Talking to Michelle Smith, the creative director of MILLY, is like talking to an old friend. She is warm, friendly, open, and shares values that many of us should cherish, especially in these tumultuous times. Smith’s collections epitomizes bold, contemporary fashion with a feminine edge. She had her early training at Christian Dior Haute Couture, Louis Vuitton and Hermes and her designs merge classic American sportswear influences with distinctive Parisian atelier techniques. Smith has an eye for impeccable detail, use of luxurious, cutting-edge fabrics and precise tailoring and has made MILLY a cult favorite across the globe.
But probably one of Smith’s most important qualities as a designer and public figure is her passion for preserving and protecting women’s rights, teaching girls and women about the importance of self-value, and supporting organizations who share the same views; her designs have reflected that. In fact, last month she collaborated with artist and filmmaker Laurie Simmons to create a limited edition t-shirt in celebration of Planned Parenthood’s 100 Year Anniversary with 100% of profits benefiting Planned Parenthood. (you can shop the t-shirt here)
We caught up with Smith when she was in Chicago presenting her Fall 2017 line last month, and chatted about fractured spirits after the election, how that reflected on her collections and what’s next for MILLY.
FashionFiles: Let’s start with fall. Walk us through MILLY Fall 2017.
Michelle Smith: I called my collection “Fractured.” When I was designing that collection it was hard to get started. It was post-election and Hillary had lost and it felt terrible. It felt like a defeat for women, it just felt crushing, and I took it really hard.
Starting from that place was hard because I felt crushed, and I felt fractured, and I thought ‘How am I going to design from this headspace?’ I realized that that’s the truth and the real emotion. So when I acknowledged that, it was my starting point, and that’s what I needed to express and it became really easy and the ideas flooded through me. And I thought ‘How do I express this emotion of feeling fractured?’ I can slash my dresses up and I can take a men’s shirt and deconstruct it to make it my own, and wrap it beautifully around the body and make something beautiful out of that place of hurt. It was great, it was a very emotional collection, and very true, and it was very well received. It touched a lot of people who were feeling the same way. So yes, here I am now and it’s in stores and I’m promoting it.
FF: Do you have any favorite pieces?
MS: It’s always so hard to name my favorite pieces. It’s like you’re a mother and you’re like ‘I love, I love this! It’s my baby!’ But I do love and I’m particularly attached to the Fractured shirt. It’s a button down shirt that also buttons at the waist, and you can wear it a million different ways. The slip dress is such an easy wardrobe staple that I’m really into. I can wear it during the day with my sneakers, to work maybe through a shirt or a sweater over it, and then I just flip out my shoes and go out at night. I love the versatility and ease. I think being a working woman that versatility and ease and the design of something are really important and that I strive to achieve.
FF: What kinds of styling tips would you offer Chicago women specifically?
MS: I think talking about the ease and ability to dress something up and dress something down. I think women everywhere are busy, and I love the causal attitude that a sneaker brings to a dress, a really great trouser, or a suit. You know, popping out with a pair of sneakers lends immediate attitude and cool-factor. Other styling tips, I love layering. Things are so much more interesting when they’re layered, and it’s also practical.
FF: What three pieces are your must-haves for fall?
FF: I’m going to switch gears and talk about your Spring 2018 presentation. I saw a men’s shirt there worn backwards, and an all-white ensemble I loved – it was probably my favorite. Now that I’ve heard your story about the fall collection, would you say that the spring collection is more of a – not celebratory – but your spirit is on the mend? Because you’re celebrating womanhood.
MS: Right. SS18 is about ‘Okay maybe we felt knocked down,’ but it’s about looking within yourself and finding your inner beauty and truly loving yourself, and radiating that and harnessing your power and truly loving yourself as a woman. That’s what it’s really about. And interpreting that visually through the metaphor as a flower, and the folds in the fabric and the pleating and the contraction and the movement, it’s very much about loving ourselves as women. I called the collection Wildflower because I don’t want us to lose our wild spirit.
FF: It was beautiful, and the space was absolutely gorgeous.
MS: The pop-up is going to be there for five months through the holiday season, though January. So if anyone is traveling from Chicago, please come visit! The structures will stay, but were changing it out. [Editor’s note: that’s MILLY SoHo (158 Mercer Street in New York City]
FF: MILLY has been around for more than 15 years now. Is the brand where you want it to be?
MS: I think I’m always evolving, and always changing, and I’m constantly moving. I think where I am right now is the place where I wanted to be today. Tomorrow, I’m going to want more. I want to have more stores, you know practical goals, more retail stores. I’d like to reach more people, even though I’ve been around for a while I’m still very boutique-y, and I think small size of my global presence, and I’d love to grow that and my message all over the place.
FF: Where do you want to take the brand 10 years from now?
MS: 10 years from now? I’d like to be way more global with my brand. Right now I’m in about 500 stores worldwide and I’d like to expand that. I’d like to grow my own Milly.com commerce business, and expand into activewear. I’m a health nut, I love working out and I want to design my own workout clothes. But more spiritually, I’ve been in this business for 17 years, I’ve had Milly for 17-years where it used to be maybe more in the begging about making a beautiful collection with beautiful clothes, now I feel another pull towards empowering women and how can I do that. It’s a bigger message that I’m working on.
FF: Any plans for a free-standing store in Chicago?
MS: Possibly. We’re testing neighborhoods, just like our SoHo pop-up and testing downtown. We’re also looking at Los Angeles and possibly Chicago and Texas. Let me know if you have some great neighborhood suggestions, because it’s hard to find foot traffic. We want foot traffic.
FF: As you know fashion and the industry has been evolving, especially in the past three, four years. How do you feel about See Now Buy Now sweeping the industry?
MS: It’s very challenging as a designer, because it splits your mindset, but it’s also reality because of the world we live in today. Because of social media. Social media is a great thing, but it’s made fashion week no longer an insider experience reserved only for editors and retailers. It’s now a global experience for anyone who wants to pay attention. So it creates frustration within the customer or someone who’s really excited about your brand. If you’re showing something on social media or they’re experiencing something that they can’t have for six months — it creates frustration. I can’t offer my entire collection immediately, because it takes time to get my orders and buy fabrics. I did curate a capsule collection from the spring collection which is available now on Milly.com. It was also at the pop up. It’s a beautiful little curated collection of about 6-10 pieces, and it’s rather season-less which is great because you can wear it now and the spring. It’s hard to buy something now when you can’t wear it for six months, so it’s very wearable right now. Please check it out!
FF: How do you feel about influencers? They’re everywhere now, they’re all over fashion week, and everywhere you go it’s all about influencers. How important do you think they are for your brand?
MS: I think they’re very important, because the tides have kind of changed and shifted. It’s no longer about what a magazine editor is saying or what she thinks is cool. It’s about real people putting on clothes and saying, ‘I think this is cool.’ It’s actually maybe more inspiring for the average consumer, they’re maybe seeing things in a way that was unattainable, but now it feels more attainable when it’s on a real person.