This Fashion Designer Has Our Dream Job
Milly’s Michelle Smith dishes all the career (& life) advice.
Some people are so destined to do their job that it makes you second guess even your own career choice. Case in point: designer and MILLY founder, Michelle Smith, who, thanks to her mother’s early encouragement, (“you’ll become a fashion designer in Paris one day”) shaped her childhood dreams into something much bigger. Not only did Smith graduate from New York's Fashion Institute of Technology and move to Paris to work for some of the world's most prestigious fashion houses—oh you know, Christian Dior Haute Couture, Hermes and Louis Vuitton (yup, Mom was right), she then went out a limb and launched her own label.
And although MILLY is all about the classics, they adopt the most un-classic of shapes, colors and proportions. A would be A-line dress becomes a crop top and high-waisted skirt combo in street style bait worthy pattern. A crossbody leather bag is covered in fringe and dipped in various shades of neon. And judging by the fact that everyone from Beyoncé and Amy Schumer are fans, we’d say it’s working.
Back to the whole destiny thing though, because Smith most definitely has a natural flair for all things creative—not to mention, she actually loves coming to work every. single. day. (but really). And this became even more apparent to us when we arrived at her super bright Garment District headquarters. Let's just say that within five minutes that designer was dancing atop her office desk clad in Manolos, taking us through her latest sketches and throwing (quite literally) some newly released purses around while our photog snapped away. Post-shoot shenanigans she filled us in on her career mantra (do it right or don't do it at all), her morning reads, and why she won't look to the past for inspiration. It may or may not have been one of the most fun office shoots ever, but you guys know we don’t play favorites.
ON KNOWING FASHION DESIGN WAS HER CALLING:
“I feel fortunate that I always knew what I wanted to do. I always knew I wanted to be a fashion designer and was always a very artistic child. My parents supported my passion. Around the age of 11, all of my art kind of parlayed into fashion illustration and fashion design. Around that age, my mother said, 'Michelle, if you really like that, maybe you’ll become a fashion designer in Paris one day.' She opened up the whole world for me. Those few words were really the catalyst that launched my career because I ended up doing just that.”
ON HER EPIC CAREER PATH (TWO WORDS: PARISIAN COUTURE):
“I studied fashion design in New York, and then I ended up studying in Paris, working for some of the greatest couture houses in the world. Then I launched my new business—so it all started with that little piece. I feel so lucky because I have a lot of friends who didn’t find their passion. They’re still looking for their passion and I feel so fortunate that I always knew.
[Working in Paris] was really a fairytale. Being a middle-class kid from the suburbs, and to land myself in the world of haute couture was really an incredible experience. I felt a little bit like a fairytale princess every single day. It was amazing! I didn’t take it for granted at all. In terms of how it informed my work, it was really the traditions of couture and the attention to detail, stretching your mind and being unique. Many of the fabric suppliers and trimming suppliers I came to know when I was working there, I use today for MILLY. I work with them and collaborate now, which it’s cool. It’s really stayed with me. It’s a part of my personal experience and who I am, and it definitely shows up in my collection—a mix of that Parisian and New York energy."
ON KNOWING WHEN TO LAUNCH HER OWN LABEL
“I always knew inside that I wanted to be my own boss and an entrepreneur. In my very early twenties, I had a few investment offers to go into business but I knew the time wasn’t right yet. I felt like I hadn’t found my true voice or my design signature, and I think that it’s really important to have your own voice and signature—something unique to contribute to the market.
I launched MILLY when I was 27 and I was so sure. I arrived at this moment where I realized what I was creating was unique and it wasn’t like anything else out there. I had confidence in myself and I paid my dues working for other people and learning the business. I had really arrived at a great moment to launch, and I did. I think that’s why MILLY was successful from the start. In my first season, my collection was picked up by Barney’s, Neiman Marcus, Bergdorf Goodman, Fred Segal, the best stores in the world, so it was a fantastic launch.
I knew right away that I had a real business because I met my yearly business plan within the first three months. From there it grew very quickly, kind of exponentially every year. But it was also very natural and organic. The business was always able to fund itself. I launched it with Andy Oshrin, who was my boyfriend at the time. Everyone thought we were crazy going into business together, but I think we have a really great relationship and we respect each other’s strengths. We’re kind of the right brain and the left brain—I handle all creative and he handles the financial and business side of things, and we collaborate when it comes to business strategy and marketing of MILLY. So it works really well for us. I think where a lot of talented designers fail is that they can’t find a great partner.”
ON OVERCOMING EARLY STRUGGLES:
“My first struggle was September 11th. I launched my business in Spring 2001 and my first fall collection was around September 2001. It was so difficult. A lot of my factories were down in Soho—all of MILLY is made in New York City—so the factories were blocked off. If we were able to complete the orders, the stores were bouncing the boxes back to us, saying they couldn’t take the shipments. It was the first struggle, but we survived and we got through it and we’re still here today.”
ON HER FAVORITE PART OF DESIGNING:
“I love the creative process [of my job] and getting to see something from my initial sketch to a pattern to a muslin to a sample, to a sample that’s bought by a store, to someone buying it in the store and wearing it on the street. When I see someone wearing my clothes on the street, that’s the biggest thrill, because it’s the completion of that entire creative cycle. That’s always a thrill, it’s something that never gets old.”
