Though currently based in New York, Amy Smilovic, creative director and founder of fashion label Tibi, is definitely no stranger to Hong Kong. She started the brand right here in 1997, and over the past two decades, Smilovic has successfully transformed Tibi into an authority in contemporary womenswear, charming street style stars around the globe with its clean, feminine and relaxed aesthetics.
We caught up with Smilovic for a chat during her visit to Hong Kong, where she shared with us her style philosophy, shopping principles, and her love for our city. Scroll down to read the full interview.
Can you tell us more about Tibi, and how you decided to go from a normal business job to starting your own fashion brand?
We were living in New York, and my husband got transferred out here. We were both working for American Express and, in the transfer, I would have been reporting to him, and that wouldn’t have worked at all. I was trained as an artist, but I had a marketing and business background from working for Ogilvy & Mather in advertising and from American Express. So when I started it was more like ‘I’m good at art, I know marketing, I know finance, and I love fashion. I’m moving to Hong Kong, therefore, I should start a clothing company’. It was logical and it made sense. After I started, I became very passionate about why I started it because I love the creativity so much. I love working with artists everyday and it just took off from there.
What makes Tibi, Tibi? Do you have a design principle that you stick to?
If I don’t love it, or if I can’t see myself loving it in the near future, then it’ll not be in the line. I don’t have to love it right away, sometimes I can hang it there and think ‘Can I push myself? Can I try something new? Can I get used to it?’ If the answer is yes, then it will always be in the line; if the answer’s no, then it should never be.
I have amazing artists who work on the team, and I always challenge them: ‘Do you love what you’re making? Why do you feel so passionate about this top?’. If they ever tell me ‘Oh, I love this top because I think it will sell so well and I can see a woman wearing it’, then I’m always like ‘But are you wearing it? Forget if it was selling, do you really want to wear it and would you be proud of it?’. If the answer’s no, then we just don’t put it in the line. I really live by that, because I think that if we love it and if we care so much about it, the customer will see that and it will do well. If we just do it because we think it will sell, it never does. People can see through it, it just has no meaning.
It sounds like you trust the personal style of your designers a lot, does that mean there's a particular type of person you look to hire?
My head of design and myself mirror each other very much. We have different styles for shoes and handbags, but for clothing we are very similar. Then, for the design team who works with us, we try to hire people who bring something different to the table. You know, because if two of us think alike, I don’t need four of us to think alike.
One of my other designers is very extreme, she is very much like Comme des Garçons and very much of that mindset; then one of my other designers is more on the feminine side. They bring their perspectives in, and my head of design and I are like the core of the nuclear. We take ideas from the others, and it all comes together each season. It’s good because everyone pushes each other in different ways.
It's definitely an interesting mix, but since you are all so different, are there times that you disagree with each other?
We disagree a lot, and that friction is always a good thing. We’ve all been together long enough now to know that, if we are in too much agreement, it’s never good, and someone will go ‘Stop. Something’s wrong here. Why are we all agreeing?’ It’s good to have that little bit of friction, because you always come up with better things. When you’re pushing and saying ‘I love it, but this could be better. Let’s go back and do this again and make it great’, that’s how you get really good.
Your brand has evolved a lot over the years from trend-driven to a more modern, clean and feminine aesthetics. How did that come about?
I think what’s different is when I first started the company, because it was a trendy brand, we went to more mega trends every season. If the trend was minimalist, then Tibi was going to be minimalist; but when the trend is about embellishments, then, you know, Tibi will be doing embellishments the next season. We followed trends where it completely altered how the whole brand looked. Now, we’re in a position where I would never chase a trend that would change the being of our brand.
No matter what is going on in the world, Tibi will always be feminine, relaxed and modern. We’ll always have an ease to it, and that will never change. When there’s a trend of a jacket or an off-the-shoulder top, that jacket will always be modern, clean, feminine and relaxed, and that top will always have those four attributes to it. Tibi will never be that crazy, whacky, nutty brand and then the next season be the serious, angry, or over-the-top brand. Your core being has to be consistent every single season. I love different things, I love to experiment, I love modernity, and I love newness, but my core doesn’t change.
Do you think that all this hype with social media has changed the way people design clothes?
What it’s done for us is, before social media, I had to rely on all these stores to tell my message. If I was designing a sweater and if it was going to Japan, they would say ‘To sell it in Japan, you have to put a cat on it’; and in Russia, they would be saying ‘To sell it in Russia, we need to trim it with purple fur’; then in Brazil, they would say ‘Okay, to sell it in Brazil, we need to make it very sexy’. Everyone was constantly trying to reinterpret your brand for what the stereotypes of their markets were. Now, with social media and our own e-commerce business, Tibi can be very consistent and have a very clear point of view.
If you’re in Japan and if you like things that are clean and minimal, feminine and relaxed, you find Tibi because you can find us, we have a clear message online. Same goes for Russians and Brazilians who want to look like us. They find us. We don’t have to go find them and change ourselves to be like them. I can be something very specific for a lot of people, whereas before the world of social media, I was having to be something different for everyone.
