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Tibi Demonstrates How an Apparel Brand Can Successfully Launch a Shoe Line

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This week, we here at Racked are celebrating all things shoe related. From the world's wackiest heels to the sneakers of our dreams, we'll be exploring the highs and lows of footwear. Welcome to Shoe Week 2013.

Tibi founder and creative director Amy Smilovic

Tibi is one of the rare mid-range contemporary labels that started tiny and has managed to secure a foothold on fashion's top shelf. Since launching in 1997 with just four pieces, the label has evolved over the years to include six seasonal collections, a boutique in Soho, a killler e-commerce site, and a footwear line.

The brand's shoe collection has become a favorite among editors and retailers (case in point, Shopbop has used Tibi's shoes in many of the website's images this season, making the strappy, black-and-white heeled sandals practically ubiquitous).

Tibi isn't alone in the apparel-brand-turned-shoe-maker arena: Shoe launches are becoming something of a trend among contemporary apparel labels. Alexander Wang, Philip Lim, Rachel Roy, Proenza Schouler, and Rodarte have all dipped the proverbial toe in women's footwear in recent years, to varying degrees of success. And it's easy to understand the temptation: the markup on accessories and handbags tends to be higher than on apparel, and brands stand to make a lot of money.

That said, there are risks to entering the shoe market. It's expensive for one thing: large order numbers are necessary to accomodate all the requisite sizes. For another, shoe production is a complicated matter, requiring specialized factories, materials, and craftsmen. There's no way to seamless—or even easy—way to transition from apparel designer to shoe designer.

Tibi seems to be hitting a sweet spot, however. So we talked to the brand's founder and creative director Amy Smilovic to find out why she thinks Tibi's nascent footwear line is succeeding where others have failed. After the jump, she tells us what works, what doesn't, and why she has Band Aids all over her feet right now.

Racked: Why did you decide to launch a footwear line?
I've always dressed from shoe up, so it was very frustrating for me not to own that part of the dressing process. To me, if I am making this amazing outfit and then it is falling flat because I haven't had control over the shoe that goes with it, it is really frustrating. But embarking on the shoe line is a huge process, so we really wanted to make sure that when we did it, we did it right.

I would imagine you guys had a ton to learn about design and production.
We did. We started out with a licensing arrangement that we quickly cancelled. What's really appealing to me in the shoe market right now is the segment of designers who very clearly own their whole shoe process and they do it on their own.

What other apparel brands do you think are really doing shoes well?
When you look at Alex [Wag], Philip [Lim], or Acne, those brands they are very designer driven. You can tell there's not a merchandiser with a gun to their heads, saying, 'Minneapolis needs a 1-inch heel, you've got to do 100 skus,' and things like that. They are clearly controlling their destiny. Then you have other young designers and contemporary designers, who you look at and it's so clear that they are working with these big houses and they've got the mid heel, the high heel, the chunky heel, the gladiator, the not gladiator, sling-back, not sling-back. It is just so perfectly merchandised and everything that I hate. That is what I hated about working with a licensor. You are developing something for everyone possible who could ever have feet. And everyone has feet.

So who design your shoes? Are you doing it yourself, or did you hire somebody specifically for that role?
I hired someone. Her background was at Opening [Ceremony] and at Philip [Lim]. You do need an expert, just like in clothing. It is very hard to have the ability to visualize things if you don't really know what you are doing. The shoe designer takes the information from what myself and what my head designer want out of the shoes that season, and then she is the one that really brings the whole thing to life and puts pen to paper.

Chronologically speaking, is she designing shoes to complement the line you've already finished or are you working in tandem?
We are working in tandem. When we go to PV [the Premiere Vision fabric show] in Paris, which is always the start of developing the collection, we aren't looking at anything shoe related, but she comes with us, because I want her to be in our mindset from the very beginning.

Where are your shoes produced?
We produce in Brazil. They have a great hand there. I think our first season we worked with Italy and Italy obviously is amazing, but it is a little bit of a harder place to get things done, and China is too big. Philip and Alex are using China now, but it's too big there for us. Brazil is just right.

What price point were you aiming for? With shoes, I imagine it's more difficult to get the pricing exactly right.
I think that was true a couple years ago, especially when I was doing the licensed shoes, because you had designer playing in a $600 to $900 range and you had the contemporary range that Diane [von Furstenberg] was doing and maybe Tory [Burch] and that was like a $180 to $335 range. Philip and Alex were kind of just starting out, and Acne was coming out with a couple things, and Isabel [Marant] was coming out with a couple things. Their pricing was kind of right in the middle, and now designers have moved up 20% to 30%. Right now it's hard to find a Givenchy shoe for under $900, when two seasons ago it was in the $700s and $600s. As that's happened, it has made the Alex and Philip price point look much more palatable. And because they are in that price point, they can really offer a designer point-of-view, and that's what we wanted to do—to be able to have a distinct point-of-view that's not in a knock-off mentality, and that's not extremely high priced.

