South Jersey native Michelle Smith, founder of Milly, keeps her focus on the “everywoman.”
A woman of the people: The inclusive nature of the range of cuts, colors, and patterns in Michelle Smith’s collections speak to her ideal audience: every woman.
With Southern Jersey roots, a growing business in New York, and a background in couture fabrications, Michelle Smith is taking the lead as the industry’s It contemporary fashion designer. It’s not a hard thing to imagine for one whose pieces range from chic ready-to-wear staples with signature fits for adults to youth versions—called Milly Minis—adapted from her most popular styles. With two clothing collections and an accessories line of small leather goods and handbags that boast fun prints and bursts of color, Milly transcends one city to the next.
As the founder and designer behind the sought-after brand combining American sportswear with Parisian atelier techniques, Smith knows what it takes to make it to the top. After traveling to France and for three years honing her skill at such esteemed houses as Christian Dior, Hermès, and Louis Vuitton, she came back to the States and learned the business side of the fashion world in its capital, New York. But none of this would have been possible if she had not received a scholarship to Moore College of Art & Design, where she first got her feet wet in the industry.
“I went to Rancocas Valley [Regional] High School and used to take PATCO into Philly for my classes at Moore,” says Smith. Her family no longer lives in the area, but she returns now and again for special events, like the April kickoff of MSNBC Morning Joe cohost Mika Brzezinski’s “Know Your Value” tour, aimed at empowering women. Smith, who collaborated with Brzezinski on a scarf for the tour, spoke at the seminar. “Whenever I’m here, I stop at Pat’s…. You just can’t get a good cheesesteak in New York.”
It wasn’t long after her stint at Moore that the fresh-faced designer was making ready-to-wear pieces and presenting her debut collection, in 2001—one that would be seen on Hollywood A-lister Gwyneth Paltrow. “I was watching the movie Shallow Hal and she was wearing Milly. I had to pinch myself, I couldn’t believe it! It was my very first collection,” Smith says. “It was a blue miniskirt, and I almost fell over like, Wow!”
With some serious validation from Hollywood, Smith set out to design collections that would evolve with her. “When I launched Milly, it had a very vintage vibe,” she says. “Now, I’m really more interested in looking forward to the future. I always strive to have my collections look forward, not to the past. I’m not nostalgic.” She adds that what has inspired her has changed from over a decade ago. “My lifestyle has changed, and I’m really into the contemporary art scene,” she says. “I’m starting to become a collector and definitely derive a lot of inspiration from that.”
One thing that hasn’t changed is Milly’s customer. “In my earlier collections, I thought about what I wanted to wear. Now I’m thinking more about my customer,” she says. That customer, as Smith explains, includes all types of women, who can approach a collection that speaks to every body type and age. “I dress a very broad spectrum and age range,” she says. “Still, my collection has a certain identifiable DNA; when you look at it, you can tell it’s Milly.” That DNA—an exclusive identity that Smith attributes to different cuts and styles, from narrow, strappy dresses that show more skin to long-sleeved styles that offer a more covered-up look—is what launched the brand into retail stores and closets across the country.
Two years ago, the designer debuted a collection of casual-luxe T-shirts sporting quirky phrases (like “Sorry for partying”) with a custom Milly font, pieces that capture the wearer’s personality and sense of humor. Now, together with fitness sensation and master SoulCycle instructor Stacey Griffith, Smith has launched a limited-edition T-shirt and tank capsule collection of irreverent quotes that, as Smith explains, “is going to be all Stacey-isms. It will be so much fun.” Some of the tee and tank phrases for the Stacey G + Milly line include “Can you not” and “No one remembers normal.”
As with all things Smith does well, her Fall/Winter 2015 collection boasts the inspiration, eccentricity, and on-trend (but not too trendy) looks for which the brand is known. Featuring a mix of bright prints with American sportswear-inspired pieces, the looks are classic Milly— fun and richly colorful, with just the right dose of modernity. Next up for the growing designer? Smith says, “There are always new things I want to [do]. I want to do a shoe collection, and I really want to grow my own retail stores.” And why not? Like her newly launched tee phrase says, “Can’t stop won’t stop.” Bloomingdale’s, King of Prussia Mall, 610-337-6300