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, ashy-blonde founder, Amy Smilovic, is poring over a rack of clothes with her style director, Sarah Brody. They’re about to depart on a trip to Dubai, where Smilovic will host styling sessions and shoot content for retail partners in the region.

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

It’s all par for the course for a brand that’s hitting its quarter-century milestone. But most contemporary labels never make it that far. If you glance at the list of designers who showed alongside Tibi during New York Fashion Week in 2008—to pick a year at random—it reads like an in memoriam of names long gone: DooRi, Abaete, Behnaz Sarapfour, Erin Fetherston, Richard Chai, L.A.M.B. Even the brands that survived past the decade mark didn’t have an easy time of it. Milly, which would have stood next to Tibi in department stores, hit its stride dressing Michelle Obama, only to part ways with founder Michelle Smith in 2019. Rebecca Taylor, another feminine midpriced label, saw its founder quit that same year. You could explain these goodbyes as a part of fashion’s life cycle, but that’s not entirely accurate. Unlike those brands, who kept more or less the same aesthetic since their founding, Tibi took a hard pivot and evolved with the times. That move may have been its saving grace.

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

“[Olivia] introduced me to a local store that had these great Indonesian textiles. They inspired us to go to Jakarta and meet with a local prints supplier. We stayed at his house for a week and developed versions in bright colors that they had never used before in combination,” Smilovic explained. And so their first capsule collection of five pieces—originally named Tibi Hyland, after Jones’s 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 slipdress and a feminine cardigan. The idea of voyage was also huge. Amy’s line hit all the elements, plus she was in Hong Kong, so she was able to custom-make what I needed,” says Sarah Rutson, who served as senior buyer for the department store.

Smilovic and Jones had inadvertently tapped into an emerging trend with their collection. The late ’90s and early aughts marked the revival of Lilly Pulitzer. Tom Ford featured bold prints for his Spring 1999 collection for Gucci, and Michael Kors did an ode to Lilly for his Spring 2000 collection. The brand Tocca launched too, earning acclaim for its feminine, wanderlust-inspired dresses.

Tibi offered a similar look: pattern-heavy, tropics-inspired styles that suited preppy jet-setters. Soon Vogue, Saks Fifth Avenue, and Neiman Marcus all came calling. Within the first year, Jones made an amicable exit and Smilovic took over the business, dropping the Hyland and keeping Tibi.

But while Tibi might have been chugging along successfully as a brand, its core aesthetic of bright, colorful prints never felt quite right to Smilovic. She’d chosen it, but she soon began to feel pigeonholed. One moment that hinted toward her unhappiness was when InStyle swung by her Connecticut home for a photo shoot. When the team saw her space, which was decorated in grays, creams, and white, 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 semitruck [full of decor], like a Diane von Furstenberg rug and printed pillows, to completely restyle my house,” Smilovic recalls.

“If I did an interview, I’d be dressed like the way I am right now, in minimalist neutrals. And then they would say, Well, now we need to take your picture. And I would have to put on my Tibi designs like a costume,” Smilovic says. When she was a child in Georgia, her psychologist father was always urging her to live life to the fullest. If designing this colorful, wacky brand didn’t make her happy, then what would?

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

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

Deciding she needed to make a bigger splash, Smilovic made a prescient choice for her Spring 2012 runway collection, tapping Swedish fashion blogger Elin Kling (who is now founder of the cool-girl brand Totême) to style and street-style mainstay Julia Sarr-Jamois (who is now British Vogue’s fashion director) to star in campaign imagery. 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, sharp, and everything I loved,” recalls Smilovic. Future shows boasted the likes of Solange Knowles and Jessica Williams in the front row, not to mention every major influencer of the era—people like Chriselle Lim and Natalie Joos. A sure sign the revival was working: Photographers like Tyler Joe and Tommy Ton began waiting outside the shows in the hope of capturing the perfect street-style shot.

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

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 sparked me to go see it a decade ago,” says Stacy Smallwood, the founder of Hampden Clothing, a luxury boutique chain in Charleston. Smallwood has been carrying the brand since its pivot and credits its long-lasting appeal to its ability to withstand the whims of fashion. “Its aesthetic allows you to easily incorporate and build upon your wardrobe. Plus, the pieces never feel too trendy,” she explains.

In the early 2010s, designer Phoebe Philo dominated the fashion landscape with her arty, minimalist, women-dressing-for-women aesthetic at Celine. Tibi’s designs are often compared to old Celine—though of course the price is a lot more friendly. Smilovic is aware of the comparisons and takes them as a compliment: “If you truly understand the women who have this certain mindset, it is going to be no surprise that we are having certain sensibilities.”

“Tibi enthusiasts are strong, independent, and unafraid to take risks,” adds Shopbop’s 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’s a San Francisco–based tax accountant at a hedge fund, but in her off-hours she runs” data-ylk=”slk:Tibi Fans” class=”link “>Tibi Fans, a small Instagram and Facebook account that links 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’d missed out on buying the first time around. “It was crickets at first, but now it has grown into such an amazing community. Tibi attracts a group of interesting, accomplished, and thoughtful women (and some men) from all around the world. Chatting fashion (and more) has been a bright light during these uncertain times,” she says.

This same sense of community got Smilovic through the pandemic. 2020 turned out to be what she’s described as “fashion’s summer from hell,” as the retail industry crumbled, pandemic-related illnesses and deaths rose, and protesters called for social justice across a polarized country. In the midst of this, nobody was shopping for polished day-to-night outfits. Cost-cutting measures were inevitable (the brand laid off 44 people and shrank salaries), but Smilovic coped by doubling down on her community, reconnecting with them via social media (that’s how the IG Lives started), and placing faith, once again, in her instincts.

Tibi began doing IG Lives, dubbed “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 in with a bit of 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 the IG Live is “finding your style.” Smilovic and Brody discuss the key adjectives each would use to describe her style, while viewers chime in with their own. Three female staff members cycle through four to five outfits during the hour, noting what size they’re wearing so that viewers get a sense of what the clothes look like on nonmodel bodies. Another staff member manages the comments, which are all positive. Unsurprisingly, 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 down on Tibi’s brand identity. If you go to the site, there’s an entire 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’s wearing. The implication is that Tibi remains an oasis of grown-up woman clothing, the kind of stuff 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, in the same way Smilovic adapted to the minimalist 2010s, she acknowledges there are parts of our current aughts fascination that make sense for her brand. A triangular bandeau top nods to the going-out tops of that era, while jeans have become baggier, with low-slung waistlines. “We’re still concerned with modernity and what’s current. I don’t want to show up at a party where everyone is in their Y2K Paris Hilton attire and look like I’m the chaperone. I still want to feel like my best self,” she says.

After 25 years, what’s next? 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 paused runway shows in 2020, and she’s still not sure if she’ll bring them back. A plan of succession is also in the works, because at some point in the distant future, she will have to let go of the label she built.

For now, though, things are good. “The brand is in the best place it’s ever been in 25 years,” she says, “because I know for certain that it means something to people.”

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