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Surviving Fashion’s Summer From Hell

In late April, Amy Smilovic began streaming live from the Instagram account of her fashion label, Tibi. About once a week, she and Dione Davis, her styling director, would put on Tibi outfits and talk — easily, authoritatively — about how the clothes made them feel.

“When you feel good about the outfit that you’ve put on, your confidence just can go through the roof,” Ms. Smilovic said in one early episode, after Ms. Davis modeled a pair of tailored bloomers. In the same session she wryly compared her pandemic state to a “walking pharmaceutical commercial” whose list of symptoms included crying in the shower and sending emails at 4 a.m. Ms. Smilovic believed a good outfit could help with that too.

Tibi designs clothing for “creative pragmatists,” a term Ms. Smilovic, 52, coined late last year to describe a style she had long struggled to describe. The look is about balance — being modern but not edgy, she says, and chill but not bohemian. As she once advised on Instagram, where she also occasionally ribs Lululemon moms, Bravo stars and yogurt-straining yogis: “when u dress interesting u will feel interesting.”

From a design perspective, this usually means adding unusual twists to familiar closet staples: an oversize blazer with slits at the elbows; jeans that look as if they’re being worn backward; a crew-neck sweater with rounded shoulder pads. Ms. Davis called the weird accents “Tibi Easter eggs.”

As the summer continued, the styling sessions evolved. Instagram Live had become a popular feature in the pandemic as people (or brands, mostly) sought new ways to connect with homebound followers. At the beginning, Ms. Smilovic and Ms. Davis streamed from their homes, splitting the screen in half.

When they were allowed to return to their SoHo storefront and Wall Street office, the live sessions became more polished (but not too polished), eventually overseen by a filmmaker on staff. By September, viewership had grown from about 5,000 to 20,000. Some of the products featured were selling out online within days, they said.

Elaine Chang, the president of Tibi, had a theory about why the videos were resonating: “When all of us were consumed by 24/7 fight-or-flight mode, being able to share in Amy’s conversations about fashion and what it means for people reminded us of human potential,” she said. “There is a light at the end of the tunnel.”

The good news was that Tibi’s customer base was growing, with Instagram now driving 10 to 15 percent of all sales, the company said.

The bad news was that the world was still a catastrophe. There was no tiptoeing into this summer of hell — a season marked by widespread illness and staggering death tolls, police brutality and mass protests. Unemployment spiked. Industries collapsed. Sales at clothing and accessories stores dropped more than 50 percent.

One day Ms. Smilovic was jetting off to Paris Fashion Week, her label on track to pull in $55 to $60 million in sales in 2020. Three weeks later, she was laying off 44 people — more than half of her company — and cutting salaries for the rest.

“I describe this time right now for all of us as ‘baptism by fire,'” Ms. Smilovic told her remaining employees in an email this spring, calling the pandemic “a crash course in economics.”

But it wasn’t clear then, or even now, when the fire might stop.

Ms. Smilovic founded Tibi in 1997 after moving from New York to Hong Kong with her husband, Frank. She had previously been a marketing manager at American Express (where she met Frank). With no training in fashion, she and a friend started out making clothing for fellow expats.

In 2000, the Smilovics moved back to the United States and established Tibi in Manhattan. They are the sole owners of their company; in addition to the SoHo store, they have an outlet and warehouse in coastal Georgia, where Ms. Smilovic was raised, and where her mother works part-time.


Tibi, spring 2021.Credit…via Tibi

Credit…via Tibi

The bulk of Tibi’s business has always been wholesale. The brand is stocked at department stores (Neiman Marcus, Nordstrom), large e-commerce sites (Net-a-Porter, Farfetch), online tastemakers like SSense and popular regional boutiques like McMullen in the Bay Area. Its owner, Sherri McMullen, said that Ms. Smilovic visits her store every year to meet with customers.

“She gets in the dressing room with them, tucking and untucking and scrunching up sleeves,” Ms. McMullen said. “She does it with such ease that women feel connected to her, like they know her.”

Beginning in late March, weeks went by without payments from some of Tibi’s stores, Ms. Smilovic said. When the layoffs came, the only team Tibi kept intact was finance, which scrambled to secure government support, renegotiate bills and rent — Ms. Smilovic’s single biggest source of stress at the time — and rigidly monitor cash flow amid the wave of bankruptcies and order cancellations.

She spent April crunching numbers, “gripped with fear,” she said. In May, when some stores and offices reopened, that fear ebbed slightly. She’d signed a fashion-industry open letter calling for a more sensible seasonal shopping calendar. She felt good that Tibi had donated 1,300 pieces of clothing to front-line workers.

She was also inspired to work on Tibi’s internal stylebook, articulating the rules for the creative pragmatist’s wardrobe, which she’d been sharing during the live styling sessions and on her own blunt Instagram account. Like: The best pieces can adapt from work to home to evening to weekend. A good outfit has three textures. Don’t match your shoes to your top. Don’t wear skinny jeans with stilettos.

“It’s showing people who we are,” she said on a Zoom call in May. “I don’t know where or how it will pay off, but it feels like the right thing to do.”

Then, on May 25, George Floyd was killed by police in Minneapolis, catalyzing Black Lives Matter protests across the country. Some of those reopened stores closed again, boarding up windows to prevent vandalism.

