Tibi Founder Amy Smilovic’s Battle with Fast Fashion

Derek Ezra Brown,

In the 1990’s, Tibi was among the first contemporary brands with what is now known as a “fast-fashion” price-point, before fast-fashion existed. They did extremely well selling casual daywear and chic, printed dresses, but with the rise of fast-fashion with overlapping designs, it was not enough to penetrate the new emerging fast-fashion market. After years of being in a grey area in the market hierarchy, Amy Simlovic, Tibi’s Creative Director, tapped into a newly growing market known as “advanced contemporary fashion,” now Tibi is competing with the likes of 3.1 Phillip Lim and Diane Von Furstenberg in major multi brand retailers and department stores like  Neiman Marcus . 

In this exclusive interview, which first appeared in the pages of the 12th issue of ODDA Magazine, Simlovic talks about how her company made it to it’s twentieth anniversary, her battle with fast fashion and how owning 100% her company made it possible to react quickly to the shifting contemporary fashion landscape. 

Q: I wanted to start by congratulating you on Tibi’s 20 years of success. Tibi is among the few American brands that will be turning 20 years old in the young designer/advanced contemporary segment that is wholly owned by its original founder, profitable, and with continued growth.

A: Derek, thank you very much. I really appreciate it. Together with my husband, Frank, we are so proud of what we have achieved and we know we couldn’t have done it without the commitment of our talented team. Onto the next 20!


Q: You fought the challenge Tibi was soon to face a long with other contemporary brands, the expedited growth of fast-fashion. Brands such as Zara and H&M had arguably overlapping designs with the contemporary market, and fast-fashion was sure to win the race with their significantly lower price-points. Can you talk about how you fought against the rise of fast-fashion with the revamping of Tibi, giving it a solid position in the young designer/advanced contemporary segment.

A: With the proliferation of fast fashion, what became so clear was that there just wasn’t a sufficiently distinctive value proposition between contemporary and fast fashion. If you could buy a designer copy, on-trend, and so-so made silk blouse from Zara, why would the consumer pay more for a “nicely” made designer trend inspired blouse from the contemporary market? What we’ve seen is tremendous pricing pressure on the contemporary segment. And, in turn, department stores orienting their contemporary buy towards less expensive product, ideally delivered faster. But, in reality, for us, we could never be cheap enough or fast enough – and, more important, I did not want our brand to stand for that.

For the first 15 years of my business, the ability to interpret trends well, coupled with a known brand could deliver a solid business outcome. I considered this satisfactory at the time. But when I sensed the impact of emerging market forces, I wanted to ensure that Tibi was on solid footing in order to embrace the future. It was very clear to me that for us to survive, and thrive, it was critical that we develop a brand that had a distinct point of view, that it would really mean something to the customer, and that it would offer something that would be meant to last, not just in terms of quality and/or luxury components, but also in terms of modern design. In all, our product would be designed to transcend momentary trends: in the art market, if one loves a piece, one invests in the art for a long time.

So, we moved forward with an undaunted fighting spirit by carving out a very clear identity for the Tibi brand, ensuring that the price value ratio of our product was clearly distinctive from fast fashion. We firmly believe that there must be a very real rationale for why a customer pays more. In our case, it is for real design, by talented designers with a point of view, and then made by people who care in luxury fabrics that will stand the test of time. We made the decision at an opportune time because the advanced contemporary (young designer) segment was quite small compared to other areas of the market that helped us clearly articulate a distinctive identity.

Q: Have you noticed other contemporary brands following in your footsteps to fight the rise of fast-fashion and becoming advanced contemporaries?

A: To make the change we did, we had to become very comfortable with walking away from significant business revenue; we had to make changes over time to our distribution matrix in order to ensure that we were selling in the channels that most aligned with Tibi as an advanced contemporary brand. To do this, you’ve got to be supremely confident that you are doing the right thing. The fact that my husband and I wholly own the business meant that we did not have to justify decisions to investors and this in turn gave us tremendous freedom. We could make sacrifices in the short term that were strategically identified to secure a long-term future in which we believed. Many contemporary brands at that time, or even now, do not have the luxury of independence so while third party investment may have fuelled their businesses in some ways, it is difficult to transform the business, or do business in different ways, even when the moment calls for it. Perhaps, as new designers enter the market, we may realize that being creatively fulfilled and running a profitable business can sufficiently be considered ‘success’ – perhaps the quest to be a ‘mega brand’ or the path to an IPO are no longer the end game.

Q: Do you believe there will ever be a demise of fast-fashion? How did its sudden rise come about?

A: I am supportive that people at every socio-economic level have the chance to enjoy beautiful things in their lives – to feel modern, or be on-trend and feel great. Fast fashion has been able to deliver this to so many people across the spectrum. But, the reality is that having more products in our lives doesn’t necessarily lead to more fulfilment or happiness. There was a time when I would see
customers shop at Whole Foods, and they would bring their own bags. At the time, I would kind of label them as “the same people that make their own yogurt at home” – but now, I personally become quite anxious if I’ve forgotten to bring my own reusable shopping bags because it feels wasteful. I do feel that way about fast fashion now and sense that others do as well. So perhaps this will lead to a change in 5 or 10 years.

Q: I find fast-fashion to be unethical, I believe the way its produced is not discussed enough. The use of sweat-shops in foreign lands is what enables them to sell their products for such low prices. Do you think there should be a sort of protest exposing how these products come to life?

A: It is indeed so heart breaking when disasters happen abroad at factories or unsavoury aspects of that day-to-day are uncovered. It is very important for industry participants to be aware and work to understand the factors that could go into bringing about improvements and change. That said, unfortunately, I don’t think I have all the answers to how to bring that about – other than continue with what I feel is my responsibility to create beautiful items meant to last by a team of artisans who can really take pride in their work. And a big part of this commitment on our part is not to engage in a massive off price strategy – when there is a revenue channel attributed to ‘off-price’, that means you have businesses purposely over-producing and potentially affecting the environment.

Derek Ezra Brown is a young journalist and fashion stylist who travels the world in pursuit of creating thought provoking fashion shoots and designer interviews.

the writer

Derek Ezra Brown

Derek Ezra Brown is a young journalist and fashion stylist who travels the world in pursuit of creating thought provoking fashion shoots and designer interviews.

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