INTERVIEW: Amy Smilovic

Interview by Brynn Wallner, photos by Cobey Arner (with some additions)
February 2023
        Amy Smilovic is the Creative Director and Founder of the womenswear brand Tibi, which celebrated its 25th anniversary last year. When I meet Smilovic at Tibi’s headquarters in the Financial District (just steps away from where China Chalet used to be), she invites me into her office, a warm smile undercut by a charming sarcasm visually complemented by the mug she’s drinking her Dunkin’ coffee out of that says World's Best Boss.

“I got this for myself,” she jokes. 

There’s a humming energy throughout the space as she and her employees (one of whom bought her the aforementioned mug) prepare for New York Fashion Week, where Tibi will debut a F/W collection in line with the minimalist, classic style she hard-pivoted to in 2011. When Tibi was founded in 1997, it was all patterns and colors, inspired by Smilovic and her then-business partner’s need for clothing fit for the tropical Hong Kong climate they both found themselves working and socializing in. There, Smilovic stumbled upon beautiful, handcrafted Indonesian prints, prompting a trip to Jakarta that turned into a week spent with a local print supplier that is now looked back as the genesis of Tibi.

It was the era of the Lilly Pulitzer revival, and luxury department stores ate Tibi up. Her brand was enthusiastically received (and even emerged relatively unscathed from the 2008 recession), but Smilovic no longer felt tied to its colorful identity. In a podcast, she bluntly described this period of Tibi as “stuck in pattern hell,” a sharp contrast to her personal style and her introspective Creative Pragmatism philosophy. So, she took a risk and rebranded, maneuvering her way through fleeting trends and challenging the existing categories of fashion, sitting at the helm of the ever-successful Tibi a quarter of a century later. All that, and… she has great watch taste.

Brynn Wallner: What was your first watch?

Amy Smilovic: Well, when I was in high school in the ‘80s, Swatches were the big thing – you’d wear 4 watches on your wrist at the same time. But I probably had fake ones because I couldn’t afford the Swatches. And then I graduated to Seiko. That was a big deal, getting a Seiko. And then I got a TAG Heuer next, which got lost.

BW: Oh no, what happened?

AS: It was stolen at a David Barton Gym.

BW: Throwback! When did you get the TAG?

AS: 1995.

BW: This is very interesting to me. TAG Heuer really seemed to dominate the space for women in the ‘90s. Do you remember which one it was?

AS: It was steel, very classic. It was smaller – smaller than what I like to wear now. I had been going out with my husband for a year at that point and he gave it to me. I thought he had re-gifted it because he presented it to me without the box. I thought maybe it was from an old girlfriend [laughs]. But he had actually bought it overseas and didn’t want to declare it, so he ditched the box. I learned that trick later.

BW: But you lost that one…

AS: Yes, but eventually I got it replaced. And then I got the hexagonal Cartier Santos. I also remember doing the early 2000s watch trend thing where you would wear really big watches. I had about three of those gigantic Nixon watches. They weighed, like, 300 pounds.

BW: Oh yes, I remember Nixon. Nixon was my first watch!

AS: They were big. What I still love is buying really cheap fake watches. Hold on, I’ll show you… [see photo of the 2 fake gold, iced out watches below]

BW: Oh my god.

AS: I love the irony of wearing something quite simple and classic with a horribly gaudy, amazing watch.

BW: You wear these?

AS: Yeah, you can wear one with a big chunky sweater and push it up like a bracelet. Really let it be jewelry.

BW: So you got these on Canal Street or something?

AS: No, I actually bought these in Port Chester, New York where we had a photoshoot. I styled them in the Fall 2020 Ready-to-Wear lookbook.  

BW: I’m speechless. This is so unexpected.

AS: But how chic is it, with this little navy outfit or a gray sweater?

BW: This reminds me of, what do you say? “Style, not outfits.”

AS: Style, not outfits. Fashion, not clothing. Seeing it as a whole picture.

BW: I like that approach because, when I first started getting into watches, I felt like most coverage was all eyes on the wrist, isolated. I didn’t see anyone online talking about watches within the bigger picture of the look.