ON HOW SHE STAYS INSPIRED TO CREATE:
“I’m a curious person and I’m very inspired by art and everything around me. I guess you’re either a curious person or you’re not. I think if you are a curious person, then you’re going to stay relevant, you’re always going to be looking for new inspiration and looking forward. That’s where I think my collection has really evolved, because I’m constantly looking forward. When I launched MILLY, it was kind of different at the time because we were coming out of the minimalist nineties. And my collections were very colorful, patterned and kind of vintage-inspired, which was considered totally different at the time. But now, as my collection has evolved; I’m much more forward-thinking and I’m always looking to the future for inspiration. It’s not about looking to the past or looking retro it’s looking to the future. There’s always inspiration to be found.”
HER NOT-SO-AVERAGE DAY AS A FASHION DESIGNER:
“Well, I’m a mother, so in the morning I’ve got my mommy hat on. I’m not so glamorous; I'm making lunches, dropping the kids off at school. I always squeeze in a morning workout. I love exercise—it clears my head and I love the endorphin rush. It really sets me on the right path for the day. When I get to the office, it’s always whatever comes my way, but I always try to carve out creative time. Before I had children, my work hours were much later. My most creative time is from 4pm to 11pm and is when I’m most productive in terms of ideas. But I’ve had to retool that since I’ve had children. I give myself more time to work on a collection and I’m always home to put my babies into bed. If I need to continue working, then I’ll do that from home after they go to sleep. You just kind of figure it out—it’s hard to do all things at once.”
THE ADVICE SHE'D GIVE ASPIRING DESIGNERS:
“If you really have that passion for what you’re doing, you’re bound to be successful, because you’re not going to take no for an answer. You’re not even going to consider that no is an option. That’s how I felt. I just never thought this day wasn’t going to happen for me. I have that passion and that drive—you’re just giving 200% all the time when you’ve got the passion and it doesn’t feel like work.
It feels like you’re enjoying what you’re doing and I still feel like that every day. I come into my studio and I love designing and sketching, and I think that’s my first passion. As I’ve grown bigger, all the other factors come into play and I have to block off my sketching time. But I my advice for others is, if you’ve got the passion, you can make it happen. And also to be unique.”
AND BEST OVERALL LIFE TIP (WE'D TAKE NOTES...)
“My father was actually a marine captain, but he was a softy at heart. He was very good at being organized and had very good self-discipline. He always told me to ‘do it right or don’t do it at all.’ I’ve carried that into my work. Whatever I do, I do it right. I do it with gusto or I don’t bother. I think that’s a simple phrase you can carry into all aspects of your life, be it relationships, with what you’re creating, what you’re doing—that's somewhat my mantra.”
WHAT SHE READS ON THE DAILY
“I’m running around and I’m so hurried, so I read The Skimm. Then I can dig deeper into the topics that pique my interest. And I always have Morning Joe on in the morning while I’m getting ready for work. I think because I’m not in the political realm, I’m sort of fascinated by it. I love to hear debating going back and forth—I’m just fascinated by that world. I also always try to stay on top of fashion publications because that’s my business. But I actually really love science. I’m kind of like a science nerd. I love history—I have a lot of historical novels at home. I love especially antiquity, ancient Rome, ancient Greece, so I’m fascinated by that world.”
THE LAST THING SHE GOOGLED:
“Baby shark videos. Yes, Baby shark videos! For my son, he loves them. Just this morning in the cab. You should Google it sometime and see what comes up. I bet no one’s ever said that.”
ON HER EVERY DAY BAG ESSENTIALS:
“I always have Smith Rose Bud lip balm in my bag. I’m addicted to it. I always have my cell phone, charger, and eyeliner in case I have to go out after work. I can just smudge some eyeliner on. I’m not much of a makeup person. I also keep a little bottle of Cetaphil or Lubriderm to spread in my hair too to give it a little texture. It’s a good cheap trick.”
ON HER <3 FOR INSTAGRAM:
“I think it’s really cool because as a designer, I find so much inspiration on Instagram. Not necessarily from other fashion images—sometimes it’s fashion images—but a lot of the time it’s art or landscapes. You never know what you’re going to find. It’s so much fun; it’s like once you dive in, you find yourself so deep down the rabbit hole. It’s really cool and really exciting. For me, I love having an Instagram account because I can really give people a glimpse into my life, what I create, what inspires me, things I think are funny. My Instagram isn’t purely fashion, it’s also a lot about my musings and my inspiration and funny things that happened. I love humor and laughing—it’s an important part of life.”
ON WHAT’S NEXT FOR MILLY:
“I’m going to be opening more stores. I’m really shifting my business; when I launched, I was very much based on a wholesale model selling to other stores. Now I’m delving into launching my own retail stores, growing my own e-commerce site and retooling my global store. Having my own boutiques really allows me to tell my story and allows people to come into my world without it being diffused through someone else’s vision. That’s really important to me.
As I evolve as a designer and I’ve accomplished more and more I really want to give back and find ways to help other women feel empowered and feel beautiful doing what I do. I think a lot of the focus has shifted away from myself and just creating clothes I want to wear, to how can I make my customers feel beautiful and empowered.”