Is there a sweet-spot when it comes to pricing?
From what I understand from the retailers, it's [the $385 to $700] price point that is excelling right now. Philip and Acne and Alex and Isabel are really selling a lot of shoes, and it's because they are not trying to be everything for everyone. That segment of the market is where we put our pricing and our brand's positioning.

Are there a lot of financial risks involved by starting a shoe line?
There are. It's not like the clothing thing, where you can kind of just enter into a market and produce 40 tops. You really do have set minimums, and your developmental costs are significantly higher.

With sizing too, I can imagine that makes a big difference. You need so many more sizes.
You need so many more sizes, and I have noticed that's the place where the higher-end brands are really cutting back right now. Which sucks, because I am a 9.5. I am a 39.5 exactly and 40s are too big and 39s are too small. Marni and Jil Sander and everyone right now are just offering 39 or 40. That's the way stores are compromising. Even Barneys. Right now I am wearing Givenchy and I have band-aids all over my feet, because I went smaller instead of larger. You do have to have a lot of sizes, but again, we are very narrowly focused in our collection so it works out fine.

Smilovic partnered with Swedish blogger Elin Kling to style the Tibi Spring '12 runway show

And on the other side of the financial coin, a shoe line or, similarly, a handbag line can be incredibly beneficial to a label.
Yeah, I mean, I am going to Stockholm in a couple of weeks because we have this cult following. [Swedish model and blogger] Elin [Kling] and I worked together a couple years ago, and she was wearing the Amber heel everywhere. Now it's like everyone in Sweden wants this shoe. It's crazy. Our European distributor is like, "Why do we have all these Swedes calling us for this shoe?" It is one of our biggest search terms online. It is great when you can have that.

On that note, have you had any interesting customer service or buying patterns that you didn't expect, either positive or negative?
No, I think that when we took it away from the license, what we experienced was what I kind of always knew to be true. Women don't want a 1.5-inch heel. If a 4-inch heel makes them look great, they want it. It's about design and it's not about the heel height every time. I think it was nice to get away from that mass need and have those things positively confirmed. So that was a nice surprise, that women do want to look great in their shoes and if they want comfort they can wear Dr. Scholl's or whatever. I guess in a way it's a surprise how many great heels we can sell. People do look at a 4-inch heel as an everyday shoe.

Women tend to be super loyal to shoe brands that fit them well, or that they identify with, or they enjoy wearing for whatever reason. I certainly am. Was the Tibi girl who had been wearing your clothes immediately open to your shoes? Or was it a harder sell to get women who weren't used to seeing shoes at Tibi to try your line?
I think it was sort of a no brainer for the customers because the shoes were so in line with the clothing. Each shoe that we do should be able to be worn with 90% of the line. I think when you walk in to our own store and there is that much of a connection, it just seems so obvious that they go together. So from that respect, they are just so happy to be able to buy the whole thing all together.

Has there been a shoe that you thought would do great, but didn't really takeoff?
The two bombs that we had were this one eyelet-cut bootie that stood away from the ankle. It wasn't inherently flattering and because it was all eyelet cut, it had a level of fussiness to it that we are not really associated with. So it was a great shoe but it wasn't what people were looking for. And one time we did this brogue, and it was straight out of the Book of Mormon. Everything I do has a masculine bent to it, for sure, just by nature by how clean and minimal the styles are, but when it starts to get that clunky, postal-worker thing...

There's a sexiness to Tibi that maybe a chunky shoe wouldn't jive with.
The way I look at it is that you want to feel so good about yourself that a guy is attracted to your own self-confidence. The shoe that bombed for us, it is more of a "Fuck you, I don't need a man in my life," type of shoe, and that's not what our girl is saying.

So it sounds like in general, the line has performed the way you hoped that it would.
The way we look at the clothing line, everything is supposed to be clean and feminine, very simplistic in its approach, and that's the way we've looked at the shoes. I think the ironic thing is, because that was the approach to the shoes, it doesn't matter what you pull up on ShopBop or Neiman Marcus, they have a Tibi shoe with it. So that really helps. If I was making a really complicated shoe, they would put it in our area, but they wouldn't have it with every single Proenza dress.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
· All Shoe Week coverage [Racked]