It’s Kind of a Funny Story: Tibi’s Amy and Frank Smilovic
Frank and Amy Smilovic talk young love, marriage, and the birth of their brand, Tibi
Leandra Medine: How did you two meet?
Amy Smilovic: We were set up to play tennis together in Maui on a business trip when we both worked for American Express. I didn’t know him. I had just moved from the South. I was in transit to New York with all of this luggage and my roommate had set me up with this guy –I didn’t want to go but she explained to me that I needed to network — he was the CFO of Amex. So the guy was playing tennis with Frank [Smilovic] and we ended up playing doubles. Frank was wearing a hat — he still has it — and he had a name that I could not pronounce. When we were done playing tennis, there was a party, and I was looking for Frank with the funny last name and the hat.
When we got back to New York, it turned out that Frank had the corner office on my floor. It was crazy that we were in such close proximity. I didn’t see him for a month but I ran into him in the hallway, I gave him a full body hug — I’m from the South! — but Frank is not from the South, he grew up in communist Europe, so he was like, “She’s really into me.”
Frank Smilovic: It was nice to see you! I don’t know how much we were into each other.
AS: So Frank said, “Let’s get a bite.” I thought he meant the cafeteria, but he meant Gotham Bar and Grill.
LM: Corner Office move.
AS: We planned to meet on a Friday, but earlier that week, he called up and said, “Do you mind if we don’t wait until Friday night, I’ve had a crappy day. Do you want to go get a drink?” So we went to the Mark Hotel and we stayed there for a while, and kept the date for Friday night. I had a date for Saturday and I cancelled that date and we went out again that Saturday and went to Barney Greengrass on Sunday.
LM: Frank, What brought you to New York?
FS: I actually started in Phoenix, Arizona.
AS: But his family escaped from the Czech Republic when he was 17.
FS: We settled in Phoenix because my father’s sister lived there and they were able to help us — none of us spoke English. I went to school at Arizona State University and after I finished, I wanted to become a professional tennis player, but I wound up working for Amex.
LM: That seems like a funny jump, but I guess that’s what the American Dream used to be. My dad is from Turkey and he came here in the early 80s and my grandfather told him, “I hear there’s a lot of money in gold jewelry, why don’t you start that business?” So my dad did.
FS: It’s funny because I would’ve studied medicine had I stayed in Czechoslovakia, but I came here and said, “I don’t know what to do,” and I think it was my aunt who said, “Why don’t you study accounting?” I hated it but I pushed through it. I started at Amex and it was because of tennis that I fortunately met some really interesting people who were at key positions there. I told one of the executives after a match that I wasn’t married to Phoenix, that I’d actually like to work overseas. And he asked, “Can you be in Paris on Saturday to start working on Monday?” I spent pretty much the rest of my career there working overseas in Europe and Asia.
I lived in Germany, the UK, Malaysia, Singapore, and Hong Kong. Which is where we started Tibi. We got married in 1996–
AS: Frank came home one day and was like, “How do you feel about moving to Hong Kong?” I was like, “I don’t want to live in Japan!” Frank was like, “Your ass is going to Hong Kong, for you to say that, and be that ignorant about the world, you’re going.”
I decided that when we went over there, I’d start a clothing company. That’s what I did. Within three days of landing, I had one.
LM: Were you married at this point?
AS: Yes. We got married the summer before we left, which was a story too. All of a sudden, nobody knew we were dating and then they were getting invites to a wedding — and we had been dating for three years.
FS: It was actually nice that everyone who was invited came. How did we tell everyone? I don’t remember how that happened.
AS: I remember going in and telling my boss, “But he’s international and I’m domestic.”
So we moved to Hong Kong and I started Tibi right away.
FS: I had nothing to do with it at that point.
AS: Yeah. In 1999, I got pregnant with our first son and we decided we wanted to move back to the U.S. At the time, Frank was working at Gateway and moving wasn’t an option, so Frank ditched everything and joined me at Tibi.
FS: By then, I did so much traveling and you have to make a decision: “Where are your roots?” We had a place on Crosby street that we had put a deposit down on the year before we decided to come back, it was going to be our showroom. It was about 3,500 square feet, so the decision was relatively easy.
Tibi was still pretty tiny. There were six employees working out of our apartment. It was an artisan residence so we were living there but also working. I got involved and it seemed like fun, not that I understood fashion. But from a business point it was pretty simple compared to what I was doing before.
LM: How did you operate from Hong Kong, did you travel frequently?
AS: My last year in Hong Kong, I traveled 11 times to the U.S.
