04/25/2012 03:01 pm ET Updated Oct 11, 2012

Tibi Designer Amy Smilovic On Designing Without Formal Training, Casual Fridays And...Camel Toe?

Sitting in Tibi's Soho headquarters on a sunny spring afternoon, one would never guess that this was a company that was started by a young woman with no fashion background -- but that's exactly what happened. The year was 1997, and designer and founder Amy Smilovic was living as an expat in Hong Kong. Armed with what she calls "a few crappy drawings," she found two men named Benny and Ivan to translate her illustrations into five actual pieces. Smilovic had no formal design training, but was in desperate need of clothes that, at the time, did not exist. She describes a void in the marketplace between the likes of Armani and mass-market brands like The Gap.

When I asked her why she thought this new category of clothes was necessary, she credits the rise of casual Fridays in American offices. Suddenly, people didn't need to wear a suit, but they also couldn't wear sweatpants (we commiserated on the sad state of casual business attire these days to which she lamented, "Oh, and the camel toes everywhere!"). There were also a few moments that were, shall we say, lost in translation, like when Smilovic visited a factory in Hong Kong where the workers explained that she needed interfacing, to which she replied, "Of course, I believe communication and discussion are important, that's why I'm here." No, no, they said, you actually need to line these jackets with interfacing.

Soon, she sold her small production run to fellow expats and decided to pack up her samples and see how they'd do in the US. The Georgia native spent the summer of 1997 selling her burgeoning line (now called Tibi -- her former business partner's family name) out of the trunk of her car on the drive from New York to St. Simons Island, GA, where her warehouse is still located. When Neiman Marcus ordered 4,000 units, Smilovic had them delivered to her parents' house. Her mom, a vice principal at the time, had to unpack, sort clothing and send it out to vendors. As the business grew, her mother recruited fellow teachers from the high school to pack boxes -- the whole island pitched in, including her one of her mother's students, who, as their banker, extended their line of credit to $1MM just because he knew their family.

The turning point came in 1998 when both Scoop and Fred Segal picked up the line; their orders went through the roof. But, like most small businesses, that all changed after 9/11. Contemporary designers were fighting tooth and nail for those precious retail dollars. Does she feel that New York designers are a supportive group? "Not at all. It's not mean-spirited, it's just business." Until 2005 they continued to struggle as a small business. Then Smilovic made a game-changing decision: she staged her first runway show.

Fast forward to 2010 when the designer decided to take her company in a different direction. In her opinion, they had veered off course, listening to what retailers were telling her they wanted, rather than trusting her own instincts. She remembers saying, "Well, I couldn't imagine wearing that, but it will sell," and that's where she went all wrong. If she were to give her 29-year-old self advice, it would be not to listen to other people's opinions, but instead trust your gut.

Her decision paid off. With the help of clever marketing campaigns with bloggers like Leandra Medine and Elin Kling, and photos of celebrities like Olivia Palermo, Tibi is back and stronger than ever. I mentioned seeing a striped peplum top on blogger Hanneli Mustaparta during New York Fashion Week. Her publicist smiled and happily told me that it had sold out.


Want more? Be sure to check out Stylelist on Twitter, Facebook and Pinterest.

Subscribe to the Lifestyle email.
Life hacks and juicy stories to get you through the week.