AS: Oftentimes, watches fall under that classification of, for example, “I live in Greenwich, Connecticut.” It’s the woman with the Cartier Love Bracelet in the Van Cleef Alhambra necklace. She has the Birkin, and it doesn’t matter what she wears it with. (If I were wearing a Birkin, I’d only ever wear it with something beat up because it would be too obvious otherwise.) But for her, this type of consumer I’m picturing, she’s always going to have items that check the boxes. It’s just such a uniform. So I think many people do isolate the watch from the whole outfit; whereas I switch up my watch depending on what I’m choosing to wear that day.

BW: Tell me about what you’re wearing right now.

AS: It’s a Franck Muller. I don’t love the colorful ones with the big numbers, but I love how classic this one is. I love the black leather strap. I love how big it is – I wouldn’t even be upset if it were a little bigger. But I bought this for myself on my 40th birthday, and then I promptly smashed it the next week running down the stairs of our brand new (at the time) Soho store. I had never spent a lot of money on myself like that, other than on my first car, which was probably less than the watch back then. This was my first real investment for myself.

BW: Turning 40 is already a milestone, but you had just opened your store…

AS: Just opened the Soho store. We just had our first runway show. There were a lot of firsts that year.

BW: Was this the era of “pattern Tibi”?

AS: Yes, it wasn’t the total beginning because Tibi is 26. But the first show featured tons of prints. This watch just demonstrates the difference between what I was wearing then and what I was designing. By the looks of my first runway show, I should have been begging Van Cleef to create an Alhambra watch for me.

BW: Reading about your journey, it makes sense why you fell into that *pattern*. When you find something that works, you keep doing it…

AS: You also don’t realize that you can do anything differently. At the time, I understood that I wasn’t wearing my own clothing – but I was like, well, I’m making enough money to buy the clothing I want, and I’ll just keep designing this other stuff. But it was good. Our office then was at 56 Crosby Street, right around the corner from Balthazar in the heart of Soho.

BW: In the ‘90s?

AS: No [laughs]. That would place me at almost 70 years old. This was around 2007/8.

BW: Math is not my thing. But what a fun time to be in New York City.

AS: Well, yes. But then the market crashed right after we opened our first store.

BW: What did you do?

AS: It was horrible, and then it wasn’t horrible. The news was horrible, but we were in a part of the industry, price point wise, that wasn’t really affected. Luxury was affected, mass production was affected, but we were fine.

BW: People still needed clothing.

AS: People still needed clothing, as opposed to during the pandemic when a lot of people gained perspective or changed their perspective on fashion and clothing in general.

BW: It’s interesting talking about watches in the context of financial recessions or pandemics… Oddly enough, 2020 was a huge boom year for the watch market.

AS: I’m thinking about Patek Philippe: “You never actually own a Patek Philippe. You merely look after it for the next generation.” It really has to go down as one of the best taglines of all time. You apply that to all watches, now. You really see them as objects that are passed down from generation to generation.

BW: And you can therefore justify the cost.

AS: I think, too, all of a sudden, clothing and accessories became really expensive. I just bought this Breitling for my birthday last October, which is the price of two bags from The Row. You look at a watch and think, okay, this is still less than that Bottega skirt that all of a sudden went up in price. I mean, it’s stupid not seeing a watch as expensive just because a Bottega skirt is more expensive, but our points of comparison within the luxury sector are being shifted. You used to walk into Neiman’s and expect the watch section to be the most expensive… but now it’s the counter with The Row bags. 

BW: And what would you rather spend your money on?

AS: Exactly.

BW: I like that you chose the Franck Muller, which, to some may be mistaken for a larger Cartier Tank.

AS: When I got this one, the big thing happening at the time was that people were buying either the Cartier Tank or that Chanel watch.

BW: The J12?

AS: Yeah, at first I wanted that, and then I thought, oh no, I can’t take this seriously. This is going to be a trend.

