca Taylor, another feminine mid-price brand, saw the founder quit the same year. You can explain these goodbyes as part of the fashion life cycle, but that’s not entirely accurate. Unlike these brands, which kept more or less the same aesthetic since their founding, Tibi took a hard pivot and evolved with the times. That feature may have been its saving grace.

Before Tibi existed in its current incarnation of fuzzy separates, it was a completely different brand. In 1997, Smilovic’s husband moved to Hong Kong for his job at American Express, and she followed. While there, she met another American expat, Olivia Jones. The two shared how difficult it was to find appropriate clothing for their new tropical life, especially since socializing mostly took place outdoors.

“[Olivia] introduced me to a local shop that had these great Indonesian textiles. They inspired us to go to Jakarta and meet a local printing supplier. We stayed at his house for a week and developed versions in bright colors that they had never used in combination before,” explained Smilovic. And so their first five-piece capsule collection – originally named Tibi Hyland, after Jones’ grandmother – was born.

Hong Kong-based retailer Lane Crawford immediately picked up the brand. “[At the time] fashion was all about a below-the-knee dress and a feminine cardigan. The idea of ​​travel was also great. Amy’s line hit all the elements, plus she was in Hong Kong so she was able to tailor what I needed,” says Sarah Rutson, who served as senior buyer for the department store.

Smilovic and Jones had inadvertently tapped into a new trend with their collection. In the late 90s and early aughts, Lilly Pulitzer marked the revival. Tom Ford had bold prints for his Spring 1999 collection for Gucci, and Michael Kors did an ode to Lilly for its spring 2000 collection. Labeled Tocca also launched, and is gaining recognition for its feminine, wanderlust-inspired dresses.

Tibi offered a similar look: pattern-heavy, tropical-inspired styles suited to preppy jet-setters. Soon vogue, Saks Fifth Avenue and Neiman Marcus all came calling. During the first year, Jones made an amicable exit and Smilovic took over the business and dropped out Hyland and hold Tibi.

But while Tibi may have run successfully as a brand, its core aesthetic of bright, colorful prints never quite felt right for Smilovic. She had chosen it, but she soon began to feel hollow. A moment that hinted at her unhappiness was when With style stopped by her home in Connecticut for a photo shoot. When the team saw her room, which was decorated in greys, creams and whites, they deemed it unacceptable.

“They came to my house and they’re like, Oh no, this is not a Tibi house. So they literally brought in a semi truck [full of decor]like a Diane von Furstenberg rug and printed pillows, to completely restyle my house,” recalls Smilovic.

“If I were doing an interview, I would be dressed as I am right now, in minimalist neutral colors. And then they would say: Well, now we have to take your picture. And I had to wear my Tibi designs as a costume, says Smilovic. When she was a child in Georgia, her psychologist father always encouraged her to live life to the fullest. If the design of this colorful, crazy brand didn’t make her happy, what would?

It took a chance meeting at Net-a-Porter to push her to make a change. “I wore a gray top that we had dropped from the line and a black full skirt, another piece we didn’t produce,” she recalls—styled with an oversize Stella McCartney bomber and Phoebe Philo-era Celine heels. The buyer noted how elegant the ensemble was and how confusing it was for Smilovic to shop a line that had little to do with her personal style. That’s when she knew it was time for a drastic change.

In 2010, Smilovic and design director Traci Bui-Amar decided to quietly sell off their printed pieces under a different name and rebrand the company. In many ways, this came full circle, since in 1997, when Smilovic first moved to Hong Kong, she had envisioned launching a fashion label inspired by 90s minimalist icons such as Calvin Klein, Donna Karan and Helmut Lang. For Resort 2012, which debuted in 2011, Tibi surprised onlookers with a collection of 13 looks that resemble the brand as we know it today.

Deciding she needed to make a bigger splash, Smilovic made a pre-selected choice for her spring 2012 runway collection, enlisting Swedish fashion blogger Elin Kling (now founder of cool-girl brand Totême) to style and street-style mainstay Julia Sarr – Jamois (who is now British Vogueits fashion director) to star in campaign images. It was a sign that the era of prints was dead and buried, ushering in a new era of social media-friendly clothing.

“It was a dream show: clean, crisp and everything I loved,” recalls Smilovic. Future shows boasted the likes of Solange Knowles and Jessica Williams in the front row, not to mention all the big influencers of the era – people like Chriselle Lim and Natalie Joos. A sure sign that the revival was working: Photographers like Tyler Joe and Tommy Ton started waiting outside the shows hoping to capture the perfect street shot.