On social media, Ms. Smilovic is far more candid than most creative directors in fashion. But during that first weekend of protests, she hesitated. She felt traumatized by what she was seeing on TV, she said, and wanted to wait until Monday, when she could talk to her team. Nine of Tibi’s 43 employees are Black.

Then, early that Monday, Ms. Smilovic learned the Tibi store had been robbed while a protest unfolded near SoHo, its front window smashed in with a crowbar. She left her home in Greenwich, Conn., to survey the damage.

“I thought that when I drove up, I would be filled with rage or anger,” she said. Instead, it felt more surreal and sad. She posted a picture of the window to Instagram with the words “I’m processing.”

The immediate comments were largely sympathetic, which made Ms. Smilovic feel uncomfortable. “I was the last person in the world that needed to be consoled,” she said. A handful of people left critical comments, too, about how Black lives mattered more than clothing. Ms. Smilovic deleted the photo.

In a statement she made after gathering her thoughts and talking to Black colleagues and friends in fashion, including Ms. McMullen, she promised to devote space in Tibi’s SoHo store to a rotation of young Black designers.


Tibi, spring 2021.Credit…via Tibi

Credit…via Tibi

In the meantime, Tibi’s financial outlook worsened by the week. “We just put a million dollars’ worth of spring inventory back into our company books,” Ms. Smilovic said during a dejected call in mid-June. “Stores in the U.S. are like: ‘There’s no way I’m taking it.’

“The supply side is hurt. The demand side is hurt. My God, the last week and a half on top of it. At least before, there was an enemy that we could all acknowledge and fight. The enemy right now is just breaking people apart.”

Though far from bubbly, Ms. Smilovic isn’t a pessimist, and as the summer dragged on, she began seeing some silver linings in Tibi’s sales.

A pair of $395 nylon joggers developed a cult following, selling out during the first run of 110 pieces, she said. Sellouts were happening with some regularity, now that factory production had been reduced — cut in half at the start of the pandemic — and the live styling sessions were catching on. August’s online sales were 30 percent higher than the same month last year.

“To be honest, I think people are understanding our brand better,” Ms. Smilovic said. It was a feeling she’d been chasing for a decade. Tibi had a different look in its first 13 years, one largely built around pretty party dresses with no strange accents or androgynous silhouettes. Ms. Smilovic grew to hate those looks.

“I was so sick and tired of not being proud of my brand,” she said.

So in 2010 she decided Tibi would modernize to align with her own taste. A few employees weren’t on board and left. But the biggest skeptics were the retailers selling the line, like department stores that had decided Tibi was their “prints brand.”

The new (mostly printless) Tibi was harder to categorize. It didn’t help that the brand had never been embraced by the fashion guard, which Ms. Smilovic has often attributed to fashion’s warped gender dynamics. In a business dominated by women, she said, there aren’t very many women designers at the top, and even fewer praised in the pages of Vogue.

“If you were a woman, it seems you either have to be a socialite — Rosetta Getty, Gabriela Hearst, Tory Burch, with a serious last name — or maybe a movie star,” she said. “I don’t say that to take away from the Olsens. I really like the Row. But are any of the top male designers in America socialites or movie stars? No, they all kind of made it on their own.”

One unforeseen consequence of the pandemic is that Tibi has been freed from some of its more toxic wholesale relationships, like with stores that ghosted on payments, or with companies that proposed paying the money they owed via payment plans as long as one year. (Ms. Smilovic said no.)

And don’t get her started on “exclusive styles,” which is when a store requests tweaks to existing items, like a skirt with a shorter hem. Sometimes the end result wouldn’t look like Tibi at all. Ms. Smilovic gritted her teeth and made them anyway.

“I would take the money, but it would tug at me,” she said.

Not anymore. When orders like those are produced and then canceled, it doesn’t mean just a potential six-figure loss. It means being stuck with clothing she didn’t like and didn’t want to sell on her own site — not after working so hard to refine Tibi’s aesthetic.

“It turns into this weird David and Goliath situation, where the stores are really just threatening the solvency of your business,” she said.

Cutting corners has helped. Recently Ms. Smilovic hosted a summer-camp-themed photo shoot for the spring 2021 campaign at her house, complete with a D.I.Y. set and her home cooking as catering. Frank, her husband, has been “sweeping up crumbs,” she said, like disconnecting unused company phone lines belonging to laid-off employees, saving thousands.

But there is tension, she said, when one-third of the company (finance) is devoted to making sure the other two-thirds (product and sales) don’t spend money.

Full salaries have yet to be restored. Tibi will likely end the year $2 million to $3 million away from breaking even, making this the first year Ms. Smilovic has had a loss, she said. But there is still a sense of hope that she can get Tibi back on track. A new track — the old one isn’t an option anymore.

“She’s in a position today to pull back and do what she believes,” said Robert Burke, whose luxury consultancy firm helped with Tibi’s rebrand years ago. “She probably will have a more profitable $10 million business than her old $30 million business.”

In August, sitting in her somewhat disorderly office, Ms. Smilovic was musing on what she wanted to wear in the future: pieces that act like attachments, turning existing garments into something entirely new, like a giant asymmetrical collar layered over a sweatshirt. The ability to transform something quickly has never been more important to her.

“I feel so much better,” she said. “Before, you were so focused on pulling yourself back up so you could bring back the team and be what you were. And now there’s no notion of that in our heads. This is what we are now.”

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