BW: And falling into a trend feels so antithetical to your sartorial philosophy and contemporary Tibi. I read somewhere that you said you don’t want the clothes you wear telling lies about you. Watches are so prone to that because, if you just go and buy one you don’t know much about, other people will project an image or a personality onto you.

AS: A watch does tell a story. When each of our sons graduated from high school, we got them nice watches. Of course, my oldest wanted a Rolex. But my youngest, who was going to the University of Georgia, said I will get the shit beat out of me wearing a Rolex at Georgia. So we got him an IWC watch with a beautiful brown leather strap – something more discreetly luxurious that few people at Georgia would notice. He actually put that IWC away for a few years and now wears a Tissot that feels more appropriate for him at this age.

BW: That’s very mature of him.

AS: When you can find the watch that tells the story of where you are in your life… It feels really good to find that match up. And that’s why I’m glad I didn’t impulsively buy that Chanel watch because I would have wasted so much money. It wasn’t where I was, and it wasn’t where I wanted to be. With a watch, I would never want to get sucked up in a trend because it becomes such a part of your body when you put it on. It’s usually the last thing I take off.

BW: It’s so physical. And you’re always looking at it.

AS: I’ve stopped using the phone as a watch. I’ve actually started using the watch again as a watch.

BW: I was going to ask.. Is it set to the current time?

AS: Well, it was until the crown broke.

BW: Do you wear it everyday?

AS: I switch between this and the Breitling. It’s really big, my husband was like, really?! But my son was like, wow, that’s so gangster.

BW: What Breitling is it?

AS: A Chronomat with a green dial. In my mind, I wanted the navy, but when I got to the boutique, they were like, navy is the best seller. So I said no, I’ll take the green [laughs]. I get so many DMs about this watch.

BW: What do people say?

AS: They want to know what brand it is, what model. They want every detail.

BW: Mainstream interest in watches seems to be a new thing. People, especially women, are really starting to consider them as part of the look.

AS: I think that’s really true. People have been going back to basics… Personally, I’m off TikTok – I mean, I post TikToks and then log off, so I feel like a drug pusher. But I’m sick of it. I just sent handwritten letters to my kids. I want to hold things again, check the time on a watch rather than on a phone. I definitely don’t want an Apple Watch in my life. I don’t want to feel trapped within the notifications. I don’t want to know how many steps I’ve taken. I think there’s this larger push towards classics against digital exhaustion.

Our Fall collection references American classic movies. That’s why we went to Mexico for the photoshoot in a ranch setting. I know it’s not by accident that Yellowstone is one of the top shows right now and that Top Gun was revived. Can we just… see people on a horse? Do they have to be on a horse and then fly through a window and disappear into a zombie?

BW: Can’t they just be on a horse?! [laughs]

AS: Just a horse! With four legs. And a watch…

BW: And a jean…

AS: Some good denim. Yes, so anyway, I think it makes sense why people would crave a good, classic watch.

BW: We’re burnt out, and less is more!

AS: Of course, watches are luxurious, but everything in life is relative, and there’s a kind of beauty in that. When I was younger, I aspired to own a Seiko because I didn’t know anything else existed. I’m glad I didn’t know about the more expensive brands because I would have said, forget it, I’ll never get any of this.

BW: Do you have any words of wisdom for someone who feels as though they’re in a bit of a sartorial rut? I love how you were able to pivot and be confident in that decision.

AS: I’m really just a big fan of finding personal style through introspection. When you find out who you are and what you want to convey with the way you dress, you are so much smarter about the way that you shop. And watches are a part of that whole package. So, be thoughtful when you shop. And in life, too.

Amy’s “fake” watches, bought in Port Chester, NY – styled in the below images from the Fall 2020 Ready-to-Wear Tibi lookbook. In the background of this image is the manuscript for Amy’s book Creative Pragmatist.

An image from Tibi’s Fall 2020 Ready-to-Wear lookbook, styled chicly with a big, fake watch. 

Another image from Tibi’s Fall 2020 Ready-to-Wear lookbook, styled with a big, fake watch :) 

And another image from Tibi’s Fall 2020 Ready-to-Wear lookbook, styled with a big, fake watch!