“The customer was ready for that change,” says Caroline Maguire, fashion director at Shopbop“and Amy listened to it.”

Few brands attempt that kind of switch in direction (Mara Hoffman also comes to mind.) Even if you win over the fashion types, you still risk alienating customers and retailers. But it turned out to be the business decision that would take Tibi into the new decade.

“The stronger, more minimalist point of view is what made me see it a decade ago,” says Stacy Smallwood, the founder of Hampden Clothing, a luxury boutique chain in Charleston. Smallwood has carried the brand since its pivot and credits its enduring appeal to its ability to resist the vagaries of fashion. “The aesthetic means you can easily integrate and build on your wardrobe. What’s more, the pieces never feel too trendy,” she explains.

In the early 2010s, designer Phoebe Philo dominated the fashion landscape with her artistic, minimalist aesthetic for women who dress for women at Celine. Tibi’s design is often compared to old Celine – although of course the price is much friendlier. Smilovic is aware of the comparisons and takes them as a compliment: “If you really understand the women who have this particular mindset, it’s not going to be a surprise that we have certain sensitivities.”

“Tibi enthusiasts are strong, independent and not afraid to take risks,” adds Shopbops’ Maguire. “They make an art of balancing their professional and personal lives while being confident in their personal style.”

The women Maguire refers to are a devoted bunch, and Janka Dubakova is one of them. By day, she is a San Francisco-based tax accountant at a hedge fund, but in her spare time she runs a business Tibi fans, a small Instagram and Facebook account that connects lovers of the brand. The idea came to her in May 2021 after she was unable to find a dress on resale platforms that she had missed out on buying the first time. “It was crickets in the beginning, but now it has grown into such a wonderful community. Tibi attracts a group of interesting, talented and thoughtful women (and some men) from all over the world. Chattemote (and more) has been a bright light in these uncertain times, she says.

The same sense of community got Smilovic through the pandemic. 2020 turned out to be what she has described as “the fashion summer from hell“, as retail sales crumbled, pandemic-related illnesses and deaths rose, and protesters called for social justice in a polarized country. In the midst of this, no one was shopping for polished outfits from day to night. Cost-cutting measures were inevitable (the brand laid off 44 people and cut wages), but Smilovic dealt with it by doubling down on her community, reconnecting with them via social media (that’s how IG Lives got started), and again, trusting her instincts.

Tibi started doing IG Lives, called “Style Class,” in 2020 and they were a hit. Viewership ranges from hundreds to thousands of people at any given time, but the idea remains the same: practical styling advice mixed with some life wisdom.

Photo credit: Brian Ach - Getty Images

Photo credit: Brian Ach – Getty Images

Which brings us back to our typical Wednesday. The theme of IG Live is “finding your style.” Smilovic and Brody discuss the top adjectives each would use to describe her style, while viewers chime in with their own. Three female employees cycle through four to five outfits during the hour, noting what size they are wearing so viewers get a sense of how the clothes look on non-model bodies. Another staff member manages the comments, all of which are positive. Not surprisingly, the featured products tend to sell out. (Given the brand’s popularity on social media, Tibi is also dipping a toe into TikTok, the better to connect with a new audience.)

During 2020, Smilovic also doubled Tibi’s brand identity. If you go to the website, there is a whole section devoted to what she calls “The creative pragmatist”: a woman with a unique, highly personal sense of style who never sacrifices function for fashion and is interested in more than just what she wears. The implication is that Tibi remains an oasis of clothes for grown-up women, the kind of thing you can actually wear to the office—even as the fashion winds shift toward a return to a younger, wilder Y2K style.

But of course, just as Smilovic adapted to the minimalist 2010s, she recognizes that there are elements of our current fascination that make sense for her brand. A triangular bandeau top nods to the frayed tops of the era, while jeans have become baggier, with low-slung waistlines. “We are still concerned with modernity and what is current. I don’t want to show up to a party where everyone is in their Y2K Paris Hilton outfit looking like I’m the chaperone. I still want to feel like my best self, she says.

What happens after 25 years? Smilovic is not entirely sure. There will be celebrations throughout this year (if we’re being formal, March 12 is when Tibi was established), but she stopped runway shows in 2020, and she’s still not sure if she’ll bring them back. A succession plan is also in the works, because at some point in the distant future she will have to let go of the label she built.

So far so good though. “The brand is in the best place it’s ever been in 25 years,” she says, “because I know for sure that it means something to people.”

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