5 Questions for Amy Smilovic

Pre-fall ’13 could prove pivotal for Tibi as the brand’s footwear doubles in size and lands more key retailers.

The label, founded by creative director Amy Smilovic in 1997, will now offer more than 30 SKUs, including new takes on Tibi’s classic ankle-strap sandal, embossed low-profile booties and flats, all retailing for $365 to $495.

“This is our break-out season,” Smilovic said. “The collection is growing exponentially.”

Tibi footwear has come a long way since fall ’11, when Smilovic streamlined her offering with one goal in mind: to create a few pairs to go with everything in the brand’s contemporary ready-to-wear collection.

“It was getting more difficult to tell the story of the brand without finishing it off with the shoes,” said Smilovic, who previously worked with licensee Nancy Geist for two years. “For me, shoes have always been such an important part of the outfit, and I wanted to control that piece of it.”

With a simple sandal that could go from day to evening, her footwear line immediately evoked the mature minimalism of Smilovic’s ready-to-wear.

“Each season is about bringing something creative to the table, but that’s still pared back, clean and minimal,” Smilovic said, further driving home her less-is-more aesthetic. “It can be a simple shoe. Sometimes the knee-jerk [reaction] in contemporary is that you need a bunch of stuff on [your designs], but you don’t.”

Tibi’s shoes will be available in Saks Fifth Avenue stores domestically, and more doors worldwide starting in June. Saks.com, Shopbop.com and Piperlime.com already carry the line, which is also sold on the brand’s e-commerce site and in its New York store.

International expansion is also on the horizon. Forty percent of Tibi’s overall business is done abroad, and the demand for footwear is only growing. According to Smilovic, new factory relationships in Brazil will aid overseas distribution.

Here, the designer discusses her strategies for growing brand awareness, creating for women and the changing contemporary market.

Why is keeping the shoes in-house important to you?
AS:
I really like things to stay true to our vision. With e-commerce and the huge amount of low-end product and the Zara-type [fast-fashion] thing, there is nothing more important than your brand right now. You have got to have a reason why people are coming to you.

Do you think being a woman designing for women lends an advantage?
AS:
I do — from the clothes on down. [My designs are] a little more pragmatic than what the guys come up with sometimes. … We are predominantly women in this office, and if a shoe hurts, everyone knows about it right away. It’s amazing that male designers can design outside of themselves, but I really have to visualize it myself.

How important is celebrity for your brand?
AS:
We had engaged with a celebrity PR firm for the last two years, but we stopped because it’s not our interest and we’re focused on working with tastemakers. Elin Kling, Leandra Medine, Miroslava Duma and Hanneli Mustaparta are entrepreneurial. They’re not frivolous girls. They’re physically in an environment where you’re one click away from a purchase. When you pull up [Medine’s blog, Manrepeller.com], and Leandra is wearing Tibi, it’s like you saw her in a shopping mall and she’s standing next to the product. That makes a huge difference.

How has the contemporary market evolved since you launched in the late 1990s?
AS:
Even two years ago, people were still trying to figure out what the contemporary category was. Every new designer wanted to do a shoe line, and it was licensed. Now with the success of Alexander Wang, Acne, 3.1 Phillip Lim and Isabel Marant, people understand [the importance] of a very solid identity in the contemporary market.

Now that you’re expanding footwear, what other product categories are in the pipeline?
AS:
We would love to do handbags, but we won’t do them until [we have] “the” bag. It can’t be something designed to chase a trend. Proenza Schouler and Acne are great examples of brands that came out with the perfect bags. They didn’t start out with 20 styles. When we know what our bag is, we’ll introduce it.