Michelle Smith is the designer behind the hip New York-based fashion label Milly.
'Women won't ever stop buying shoes'
Michelle Smith is the designer behind the hip New York-based fashion label Milly. Connecticut-born Michelle studied fashion in Paris before returning to the US to establish a frock empire. The label's signature op art-print jersey dress has become a must for the Sex and the City generation. Smith's celebrity fans include Beyoncé Knowles, Thandie Newton and Mischa Barton. From an early age I loved fashion, particularly dresses. I used to cry when my mother put me in trousers. I can remember one particular red turtleneck dress I used to wear in kindergarten.
Growing up in Connecticut and going to high school in New Jersey, I was always aware of trends. I started working part-time when I was 15 and found the prospect of getting a pay cheque exciting. Of course, the first thing I spent it on was clothes. I used to buy a lot of trendy clothes in discount chains but soon learnt that it was smarter to buy a few really nice things than spend a lot on cheap clothes. I'm not a big spendthrift. My biggest purchase was a Chanel handbag I bought on the Rue Cambon in Paris two years ago. It's a black, quilted 255 with a double chain which cost me $2,000 (Dh7,350). I always wanted to have that bag when I was living in Paris in my early twenties.
I started off studying fashion in New York and took a part-time job at Hermès where I became interested in French luxury goods. I had studied French in college and wrote to Hermès in North America pleading for an internship in Paris. I was the first fashion employee ever to be sent. I was determined to study fashion in Paris and enrolled at design school. I was an intern at Christian Dior Haute Couture when Gianfranco Ferré was head designer. I also worked at Louis Vuitton and Torrente. Wow! What an experience.
When I was in Paris I found a black Christian Dior beaded flapper-style dress in a shop called, Didier Ludot, in the galleries of the Palais Royal. It cost me $400 (Dh1,500) which I consider a bargain because I am still wearing it 10 years later. It is a showroom sample, so completely one of a kind and will never go out of fashion. I'm very spoilt now because I can wear all my own samples. My favourite piece is a black stretch pencil skirt with a grosgrain trim, which I can wear to the office and glam up after work.
Now I am looking for a chocolate brown shearling jacket which I can't find anywhere. It surprises me when there are gaps in the market. When I started my label there were no young, contemporary brands. It was all high-end, classics in the luxury market. We keep our prices down by not advertising and have so far resisted manufacturing in China. We get fabrics from mills in France, which gives me a perfect excuse to go to Paris about four times a year. It's the fashion capital and I love shopping for my two-year-old daughter there. On my last trip I discovered an outlet for Bonpoint, the childrenswear designer label.
My favourite shop is Matches in London. It's really well edited. They select the best pieces from designers and include the very expensive along with affordable lines, but each piece is special. I used to dream of selling my brand there when I first started. Now my dream has come true. Whenever I have five minutes to spare I browse online. I'd rather do this than jump in a cab and spend two hours shopping. I bought the Stella McCartney ankle boots from www.netaporter.com. It's easier when you know what you want.
I always shop alone. My husband is impatient and I'd rather not have his scrutiny. Pushy sales staff also stress me. My ideal shopping environment would have a beautiful interior and groovy feel-good music. The economic climate has already put a damper on shopping. When everyone has a friend who has lost a job it's bound to have an impact. But I don't think a recession will stop women from buying shoes. I keep hinting to my husband about a pair of YSL boots that I want. I covet accessories. I like to feel that I will be able to pass on my Chanel bag to my daughter and I'll explain how hard I worked for it, too.
I only discovered New York was great for vintage furniture when I bought my apartment two years ago. Although it's all finished now, I still enjoy browsing for pieces dating from the 1920s to the 1970s. I was very proud when a chandelier I bought for my living room made the cover of Elle Decor. It's an amazing 1950s piece that cost $15,000 (Dh55,000) and looks like a giant dandelion. Right now, I'm shopping around for premises in New York for my first stand-alone store. Ideally this will be somewhere near Madison Avenue. It has to be the right square footage and on the right block.
* Julia Robson