Founders Discuss: “How Are You, Really?” With Tibi’s Amy Smilovic

Uncertain, unprecedented, unpredictable—words that have been used to describe the time we’re living through are words that founders are used to grappling with. And still, there is nothing normal about doing business right now, no matter what industry you work in. So, today, Leandra is kicking off a new series in which she calls upon some of the most creative thinkers she knows, to have honest conversations about the unique challenges entrepreneurs are facing and to find out more about the unique, bold, and inspired ways they’re meeting them. First up: Tibi founder, Amy Smilovic.

Leandra Medine Cohen: How are you doing?

Amy Smilovic, founder of Tibi: Every day is different, right? It’s so indescribable. And weird to have something where there is no expert who knows how to handle this. Officially, no one’s been through this shit.

LMC: It’s funny to hear that coming from you because you’re a founder—and I get the sense that most founders tend not to rely on experts.

AS: That’s probably true, but at least I’d like to hear from one so I can feel more confident in a decision I’m going to make anyway. But there’s no perfect [fashion ecommerce] company to follow in terms of best practices.

Officially, no one’s been through this shit.

LMC: I think sometimes we forget that we look to companies we admire as models for how we want to be, when ultimately, we all have a unique set of problems. It’s like trying to model your family after another person’s. Anyway, how are you feeling this week?

AS: I’m worried about the tidal wave of bankruptcies to come [for brands]. And I’m hoping that a lot of them can come back stronger, for the sake of smaller stores. Every worst case scenario that we could have dropped back in February is now being realized. That’s crazy.

LMC: Amy, I feel like you specifically have known that something is coming and it’s part of the reason that you started building an own-able platform with, and the reason you never took on funding, and started to pull out of department stores. You’ve been so vocal about the ways that the industry is broken. Do you feel like any of those insights are kicking into high gear?

AS: I’m just so glad that we stayed so small and operated by instinct. I think all of the things you’re saying, they weren’t prescribed on paper, it was just us operating by what felt right.

I’m glad we get to figure this out as a team without investors calling in, or department stores holding the keys to our fate. I mean, my God, I’m so thankful I didn’t do a runway show for the first time this February. It’s weird how sometimes you just know something is afoot.

LMC: What are some ways that you’re seeing your instincts pay off?

AS: When we were ordering spring inventory back in September, we (and this was for a sustainability reason) decided to go with zero excess inventory. And now I’m like, “Oh my gosh.” I mean, the one time that we sliced our inventory position was for the spring and now here we are in the middle of a pandemic. So that really did pay off. And then I think being small and nimble has let us rethink what Tibi looks like going forward. And I feel really good that.

LMC: What does it look like? You sound very inspired!

AS: I am, because we don’t believe in big department store business. But I do believe there is big business to be had. So we are going double down on our global network of smaller specialty stores. Department store terms are tough for small businesses and as [the smaller brands] can no longer manage working with them, there’s a chance for specialty stores to get special again, with unique product that is not offered at every department store.

We’re really kicking away at this new way of selling where everyone who participates can win.

And then the other thing is that we’ve been trying to figure out our version of live selling for a long time — why doesn’t Home Shopping Network have a good, better, best model? Why is it the only segment of any industry that has no good, better, best?

For the first time we have an extremely captive audience that is our own network of amazing models, videographers, photographers, and incredible stylists who are all like, “We need a new way of doing business.” So I’m thinking, why aren’t we using our extended family to sell things, and instead of giving a department store half of that revenue, why wouldn’t I just give half to this community of people?

I think we’re really kicking away at this new way of selling where everyone who participates can win.

When I let go of half of our staff right after this pandemic hit—sewers, cutters, pattern makers, technicians, production people—I realized how many people did not have a safety net, and it scared the shit out of me. For years, I hadn’t been able to reward people financially the way I would want to because we were so compromised by having to do so many different things for so many different partners. Everyone had this different way of doing things and disrupting that came at a cost.

But it’s just crazy. It just really pissed me off the last few years that we weren’t able to really grow good employees because we were spread so thin. The new mantra is, like, keep the money in the extended family.

LMC: Does any part of it feel relieving?

AS: Yeah, it does. I had always been so proud, I was like, “We’re like a speed boat. If we want to take a sharp right, we can take a sharp right, we’re not a tanker.” But for the last couple of years, because people were spread very thin, you couldn’t go in and [change things] to move forward.

LMC: Do you have an idea of what the path forward looks like? I just came out of a leadership meeting, and the big topic of the day had to do with our office lease.

AS: Yeah. I mean, just since the pandemic, we’ve already racked up exorbitant bills in rent between the store and our office. So, that’s a fucking nightmare. And the store guy has been a total dick. But the office people are working with us.

If we move forward with this concept, then I see our office turning half into a studio-type space. And if the concept would work well, I could also see other brands coming in and using the space to sell their product. So I think you either have to pray that we can get out of spaces and downsize or take the space and really rethink its usage.

I mean, who knows, maybe the future is that we have some other designers working out of our space… there’s a lot of different options. What the pandemic has done for sure is it’s forced everyone to be a really creative thinker.

I think [when you’re on] a smaller team, everyone viscerally feels a problem.

LMC: Necessity is the mother of invention!

