We chatted with MILLY designer Michelle Smith about Chicago style, her latest collection, why off-the-shoulder looks don’t have to be scary… and where she’ll bring a brick and mortar next.
Fashion designer Michelle Smith (center) with her MILLY Spring 2016 collection.
“Let’s get this party started!” Michelle Smith laughs, raising a glass of champagne. We’re tucked away on the third floor of Neiman Marcus Michigan Avenue, where the designer of 15-year-old contemporary label MILLY has welcomed shoppers to a presentation of her Spring 2016 collection. Looking effortlessly chic in a black off-the-shoulder MILLY dress, the petite womenswear designer—whose bold creations are often sported by the ultimate A-listers (think Kate Middleton, Beyoncé, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Jennifer Lopez)—spoke with us about taking risks, from launching her own line to embracing this season’s daring look.
As a designer, what is your take on Chicago style? MICHELLE SMITH: I love that women take risks with fashion, and they’re bold, and daring, and exciting. Of all the Midwestern cities, Chicago is the place to be.
What was the inspiration behind this collection? MS: It’s funny because it was a real departure for me. I’d been on a sporty, athletic bent, and this is a very romantic collection: It’s all about love and summer romance, but a very modern girl’s summer romance.
What’s one piece from this collection that every woman should have in her wardrobe this spring? MS: I have an off-the-shoulder blouse, but it’s cut out of cotton poplin. Sometimes off-the-shoulder can be very whoa, but because it’s cut out of a comfortable cotton poplin, it makes it much more approachable. You can wear it with a pair of white shorts, or you can wear it dressed up with a skirt to the office, with a trouser for dinner... There’s a million different ways to wear it, and it’s easy. It brings you into the comfort zone! [Laughs]
Fashion designer Michelle Smith.
MILLY is beloved for being so bold. Thinking about your life, what’s the boldest statement you’ve made thus far? MS: I think my boldest statement was having the courage to launch my own business. I love the risk-taking, and I have the guts for it… And I reap the greatest rewards. I mean, sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, but I love being able to go there.
Was there a catalyst where you knew, “Now is the time to launch my own label?” MS: I always knew I wanted to be a fashion designer; I always knew I wanted to be an entrepreneur and have my own business. At certain points in my early 20s I had offers of financing and that sort of thing, and I said, “No, I’m not ready.” But I arrived at this moment—it was magical—[and] the sky opened up where I knew I had my own style and could contribute something to the market that wasn't like anything else. I had my own unique design signature, and that’s when I knew it was time because your uniqueness is your strength.
Knowing what you know now, what would go back and tell yourself then? MS: I probably would have opened my own store sooner. I just opened my first retail store four years ago; I should have done that eight years ago to really be able to tell my own story for everyone to understand my vision not filtered through someone else’s.
What’s next for MILLY? MS: Well, speaking of retail, I’m opening retail stores across the country—hopefully in Chicago. Keep an eye out!