LM: How were you even able to get pregnant!?
AS: I said, “Frank, it’s time!”
FS: There was nothing romantic about it.
AS: I said, “It’s going to happen at 7 o’ clock on a Sunday.” In December I was like, “Do I have a weird stomach ache?” I took a pregnancy test on the morning we were traveling to the U.S. and it came out negative.
By the time we landed I had eaten three sausage egg and cheese sandwiches at the San Diego airport. They were just so delicious. Later, at parent’s house, I felt so sick. I went to get another pregnancy test and he was changing a lightbulb for his mom and I said, “Are you ready?” and Frank was like, “‘I’m changing a lightbulb,” and I was like, “I’m pregnant!” And Frank was like, “I’m changing a lightbulb.”
You were screwing in the lightbulb so slowly. He was in his 40s, never married, he’d waited all this time. Our second son happened pretty much the same way.
LM: That must make a man feel terrific. How do you feel like your parenting mentality is different?
AS: My parents were such free spirits. My dad was an artist. We grew up on an island, we had a Jeep, we would go shrimp catching. So I always tell Frank, “If you lose everything, what’s the worst that could happen?” You just go and live on an island and catch your own shrimp. As long as you have this great family and you’re healthy, what else matters? And I think for Frank, his worst-case scenario is: Your whole family is in one bedroom, in Vienna, it’s freezing cold and everyone is hungry. So we have very different visions about what a worst-case scenario is.
FS: And I think that’s probably why were were attracted to each other.
LM:I feel that way with my husband where it’s just like: I’m so proud of myself to be able to identify something in you that I wish I had in myself, that I know I cannot have myself. But that can become a part of myself because it’s a part of him.
Even in terms of the immigrant, non-immigrant thing — my husband is a Syrian Jew — but the Syrian Jews have been here for generations. His mentality is much more, “What’s the worst that could happen?” Whereas my mentality, as a product of an immigrant mother who engrained it in my head that my passport is the most important thing I own, is much more: eventually we will have to pick up and leave.
FS: You know, you can debate this within yourself: which is better? And I’ve really come to the conclusion that there are so many ways to solve problems and approach things in life. The more ways you learn that, the much better off you are because certain situations require certain skills and knowledge.
LM: Can we talk a little bit about the business? It’s very challenging for a couple to work together. Probably one of the reasons you work together so well is because you met under the pretense that you were working together, right?
AS: I do think that’s huge. So many friends of ours are like, “I could never work with my wife.”
FS: We really do compliment each other. My mind works so differently than Amy’s.
AS: I always say, if you’re going to have someone from the South start a business, make sure that the business partner is an Eastern European communist. Frank does not trust anyone.
FS: I wasn’t a communist, by the way.
LM: Frank, are you involved at all in the creative?
FS: No, but I tend to be very direct in my life. Amy once in a while is so excited about what she designs and she’ll come in here and ask what I think–
AS: I don’t know why I do that.
LM: Do you ever change a style according to his opinion? Or kind of become convinced that it isn’t going to sell?
FS: Amy would never listen to me! That’s the bottom line. But I do make comments about our runway music sometimes. I’ve gotten pissed off a couple of times because it didn’t sound right to me.
LM: I find it very impressive. The company — specifically in the passed 5 years — has grown so tremendously, and that’s of course because of the two of you. There has to be some sort of formula or method that you’ve come up with.
FS: I think the interesting thing is, I have definitely brought value to this business because I’ve run other big businesses with so many people, and it’s been a great experience having worked with Amex. So the principles of doing business — especially in this business — are very critical. If you don’t understand cash flow, or where it’s coming from… I have to say, Amy is a great business woman on top of a designer.
Sometimes she hates it — that I bring her into, you know, “So and so is 60 days late and hasn’t paid.” But I do it because we’re partners. And I’m replaceable, she’s not. I tell this to potential investors: you can replace me with someone who understands the business, but Amy knows plenty about how businesses work. She can do it all, but her makeup is in design.
LM: I think it takes a lot of humility to know and say what you’re good at and what you’re not. Are you able to separate work from life?
FS: I think that we have a formula. We definitely talk about business on the way to work if we’re driving. We can’t talk on the train; people kind of get angry. But at home we try to pretend that curtain has come up and it’s a different sh0w — kids.
