Tibi hits the runway with Heery’s in Athens

We sat down with designer Amy Smilovic, a St. Simons native and UGA grad, and shop owner Rusty Heery to talk Southern style, culottes, and the evolution of a brand.
Amy Smilovic
Amy Smilovic

Courtesy of Tibi

There’s a fashionable reunion in Athens tonight. Amy Smilovic, founder and creative director of global brand Tibi, is partnering with local shopping institution Heery’s to bring her entire fall runway show to the Cotton Press. The relaxed, cool-but-feminine Tibi has long been based in New York, but if there ever were a brand that we Georgians call ours, this is it: Smilovic grew up on St. Simons and graduated from UGA in 1989. When she launched Tibi in 1997, Heery’s was the first shop to pick her up.

Ahead of the event, Smilovic and Heery reflect on their history together.

MLB: Why this big event in Athens? Why now?

Smilovic: Heery’s is my longest-standing boutique. We’re coming up on our 20th anniversary in a year and a half, and as we’ve been talking about that, it’s led to a lot of discussions around who are the people we’ve been working with this whole entire time. The last couple of years we’ve been doing some very successful runway shows that have been localized. Being from Georgia and having gone to the University of Georgia—it all just made sense to us to do this here.

Heery: I remember the first shipment we got in. We were opening it right over there [points to a corner of the store] and Amy, and I guess her mom, had tied little tags on everything—it was tender loving care. They probably had watercolors drawn on ’em and little I love yous and all kinds of stuff. It was fun. That was 18 years ago.

MLB: What was that first collection like?

Heery: If I remember correctly, it was fairly preppy.

Smilovic: At the time I was living in Hong Kong doing fabrics out of Indonesia, so I was working with batik suppliers there. It was a range of cotton dresses and skirts and, like, one pair of pants. Back in the late nineties was when contemporary had just started, and so each season was very much about whatever the trends were. Then it was all about the little cotton dress. But then the next season it was about the printed bias skirt and it was just very very trend-driven at the time.

MLB: Is it still the same customer? I find I’ve grown up alongside Tibi.

Smilovic: For us, we find it is the same customer. Whereas before she bought us for a trend item, now she buys us for her entire wardrobe. It’s her staples. It’s what she goes to. So she still wears a little cotton printed dress, she just goes to someone else for that. It was a few years ago that I really felt the need to change the soul of the brand because it felt a little soulless, because when you’re about trends, you don’t really have a heart to it. You don’t have a clear identity. And so I really wanted to make the brand about the style that I was passionate about and make it more of a lifestyle brand. She still has that crazy printed whimsical side, it just isn’t really something that she finds with us now.

A look from Tibi's fall collection
A look from Tibi’s fall collection

Courtesy of Tibi

Heery: It’s definitely not geared toward the Southeastern girl like it was for a long time. It used to be very much spring driven. It’s evolved. And if you’re in the fashion world, you better evolve. You won’t be here for 18 years if you don’t. And I agree, I think the Tibi customer is still the same person. You said you’ve kind of grown up with it, so have the college girls here. I can go show you the printout: Tibi is our number one vendor this fall.

Smilovic: Aww.

Heery: I’m going to tell you a story, because it’s true. A few years back, I’m in New York [for fashion week], and this particular show was at the Piers—a real, long disjointed building with booths set up. I walk by and Amy’s sitting there reading the paper, and she looks up and she says, “Hey Rusty—you know, you really need to pay more attention to me—I’ve gotten to be a big deal.”

Smilovic: [Laughs.]

Heery: And there she is on the cover of Women’s Wear Daily or something. She said, “Look, I’m the Lily Pulitzer of Greenwich Village now.” That’s when things started exploding, I think.

Smilovic: Yeah, they were calling us like “Soho Lilly” and things like that. That was like 2000.

Heery: Fifteen years later she’s still evolving and growing.

MLB: Did you shop at Heery’s when you were in college here?

Smilovic: I couldn’t afford Heery’s! [Laughs.] I was waitressing, and I would save up for that one thing I would come here for. Whenever I could—the tips all went to Heery’s. I would have like a monthly pilgrimage here.

