The Designers Becoming Unlikely TikTok Stars

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Style Points is a weekly column about how fashion intersects with the wider world.

Joseph Altuzarra was having a Devil Wears Prada moment, specifically the one in which fashion editors compare nearly-identical turquoise belts with a lament of “They’re SO different.” On TikTok, where he has over 56,000 followers, the designer was weighing the merits of different wine-colored fabric swatches in preparation for a “color card” meeting, one of the unglamorous but essential parts of creating a collection. (“Welcome to my nightmare,” he joked.)

Altuzarra, who has used his account to spotlight the ins and outs of a fashion career, is one of several designers becoming minor TikTok celebrities with this kind of pleasantly inside-baseball content. Tibi founder and creative director Amy Smilovic has grown a five-figure following for her candid, casual dissections of her own outfit “formulas.” And J.Crew’s womenswear director Olympia Gayot doesn’t even have a TikTok account, but her Instagram OOTD selfies have spawned their own hashtag on the “clock app,” with 12.3 million views as of this writing.

a blonde woman in a blue jacket and white shorts taking a selfie

Courtesy of the subject

Gayot wearing a J.Crew Bermuda shorts and vest combo.

Going viral was something, Gayot says, “I definitely did not expect,” noting that people approach her on the street now in different cities. “But it’s been so amazing to see others enjoying and being inspired by my style and then interpreting it in their own way. If anything, it reaffirmed the idea that women are craving modern interpretations of classics and iconic pieces, just styled in interesting ways.”

Her comment cuts to the core of something brewing on social media right now: whether it’s fashion newsletters that promise a virtual personal stylist, or styling advice accounts like Allison Bornstein’s, women are looking for expert counsel and even what an old-school fashion editor might call “service.” Tutorials on how to put things together, outfit formulas, even the revival of long-dead concepts like assessing your “colors” and determining your Kibbe body type are thriving on the app. After being subjected to the refrain of “just find your personal style!” people are craving rules again. And increasingly, “experts” mean people with an actual career in the field, who can offer something beyond an influencer’s gloss—along with a gimlet-eyed view of what it’s really like to, say, put on a runway show or get dressed for a fashion job.

This means that Gayot is sometimes literally selling the clothes off her back. A shearling coat from fall 2023 “sold out the first day that it launched online. I was so obsessed that I kept rewearing the sample as soon as we got it last spring when it was still cold, and everyone on social was asking when it would be available.” A pair of Bermuda shorts, inspired by the retailer’s ’80s and ’90s archival styles, also became a bestseller, thanks in part to Gayot’s co-sign. She also provides her own version of “service” by showing how to style, say, a three-piece suit in multiple ways.

a person in a uniform taking a selfie in a room

Courtesy of the subject

Gayot modeling her three-piece suit.

That said, “Because I am a designer and creative director first and foremost, I didn’t want to have to link or tag the products I was wearing on Instagram, because I didn’t want people to think I was trying to sell them something.” Instead, the Olympia’s Picks section on the J.Crew website collates some of the favorites she has worn on the account.

For Smilovic, who had never been a hugely public figure, other than “the quick wave at the end of a runway show,” the early-pandemic days necessitated a pivot. “We weren’t going to be in business if we didn’t have a way to engage directly with the customer. It happened purely out of necessity, and necessity is the mother of invention, right?” Though she admits to feeling imposter syndrome when she first started putting herself on camera, the designer quickly found her niche, posting about concepts like CP color math and concocting catchy outfit formulas like “Big/Slim/Skin.”

Soon, her followers began to feel like a focus group of sorts. Instead of Smilovic and her team “discussing an abstract someone and what she would maybe want to wear…this dialogue became so critical with the customers. It became so revealing what they didn’t know about the brand or what was in my head. Why would they know what was in my head? They wanted to know. Then, they wanted to talk about it.”

a woman in a suit

Courtesy of the brand.

Amy Smilovic of Tibi.

She says she gets the most queries about packing and shoes, as well as questions like, “How do I pull off a look that is utterly eased and chilled out but without looking sloppy and overwhelmed? How do I wear oversize without it looking like it ate me up?”

And yes, Smilovic reads all her DMs. “Early on, one of the people that I was DMing with forever was like, ‘Well, when Larry David and I were having lunch with Julia Louis-Dreyfus…’ I was like, ‘Wait, what does she do?’ It turns out she’s the head of comedy for HBO. I’d been talking to her for a solid year about how to be in a creative world. We went out and did a presentation for HBO’s senior executives and have done stuff now with the show Barry. Everything amazing that’s happened in the last two years has come up as a result of someone’s DM.”

Smilovic has since held events at the store, including one for a group of women who included doctors, professors who drove up from Princeton, and ad execs. And like Gayot, she gets recognized on the street now.

The Creative Pragmatist by Amy Smilovic

<i>The Creative Pragmatist</i> by Amy Smilovic

The Creative Pragmatist by Amy Smilovic

Credit: Tibi

Last year, she distilled some of her ideas into the book The Creative Pragmatist, which she envisioned as Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat for fashion: a collection of timeless, trend-proof elements of style. (“No one’s like, ‘Oh my God, acid is so out of style,’ or, ‘Cooking is so over. Heat is done.’”) Like everyone in fashion, Smilovic professes a hatred for trends, but she actually sounds vehement about it. “I think the very people who will absolutely go on a march for the climate will also be the first to jump on anything with a -core after it,” she says.

Both Gayot and Smilovic say they have found their social media presences by creating a kind of feedback loop for their future designs. In the old days, Smilovic says, her planner might say, “‘Amy, there’s no way we can do this because it’s only a 48 percent margin and we’re not going to sell very many at this price point. You tried this a year ago and it didn’t really work.’ Now, I can be like, ‘No, it’s going to work. Everyone already saw it on me. They’re dying for it, they’re asking me for it, and we have to make it happen.’”

As for the still TikTok-less Gayot, would she ever consider having a presence on the app, since her content is shared so much there? “Never say never.”

Headshot of Véronique Hyland

Véronique Hyland is ELLE’s Fashion Features Director and the author of the book Dress Code, which was selected as one of The New Yorker’s Best Books of the Year. Her writing has previously appeared in The New York Times Magazine, The New Yorker, W, New York magazine, Harper’s Bazaar, and Condé Nast Traveler. 

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