AS: The hard thing is that Frank is a night person and I’m a morning person. So every now and then I’ll really be enjoying a movie and Frank, thinking he’s making casual conversation will be like, “I thought you said the margins on this grid were in the sixties, but it looks like….” And I’m just like, Are you kidding me? Don’t talk to me about gross margins at 11 o’ clock at night! Then right when we wake up I’ll say, “Babe, I think the margins are 55…” And he’s like, “Let me wake up!”
FS: But it works. We have battles, though. It’s not as much about strategy, or where the business needs to go, because I defer to Amy for that. She understands the fashion industry and it’s in her DNA. It’s more about how we get there or how we deal with people.
AS: What you’ll find is that there’s that whole group that got you to phase 1, and phase 2 requires a whole new skill set. When you’re first starting out, the first skill set we look for is undying loyalty. The willingness to do everything. Now it’s like, I don’t need you to do everything. I just need you to do these three things and do them great. Frank — when he came in — said, “Amy, you have so many well-intentioned amateurs working here.”
FS: This industry is funny. I don’t think it produces enough well-trained people. People come in to it because of the creative side and some people know retail and some people don’t. Some people know how to write out a well thought-out note, some don’t. It’s different in the financial industry. It’s not some sort of pie in the sky. It either makes money or not. You can always be reaching into your own pocket and putting in more, but you don’t want to do that.
AS: No one can ever divide us. It’s kind of like if you have a sister or brother, you can bash them to your friends but your friends can never be like, “Yeah, your sister is…” People know that there’s a fine line, and nobody can ever talk to me and say, “We need to do something about Frank.”
LM: Are there any secrets to making this work? I find it very impressive that you were able to build a business and a family together. Any advice you would give to either your own sons looking for love, or to couples embarking on businesses together?
FS: Personally, my expectations are not huge. We want to be successful, but having come from where I did — when I was little, going to the cellar and putting coal into the basket — I’ve done fantastic. So I guess the secret for me is that I’m very appreciative of what we’ve been able to do. To this day, I go into our garden and I work. I pull weeds…
LM: You compare yourself to yourself, not to others.
FS: Well said, I’ve never thought of it that way. I don’t try to imitate anyone. I’ve always done the opposite. Consciously or not. I deserve respect and I give respect, that’s what it’s about. I don’t know if Woody Allen is depreciative of himself really, but I am sometimes.
AS: Oh please. You’re so damn proud that you put a dish away, I put dishes away all the time.
FS: Are you going there now? Oh gosh.
AS: Both working hard is key. I think I would have a really hard time if I worked so hard and came home and he was sitting on the couch. I think we’re both too busy to have our minds wander.
LM: I’ve known Amy since I started Man Repeller and I never felt like she was the kind of woman who seemed oppressed by a man. It’s probably very helpful that you’re so respectful of her and her time, and if we want to have dinner she’s always around for dinner. There’s definitely celebration of who she is as an individual, and who you are.
AS: It’s funny because when I was in Hong Kong, I joined the Women’s Business Association and the meetings consisted of every woman using it as a therapeutic place to bitch about their husbands’ lack of concern for their businesses. I remember I couldn’t relate at all.
LM: Do you ever give advice to your sons about relationships?
FS: They’re too young. We’ve guided them when they had school friends and someone did something. We just told them, “Be yourself, be respectful and it’s best to defend yourself in the event that someone punches you, but other than that, walk away.” Don’t ever set yourself up as a doormat either. We try to give them the strength and confidence that they’re capable. Even with our 14-year-old I tell him, “You’re really smart, but you’re not a genius; you’re not that 1 percent and that’s fine because that’s the way you’ve been made. Work with what you’ve got. There’s plenty.”
LM: That’s a refugee mentality thing! My mom used to say, “You’re pretty, but you’re not the prettiest. Don’t rely on your looks.”
If you were giving relationship advice to someone looking for love, what would you tell them?
AS: I would tell them to make sure the person is your best friend. Make sure you know who you are, and even if you know who you are, make sure you know you can be someone else five or ten years from now. Your best friend travels with you through that journey, but someone else may not. I can’t even imagine who I was at 24. I had just moved from Georgia without a passport. So for us to have gone on this journey together, I feel like I’ve had so many different personalities on that ride. Make sure you’re with someone who’s comfortable to level with change.
FS: It all starts with something that Amy’s dad told me when — actually, I think it was at our rehearsal dinner. He said, “Frank, just remember, it’s a roller coaster.” When you think about it, it’s a great analogy because I don’t like roller coasters — I get sick — but that’s what life is, and you need someone to be next to you when you’re throwing up. But also, someone who will celebrate with you when there is reason to celebrate.
AS: Who do you want sitting next to you in that roller coaster?