MLB: What was your time like at UGA?

Smilovic: I was a major in advertising and a minor in art. I was in the journalism school right down there [points toward campus]. This is where I learned to draw—but my dad’s an artist, so I grew up around art and drawing. I waitressed at an Italian restaurant called DaVincis. And I lived in an apartment just right at the end of this street, downtown. It was a loft. I don’t know if it’s still there, I need to go drive around. It was like—Gus Garcias and that Mexican restaurant…

Heery: You’re going way back, aren’t you?

MLB: You still seem very connected to Georgia—and you’ve got your outlet on St. Simons.

Smilovic: We have all of our back office headquartered here, in Brunswick. And we do that because—they’re really nice people. It’s a really nice team. We have stores tell us all the time they’d so much rather call our team down there. If you’re calling a big place in New Jersey, you would never know who you’re talking to. It would be someone different every day. I think that familiarity is really important. But just since I’ve started, the world is such a different place in terms of connectedness. I don’t think of our customer at all as a Southeastern girl or a Northeastern girl—40 percent of our business is international. So I think of our customer as someone who has a style that’s clean and feminine and relaxed, and she’s kind of forever 35 in her brain. When you’re on social media and you’re connecting with people in so many different countries, these regional lines become a little less important.

Heery: Amy’s come down to Athens three times—she talked to the fashion merchandising school last time she was here. She’s really good about connecting with her roots. This has been over a year in planning. I think actually bringing a runway show from fashion week in New York to Athens, Georgia, is probably a once-in-a-lifetime occasion—it’s real exciting for everybody. Amy’s got a busy schedule—you’re leaving I think tomorrow for Paris, right?

Smilovic: Yeah.

Heery: But she’s squeezing us in.

Smilovic: Absolutely. You know when I went to school here, I didn’t know about fashion week—that these things existed. And so I do think it’s exciting to be able to bring all the runway looks down here and let people see it live and experience it.

Heery: It’s not that she’s not for the Southern girl anymore—she is, she’s just expanded now to be global. She does things like—she’s dabbled with longer skirts [hitting his ankle], and the girls that wear them are so proud of themselves, they feel so cool. Then half the people just don’t understand it, and that’s fine too.

Smilovic: But they usually do understand it later on. When we try new things that we really believe in, it’s because I’m wearing it. At the end of the day, I am from the South, I am a mom, I work full time, I commute on trains—I have a lot of practical elements that go into the thought process. So like, if I do culottes, maybe it’s not for a customer the first few seasons, but if I really believe in it, we’ll stick with it. Finally three or four years later, that customer is like, “I love these, these are so practical!” I’m like, “I know—that’s what I’ve been telling you guys.”

I travel to the South a lot, and women here have really changed the way they dress. You’re on social media and Instagram and you can see the way women dress. When I was in college, I could only see how people dressed within, you know, a few hundred feet of me. It was that or a magazine. You had no visibility to how the rest of the world is dressing.

MLB: Is it unusual for you to have such a big presence in a small college town?

Smilovic: It’s very unique to here, with Heery’s. The stores we’re selling to are mostly in metropolitan cities. But actually, the whole Southeast is an anomaly—I think because I’m from here and we’ve been here for 18 years. People like knowing the history of it.

MLB: Do you remember meeting each other?

Smilovic: I always new of Rusty—but you wouldn’t have known me.

Heery: Uh-uh.

Smilovic: Like I said, I was walking in with my tips from DaVinci’s. Heery’s was the place you aspired to shop. I was like “I’ll know that I’ve made it if I can shop at Heery’s all the time.”

MLB: And now you’re carried in Heery’s as the number one seller.

Heery: Isn’t it funny how things have changed? Now I can barely afford your clothes.

Smilovic: Touché.

Tibi’s fall 2015 collection with Heery’s will be at a runway show at the Cotton Press, 160 Tracy Street, Athens, tonight at 6 p.m. Tickets can be purchased at heerys.com, and all pieces are available for purchase in the store.