AS: Exactly. I was watching a documentary on Chiara [Ferragni], and I don’t know if you’ve seen it, but it reminded me of when you started out. They were saying she didn’t have this rock-solid business plan, so she just did everything by what was right for her. Whatever was best for her was going to lead the way. And I feel like that’s so much of what you did when you were starting Man Repeller.

It was just like, if it didn’t work for you, why would you do it? So you ended up creating something pretty perfect for the moment because it was ultimately fulfilling the needs that you had right then. And it turned out to be something incredible, new, and fabulous. So I think that if you think about the last 10 years, so much of the inventions have not been driven by a necessity.

LMC: Or even an honest desire!

AS: You see this ad and you’re like, “Have you always wanted socks to come in 30 different sizes? Well, we have your answer!” And I’m like, “I have never thought about a sock coming in 30 different sizes. You’re making this shit up now.” So I think that for a long time there was nothing disrupting the global needs.

LMC: It’s almost like we stopped operating based on primal instinct. All of a sudden it was like, “Well, this brand made this and so here’s a solution to the product they made. And then that product ‘solved’ this but here’s a solution for that.” And it just got so far from the core.

AS: I think with a smaller team, everyone viscerally feels a problem. No one’s coming at it from an intellectual standpoint.

Did you even think about the Met Gala? I don’t think bullshit fashion has any place in the future.

LMC: In the grand scheme of this pandemic and what we’re learning, how important do you think fashion will be? Do you ever worry about the future of your business because of the way in which the pandemic is revealing how much we don’t need?

AS: Did you even think about the Met Gala? I don’t think bullshit fashion has any place in the future, but I think, based just on my own incubator on Instagram, that people do still want to feel good about themselves and they still equate having style with feeling good. I think if you can help people discover how to feel better about themselves through style, there will always be a place for that.

LMC: Well, yeah, I mean that’s the difference, right? It’s fashion versus style. I’ve been cooking so much and as a result, have been drawing so many correlations between the necessity for food and clothes. And obviously they’re different. Because after we eat food, it goes away and we need more. We don’t need clothes to the same degree, but

AS: I get it. Because even with food, right? You could either eat beans all day or you could choose to make a really delicious, beautiful pasta. And so I still think many people prefer the beautiful pasta.

LMC: To be clear my perspective on style is that it’s as important as ever because our worlds have become physically so much smaller and clothes help us to develop narratives about all the different parts of us that we can’t expound upon anymore. But I do wonder about what people are shopping for.

AS: They’re buying what we discuss with them. Sales are happening online but no one is laughing to the bank. What is selling are these cargo nylon pants that we did. The lightweight cashmere sweaters have been strong. For sure any of the cozier stuff is doing really well. Shoes are like impossible to solve right now.

Although I posted some fall penny loafers the other day and got a huge amount of pre-orders on them. People do seem to be optimistic about shoes next season.

LMC: Well, yes. They’re optimistic about their relationships with the concrete for the future. Right?

AS: Exactly. Half of the buyers though are people writing things like, “We just want to support you guys.” That’s one of the biggest things that I’m hearing from people, is that they just want to support people that they like. And that’s why I do think that boutiques have the potential to be big winners out of this.

LMC: What kinds of pivot strategies have you developed that are yielding good results? Do I sound like a tech startup founder?

AS: Well, [Styling Director] Dione Davis and I go live on Instagram every Friday, and we take three key pieces and style them with lots of other things in our closets. Things that aren’t ours as well, that we’ve both just had. So, that’s been really great. And then on Wednesdays, Elaine [Tibi’s CEO] and I do an Instagram business class for young designers and entrepreneurs.

People send me questions during the week: How do I calculate cost returns? Or what are my legal options if this department store is canceling an order? My factories are refusing to ship unless I pay. And so we answer all those questions every Wednesday. So that’s been great.

LMC: You’re calling it great because the engagement’s really high? What’s the, to sound like a tech start-up founder once more, “ROI”?

AS: The engagement is high, but I also think it’s nice to show your real personality and I find that even just regular customers are interested in the whole business of fashion. And people, it seems, are glad to see that companies would help other companies right now. I don’t know, people are a little more curious than before.

LMC: I’m now looking at the help us give back post that you put on Instagram on March 25th.

AS: That was my favorite thing we’ve ever done. Thanks for promoting it.

LMC: Well I sent you that screenshot of someone who received an outfit because of you.

AS: We sent out 1500 items and that made me realize how important it is for the employees too.They really get behind that kind of stuff. They needed right then for us to be doing something selfless.

LMC: What do you hope doesn’t change back after all of this?

AS: I mean [the international] fashion weeks for all their pros and cons—whatever people say about it—it’s this time where you get to escape your family and hang out with people who are speaking 20 different languages at one time and they’re all together.

Fashion week was so good in that respect. Especially for women. Men get their board meetings and summits and this was really great that way where you could have a table of women from 20 different countries eating and drinking and laughing, and you’re having a really good, rounded business conversation. You’re not just talking about skirt lengths. I want to get back to that.

LMC: What about for your own business? What do you hope doesn’t change back?

AS: I want all my specialty stores to stay solvent so that I can help them and they can help us. But our industry was on a lifeline at best. And so there’s not a whole lot that I want to stay the same. I’m really ready for the 3.0 version. 2.0 happened in the mid-00s. So I’d like it to be 3.0. Not a new look, but a new way.

Graphics by Lorenza Centi.

Leandra M. Cohen

Leandra M. Cohen is the founder of Man Repeller.

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