Michelle Smith: On The Essence of Success

Paradigm Shifters is a series of interviews with a select group of women and men from eclectic walks of life. It will highlight unspoken, real-life insights on how they have been able to turn weakness into strength. A naked soul point of view of how their breakdowns were really a preparation for breakthroughs. They are your quintessential paradigm shifters; internal shifts converted into genuine change.

Everything I have ever done has been focused on this underlying theme of shifting the paradigm because, "what we think determines what we feel and what we feel determines what we do." Hence why Empowered by You takes lingerie, which has traditionally been seen merely as a tool of seduction and redirected that energy as a tool of empowerment.

I hope from these stories you will look at your own situations, struggles and accomplishments through a different lens. At the very least you will be more equipped with real life tools to change your own paradigm. At the end of the day, we are our own Alchemist turning the silver we were born with into the gold we are destined to become.

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Michelle Smith - Designer & Founder of Milly

You recently teamed up with Mika Bzrezinski (Morning Joe, NBC) and the Know Your Value campaign to encourage young women in the workplace. How did you come to be a part of it and why is it important to you?

I met Mika because we were both on the board of Grace Outreach, an outreach program in the south Bronx. It was started to help high school women who were mostly teen moms or high school dropouts and enable them to get their GED. So I got to know Mika and I started dressing her for Morning Joe. Then she wrote several books and Know Your Value really struck a chord with women. In her book she asks why are we always apologizing and why can't we own our success? She included me in her follow up book "Grow your value" and all the books are really about knowing your value and being a go-getter. Women tend to knock each other down and cut each other up, when we really need to stick together and lift each other up.
I think women can relate to me because I'm not from a fancy background with fancy connections. I made things happen for myself. I'm like a lot of people, I'm a middle class kid from the suburbs and I worked super hard to create a multi-million dollar global brand.

How do you encourage women to be more audacious in their pursuits?

An integral part to my success and many others' is doing something you're passionate about. I knew from a very young age that I loved art and that percolated into fashion design. Everything I did from then on was propelling me toward achieving my dreams. I think when you have the passion, you won't take 'no' for an answer and won't even consider that it's not going to work for you. You're going to do whatever it takes to make it happen. That said, it's also important to be unique and be an individual to contribute something to the marketplace that doesn't exist yet.
When I launched Milly in 2001, I had a few investors interested, but I wasn't yet fully developed in my own style. It was hard to say no to those investors, but I think you know in your gut when you're ready. And I think you do have to pay your dues and learn from others first too. Work for other people; make mistakes on someone else's dime instead of doing it on your own dime. But when I finally arrived on that day, it was amazing because it wasn't like anything else out there and I knew I had found my strength.

What is Milly's essence?

When I create clothes it's actually a very personal experience. I want clothes that are bold, luxurious, advanced but feminine. When I wear my clothes I want to feel empowered. It's hard to break down your essence because there is also a touch of magical fairy dust and if you analyze it too much you can kind of mess it up. I think every woman when they're getting dressed wants to feel beautiful and empowered.

Tell me a bit about the Milly Mag blog.

I love having the blog because it's a great opportunity for me to tell my story and share what I'm inspired by. I try not to take things too seriously, I have a sense of humor, and I want to share what I think is exciting and funny in the world right now, as well as art and music. I've interviewed some really cool women, including Mika. I'm interviewing Dorith Mous, she just came out with a documentary called Body Language. She wrote and stars in it, and she's made the transition from modeling to photography into film writing. I like to profile self-starting, go-getting kind of women. I figure if I'm inspired by something, maybe it can inspire you too.

Where does your inspiration for your designs come from?

Inspiration comes from all over the place, it could be an art collection, it could be a mood. My last collection was a mood, a feeling of a shift toward love and romance and away from aggression. A modern girl's romance.
I never know when inspiration is going to strike but I always have my antennae up and open for inspiration. I think seeing and living in different places really opens you up to different perspectives. It's not right or wrong, or black and white, it's totally nuanced.

What has been your biggest breakdown to breakthrough moment?

For me, the breakdown came with the 2008 recession. Up to that point my business had been going very well and things were pretty easy flowing. And then all of a sudden the floor dropped from underneath me. Buyers didn't know what to buy, no one knew how customers were going to spend their money, so it was a very difficult time. Fashion took on a very aggressive look with leather and spikes and metal and that wasn't true to the vibrant DNA of my brand, but I was under pressure from other stores to adopt that look. So I did it, but it wasn't true to my brand and my business suffered. So, I took a step back and focused on what I like to do and what I like to create and the business recovered. Now I feel very confident and secure in what I'm doing. That's the great part of being an entrepreneur. You have to have the stomach to take risks, but then you get the greatest rewards.

What advice would you tell your younger self?

When I look back, I see this girl who didn't take no for an answer. She had the bravado and confidence to just make it happen. Actually, now I want my younger self to talk to my current self, because I think over time you get a little burned by life. I think the best piece of advice my dad ever gave me was "Do it right or don't do it at all."

What kind of legacy do you wish to leave behind?

I would like to be remembered as a good hearted person, a good friend, who tried to help people and through my work, hopefully made people feel more confident and empowered and beautiful.

In Michelle's interview you can immediately sense her sincerity of the lessons of her life and how she literally turned negatives to positives. Some people might call it magic, others call it "what it takes." The only thing that is more beautiful than being true to self is what is created from it. You want to wear clothes that are a natural extension of what you believe in and with Milly you get that.