Discover the origins of the Tibi brand and the meaning of its name

Her brand may be synonymous with the contemporary-chic aesthetic now seen on a host of street-style stars around the globe, but few may know that Amy Smilovic's brand Tibi actually began in our fair city of Hong Kong, and perhaps even fewer might know that it underwent a 180-degree overhaul that allowed it to be the authority on the modern, relaxed silhouette today.

We sat down with Amy at Upper House Hong Kong to learn where the name Tibi came from and how she feels about all competitors following suit.

What brought you to HK all those years ago and why was Tibi born here?

My husband and I were both working for American Express but when he got transferred to Hong Kong, I realised I would have been reporting to him had I stayed, so I left, especially since I always wanted my own company. I had an art major in college, and I could draw and I loved clothing and I loved business and being in Hong Kong felt like it was the right place to start a clothing company. All signs were telling me that I should start a clothing line.

Where did the name Tibi come from?

Shortly after moving to Hong Kong, I met a woman who was from New York and she was engaged to a guy, who by total coincidence I went to the University of Georgia with. She and I started a line together named after her grandmother Tibi but six months after living in HK she decided to move back to the US and I kept the name, hired her sister to work for me for four years and the rest is history.

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What was the moment you knew your clothes struck a chord?

In fashion, you’d often strike a chord for a moment, until you hit another trend and so on. For example, in my first year, I did a show in Coterie in New York and Jeannine Braden from Fred Segal loved my skirt and said if I made it in different prints she’d buy so many. So I came back to HK, found these weird scarfs and asked the factory to recolour them (even they thought it was weird).

After we went back to Jeannine, all of a sudden it was Fred Segal, then Bendels’ then Bergdorfs, it just snowballed. Back then, when you hit a trend it was great but if you didn’t it was a struggle. Six years ago I decided I didn’t want to have a business based on trend, and I decided I wanted to clean up the brand and bring it back to my personal aesthetic.

I’ve always liked things very clean and modern, relaxed and easy, and I put that up on a wall and decided this is what the brand is going to be.

What does a Tibi girl look like?

Our die-hard customer is one who would have Celine, Stella McCartney, Margiela, Dries van Noten, and a piece of Marni or two in her closet—brands that are quite clean and modern. And then when she buys the lower price brand, Tibi’s the brand she mixes in.

What do you think sets Tibi apart from other contemporary brands?

I try to stay away from the pure contemporary market. We try to focus on the young designer category because I love luxury fabrics, and want to play with strong proportions but the contemporary market is really price and trend driven and it’s driven by the masses. It’s hard to be modern and experimental and luxurious in the contemporary market. When we did that repositioning, the young designer category was really occupied by Isabel Marant who’s very bohemian, Alexander Wang, edgy, Phillip Lim, feminine and there’s no one doing clean and modern. And that’s really where my DNA resides. 

How do you feel about people copying Tibi?

It sucks but the thing is, by the time we start getting copied, I already want to move on anyway. When everyone started doing off the shoulder, I was like, “Go for it.” Because I didn’t want to be considered the off the shoulder brand. I’m moving on. If you keep doing something that you’re being copied for, you run the risk of being pigeon-holed and stores will only want you for the one thing. So when people ask me what my key to success is, I think it’s that I never let one thing get too big.

What’s next for Tibi in Hong Kong? Will we see a flagship store here in the near future?

I definitely would like to open a couple more stores, we’re really attracting customers from around the world to our New York store. When a woman is really a tibi woman, she really buys everything from us. It’s definitely on the radar for us to open a store here.

What’s a goal you've yet to achieve?

Every day we challenge ourselves to “think small,” like how can we do more things that don’t require big factories, and to do more by hand. We’ve been hand painting more, and I want to do things that are more and more creative every year. Scaling to huge heights is not really important to me, I have a team of 85 people, I don’t aspire to have 150. I would like 85 people who are really really financially secure and creative and enjoying their life and making beautiful things for those who love it, and those who don’t have other things to buy. We do not have to be everything to everyone.

What do you love most about Hong Kong?

I’m just looking at the skyline right now and I love it. It’s so energetic, I’m so appreciative that I had the opportunity to move here in 1997 because there’s nowhere else in the world that I would have been able to start my company. If you’re an entrepreneur, this is the place that is so supportive, the spirit here is such an attitude that you can do anything. It’s a very positive energy here. New Yorkers are smart, but if you tell a New Yorker you want to start a business, they’ll tell you 10 things that could go wrong. And I think they’re trying to be helpful but in Hong Kong, they’ll tell you 10 things that you could do to help you succeed. And that’s really how Hong Kong is.

Browse through the slideshow to see Tibi's F/W 2017 collection:

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