Looking back, there was no doubt in Michelle Smith’s mind about a career in fashion. From her education and time spent abroad, to starting her own line, Smith knew one thing was for sure, she was destined to be a designer. Always interested in the arts, Smith’s headstrong attitude and overall perseverance is what landed her at one of the top fashion schools in the country, and ultimately, as the first American employee to work for Hermès in Paris. From there, Smith went on to study at ESMOD and spent her time working for some of the most legendary names in the fashion industry such as Christian Dior Haute Couture and Louis Vuitton. After years of perfecting her technique and establishing her own point of view, Smith confidently returned to the U.S. with her sights set on making a name for herself.
Her signature brand, MILLY, embodies a Paris meets New York style which has become iconic in the realm of contemporary fashion. Edgy with a feminine touch, MILLY’s exceptional craftsmanship and utilization of luxe fabrics represents the level of Parisian artistry and New York flair that has allowed MILLY to extend far beyond just ready-to-wear. Today, MILLY is worn by celebrities and women across the globe who are looking for something fresh, feminine and most importantly, fashion-forward. We recently had a chance to speak with Smith, who told us all about her experiences and how she’s grown as a designer.
You started your career by receiving your degree from FIT. Was joining the fashion industry something you had always
envisioned for yourself?
I think from about the time I was 11 years old I knew I wanted to be a designer. I was always very artistic and all my artwork kind of parlayed into fashion design and I just knew that was my path. I had asked my parents if I could go to design school, to FIT in New York City, and at the time, I was going to high school in New Jersey, and you know, my parents were hesitant. They wanted me to go to a traditional university first and then go to design school but I was very headstrong. Thankfully it all worked out.
After graduation, you went on to intern for Hermès in Paris. What sort of impact did that experience have on you?
It had an incredible impact on my collection and on my career. I was 18 when I started working there [at Hermès] and I was their youngest employee. It really opened my eyes to the world of luxury goods and French fashion, French luxury, the language—everything. I worked at Hermès in New York City while I was in college to help pay for school and at the time, I wrote a letter to their president and they sent me to Paris for an internship. So it was when I was training there [in Paris] that I decided to continue my education and three months turned into three years. That was really the springboard into also interning for Christian Dior Haute Couture and Louis Vuitton. Just being enveloped in the world of luxury goods was really incredible and it really contributed to the look and feel of my collection because I love quality and I love beautiful European fabrics and I still use them in my collection today.
What was the biggest takeaway from your time spent in Europe?
I think it was a combination of the quality and luxury that you find in MILLY which you don’t find in other brands in my sector. But also just the unique style of my collection. I think it has a mix of that New York meets Paris kind of energy and that’s just a product of my personal experiences.
You launched your first line, MILLY, in 2001 shortly after your return to the U.S. Did you have any apprehensions about starting your own line?
Originally I wanted to be an entrepreneur. I wanted to have my own label but I also knew that at certain points in my career, the time wasn’t right yet. I had offers from people to set me up in business and that wanted to invest in me but I knew the time wasn’t right and I actually turned down a few offers. But then I arrived at this moment when I was about 26 or 27 years old where I knew I had really developed my own style and I felt really confident in it. I knew it wasn’t like anything else out there and that’s when I felt ready. There was no looking back. I never thought for a second that it would fail I just thought this is the right time and I’m ready to do this. You have to believe in yourself 100 percent.
How has the market for “contemporary fashion” changed since you started?
There are so many more brands today then there were since I launched MILLY 15 years ago. The landscape is what has changed a lot. I’ve made a concerted effort to be at the highest end of the contemporary market so that I can really focus on quality, fit and beautiful clothing. To me, it’s not about fast- fashion.
Over the years, you’ve branched out into different categories such as handbags and even childrenswear. How does understanding the retail aspect of the industry effect you as a designer?
When I launched MILLY I launched it as a wholesale business. I was selling to other stores and I didn’t have my own stores yet. I think it was an amazing way to start my business but the detriment was that customers were always seeing my collection filtered through someone else’s eyes. It was how they wanted to present it and who they wanted the clothes to hang with. So having my own retail stores and my own ecommerce site has allowed me to communicate my vision directly with my customer. She [the customer] really gets it now. She can live it and breath it and it’s the way that I want her to see it. And I love the direct engagement that I have with the customer.
You went to school in New York, it’s where all of your garments are made, and now it’s become a place that you call home. How much of an influence does the city have on your career?
After three years of living in Paris I really missed New York. There’s a special energy in New York that doesn’t exist anywhere else in the world and to me, it’s that energy and sort of irreverence that plays an important part in my life and in my designs. It’s the reason why all of my collections are made here.