Focus on fashion

Amy Smilovic fiinds success combining art and business

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Amy Smilovic Photo by Dan and Corina Lecca.

For Amy Smilovic, the founder and CEO of tibi women’s casual chic resort wear clothing line, the formula for success in business is simple: Focus.

“There is so much clutter in the world that you have to be focused on what you want to be known for,” she says. “You have to be true to what you want.”

Smilovic (ABJ ’89) started tibi in 1997 in Hong Kong, where her husband Frank was working for American Express.

“In Hong Kong, it was easy to be entrepreneurial since there was little bureaucratic red tape,” she recalls during an interview in her hip corporate offices on lower Broadway in Manhattan. “My business plan was cut-and-dried—make a product and sell it.”

While visiting Bali, Smilovic was attracted to the traditional Indonesian fabric designs of batik and ikat, but not the subdued palette of that Asian culture. So she got an Indonesian factory to put a new twist on those patterns and print them in bright, happy colors—pinks, yellows, whites—from which she made 100 dresses.

“When that first order sold out, I ordered 400 more and I was in business,” she recalls.

Models introduce tibi’s 2011 Spring line during fashion week in September at New York’s Lincoln Center. Photo by Dan and Corina Lecca.

Today, Smilovic oversees an eight-person design team that issues four collections a year. The team develops a concept for new product lines at the start of each season.

The tibi brand now includes swimwear, shoes and home accessories and has grown into a company with sales offices in London, Milan, Dusseldorf, Sydney and Dallas, in addition to New York. The company’s total annual sales are now in the $25 million range.

With its casual chic collections, tibi falls in the gap between couture designer clothes and mass market apparel, Smilovic says. Her line is marketed in such upscale retail outlets as Saks Fifth Avenue, Henri Bendel, Bloomingdales, Harrods, Harvey Nichols and Scoop. In 2006, she opened the first tibi retail boutique in the trendy SoHo district of New York. (Heery’s in Athens also carried the tibi line.)

The media buzz about tibi is obviously good for business, Smilovic acknowledges, including splashy photo coverage in fashion magazines such as Glamour and Teen Vogue, and postings on blogs and Facebook. The brand is also boosted by a celebrity following, including Scarlett Johansson, Drew Barrymore, Reese Witherspoon and Liv Tyler. The major promotion and sales event is the annual runway show during New York’s Fashion Week, now held at Lincoln Center.

Smilovic’s family is also is involved in the business. Husband Frank handles contracts and finances. Her mother supervises the national distribution center based in their hometown of St. Simons Island. For her part, Smilovic now divides her workday between designing and management, and cares for her two children.

Smilovic says she developed her work ethic in college working part time at DaVinci’s Pizzeria. Her father, an artist, also was an important influence.

Yet she attributes choosing a college major and career path to a the 1986 movie “Nothing in Common,” in which Tom Hanks played a Chicago advertising executive.

“I realized I could combine art and business and knew that’s what I wanted to do. It gave me focus,” she says.

“I loved the journalism school—my classes were mostly discussion-driven, and it was a thoughtful environment. UGA was a big university and I learned how to navigate it and become a big fish in a big pond.”

—John W. English, a professor emeritus of journalism at the University of Georgia, is a frequent contributor to GM.