From the designs to marketing strategies, many luxury brands are actively shifting their focus to Millennials, what's your opinion on this?
We would never design something that says ‘this is about Millennials’ or about Baby Boomers or Generation Z or X. I hate to group a whole generation, because not everyone thinks alike, and we think about appealing to others simply by staying modern, new and relevant. If that happens to appeal to the Millennials, that’s great, but I would never say ‘let’s do Millennial Pink’ just to attract the Millennials. I happen to think pink is a nice colour so I’ll do it, but it’s not about attracting anyone in particular, it’s just about being modern and relevant.
That being said, I think if you look at some of the attributes associated with Generation Z, some of them are very appealing to us as a brand. My sons, 15 and 17 years old, are both in Generation Z. They are very interested in heritage, where things came from and the history behind everything. They don’t want to know just what Off-White is, they want to know who Virgil (Abloh) is and who he’s connected with; they want to know what Raf Simmons‘ story is and what he did for Calvin Klein and Dior.
They are very smart with their clothing and resell all of them online each season to buy something else of better quality. That’s why they would never buy anything from Zara, because you can’t resell Zara, it falls apart. Fast fashion has no meaning for them other than as a pollutant to the environment. I love that, and it gives me lots of hope. So as far as generations, I think that I — and therefore Tibi — identify with the way Generation Z thinks.
Can you tell us about your Spring/Summer 2018 collection?
It was a lot about individual style, and thinking about things that would last through time. Even with the music at the runway show, we thought about what music didn’t just come and go, what really stayed around. It’s from the ’60s, but my sons would listen to it, so would a Millennial.
For the collection, we thought about the classic pieces that really stand the test of time; the pieces that if you put them in a different fabric and proportion, you can see it in a different lens. Because you know, sometimes you go on Instagram and start scrolling, and you realise ‘OMG, everything is the same’, so what are the pieces that can be belted or tied in different ways that you can really make it your own?
We looked at the street style photographers from the ’80s such as Amy Arbus and Jamel Shabazz. It was a time when street style was just a little more accidental, and not so posed. How did people twist things and do things in their own way? That is something we really thought about with the collection.
What's your style philosophy when it comes to putting together a functional wardrobe?
To me things should build on each other and enhance what you already have. Same with my collections, each season is just a build on of my own closet. Everything in Spring 2018, should be able to be worn with your Fall 2017, which was worn with your Spring 2017.
I think you should buy something because you really want to wear it and live in it. I always feel so smart if something that I buy I know I can wear it to work, in the evening, during the weekend; I can wear it in July, but also in December. That’s what I hear from women when they buy Tibi. They come up to me, and they’re like ‘I bought it and I wear it so much’. That is the biggest compliment.
Tibi just celebrated its 20th anniversary, since you first founded the brand here in Hong Kong. What does it feel like being back?
I haven’t been back in over 10 years, and I can tell you it feels oddly like I never left. I was riding in the car today, and for a minute there it was like one of those out-of-body experiences where I almost felt like I was going over to Kowloon to meet with my factory. I was like ‘wait a minute, that’s not what I’m doing right now’, I’m here and it’s 20 years later and everything’s different in the world, literally.
I love Hong Kong though, I really do. It’s really just my favourite city. We’re always travelling between Paris, London, Milan, New York, but we’ve never taken our boys for a big Asia trip. I think next summer we need to take them here as well as through China.
Since you already know Hong Kong so well, are there any places you would definitely take your sons to visit?
I’ve been trying to get my colleagues here to come with me to do this, but in Deep Water Bay, right when you pass that big building with the hole in the centre, there’s a thousand stairs straight up the mountain. When I lived here, that’s where I would go run right up the mountain every morning. That was my exercise. I would run back down, but if you go up and keep walking, randomly on the trails there would be men playing mahjong. It’s very strange. So many people when they come to Hong Kong, all they see is the city and the skyscrapers, and they don’t know that in those mountains there’s some men playing mahjong (laughs), so I want to do that. I want to go to the American Club on a Sunday, and eat dumplings by the water. Also take them to the Big Buddha, go to the Jade market and see all the snakes, and take a sampan out to Lamma Island.
Tibi is owned solely by you and your husband, Frank. How is it like working with your spouse for 20 years, and how do you make it work?
It’s really hard and it’s getting harder. Mostly because he’s a night person and I’m a morning person. So at 10pm, he’ll say ‘Oh, did you look at the sales at the store?’ and I’d just want him to shut up. Then at 6am, I’ll go ‘Honey, I’ve looked at the store sales…’ and he’s like ‘Shut up!’ But it works out. The fact is, we’re together almost everyday except when I’m travelling, and I think that’s a good thing to see each other a lot. That’s probably one of the most dangerous things for couples in big cities where you work a lot, because if you don’t see each other from 7am until 9pm, you can drift apart. We’re in the same life together no matter what, so we make it work.