The influence of high-end magazine editor Anna Wintour is undeniable. She’s a founder of the CFDA, the organization that supports the fashion industry. So it made sense when Karl Lagerfeld named her chair of Chanel’s H.15 women’s collection. In 2014, she was also made creative director of the French label Atelier Milly. But now, Milly is flourishing in a different way, thanks to the brainpower of a major fashion name: Michelle Smith, a new designer who is also a film professor at NYU.
Smith was born in Washington, D.C., where she continued her musical training as a jazz pianist. She went on to study film and creative writing at Juilliard before being convinced to join New York’s Parsons School of Design. After graduating, she took jobs at Glamour and Interview magazine before striking out on her own in 2001.
Milly is the latest in a line of personal-fashion startups that have risen to prominence over the past few years. Other fashion news darlings include Tracy Reese, Dolce & Gabbana, and Kate Spade (which founder Andy Spade left to found his new company, which has yet to launch). In contrast, Milly has focused on affordable outerwear and apparel, online only, for women over 30. More than 400 brands have applied to advertise on the brand’s website, according to the CFDA, and young clients, which Smith considers “her demographic,” comprise 25 percent of its buyers. The company’s two lines are made with synthetic fabrics, which gives it a distinct edge over the billion-dollar-plus apparel brands.
Among those young clients is former Instagram star Khaleesi, whose followers have made her Milly’s biggest fan base. “She’s very opinionated,” Smith said. “Her style is so [thespian]-y. She’s like a cat person.” Khaleesi posts pictures of dresses from Milly on Instagram, “when I [can’t] [find anything] for her,” Smith said. “She’s been to our showroom!”
An obsession with furry creatures made Smith the ideal candidate to design Milly’s first bear-themed collection. “They have a really cute, soft fur … but [they’re] really tough, too,” she said. When Smith began working on the womenswear collection, she realized that Milly’s customer was “a savvy woman who is very knowledgeable about style,” and “doesn’t want to feel like she’s too trendy.” She hoped that the women, many of whom know Milly now as well as the actual designers, could have something in common.
The smallest of sizes are used in the biggest part of the collection, Smith said, “so women who go up to a 34-inch waist can wear it.” For some pieces, heavy, double-digit denims are blown up from XXL to XXS, and there are special hoop-shaped pins underneath the zipper to allow bigger girls to tuck a shirt under jackets without undoing them.
The numbers are starting to add up. In 2014, Milly sold out of a coat after just 48 hours, and not only did retailers like Bergdorf Goodman rack up purchase orders, but the hats, shoes, and handbags, which are all sold under license, were also quickly snapped up. This year, Smith’s crew expanded their international exposure. A “Black Swan” line sold at Barneys New York and e-commerce site Net-a-Porter was named after a movie based on a ballet, while a winter collection was displayed at London’s Fashion East. And the 25 to 30-year-old Milly customer isn’t to be forgotten. When Smith flew to LA to help launch a menswear collection for designers Derek Lam and Jason Wu, one of the men ran to her trunk-show room, desperate to have the leather bag that was already on the racks.
“There’s a thread that connects all of us, whether we’re in this business as designers or in this industry as fans,” Smith said.