Rachel Lim, the exuberant co-founder of online fashion brand Love, Bonito, is going on about their Asian fit. “We pride ourselves on having found the perfect Asian fit,” she says, while co-founder Viola Tan nods. “When we Asians shop at international brands, sometimes it’s hits and misses. Like the Zara jumpsuit is supposed to be at your waist, but it ends up at your hips. Our clothes really fit the Asian physique.” When I mention I don’t own anything from Love, Bonito, Rachel is horrified. “What?!??” she exclaims. Maybe she’s joking, perhaps it’s hubris, or maybe she truly has reason to be shocked. After all, Love, Bonito is one of the first names that come to mind when you think of online shopping in Singapore. The pioneering brand has been around for 10 years — pretty much since adding dresses and skirts to a virtual cart first took off in a big way.
The Love, Bonito fashion pioneers were recently honoured with an award at the Women Entrepreneur Awards 2017, which celebrates female trailblazers who shine both at business (Love, Bonito is reportedly worth seven figures) and in terms of contributing to society. Today, I’m talking entrepreneurship with Rachel, 30, and Viola, 33, and they’re telling me about their ‘holy grail’ and the reason they think they’ve survived in the fickle fashion industry — it’s all thanks to their Asian fit, and their knack for knowing what their audience wants. Despite being a fan of online shopping, I’ve somehow never jumped on the Love, Bonito bandwagon. After interviewing Rachel and Viola, I guess an “Add to Cart” at www.lovebonito.com was overdue. I bought a pleated blue jumpsuit for $48 (no shipping charge) which arrived within three days, and — wouldn’t you know it — it does fit well and look flattering. Guess these ladies deserve their place at the top of the fashion heap.
8 DAYS: Congrats on your win at the Women Entrepreneur Awards. What’s the best thing about being an entrepreneur — the money, the power or the freedom?
Rachel Lim: It’s definitely not the money. The money is not that great! Honestly, we always say, if it was for the money, we’d rather go out and work, ’cos it’s more stable. For me, the best thing is to be in a position where you can make a difference and make an impact, to have the power and position to influence.
Viola Tan: It’s a misconception that being an entrepreneur means we have a lot of freedom to do what we want. Actually, we are working 24/7. There is flexibility, yes, but not so much freedom.
You started out in 2006, selling your own clothes out of your bedrooms. You then moved on to importing clothes from Bangkok, before launching your own designs. What’s your secret to lasting this long in a super-competitive industry?
Rachel: Yes, now we design in Singapore and manufacture in China and Vietnam. I head the design and product department and we have a team of designers. Tips for lasting this long? Wow, many things, you know.
Viola: Perseverance is definitely a factor. Knowing your focus and purpose is also important. And the tenacity to not give up at obstacles and failure.
Rachel: Self-awareness is very important. Knowing who you are and who you’re not. You want to be able to do everything, but no one is excellent at everything. Know your strengths and work on them, and have people who complement you to help you with what you’re not so good at. Create a great team.
You two seem different, but we’re guessing you’re a good team.
Rachel: We are really complete opposites. Viola is the more stable and the steady rock of the business, whereas I’m the crazy go-getter with 101 ideas which I wanna execute. Whether they’re executable or not with the resources we have is another thing. So she’ll pull me back and make me stop and think whether the time is now, or later, or not at all.
Viola: Out of maybe 10 crazy ideas, one maybe will work and push the business forward, so that’s how we complement each other as well.
What’s a crazy idea that’s worked?
Viola: At that time, it seemed crazy, but now it’s the natural things to do — to expand overseas. It makes sense for economies of scale, but it’s very daunting and scary to get out of Singapore and our comfort zone. But now, we’re in Malaysia, Indonesia, Cambodia and with online, we are all over the world.
Now that you’ve been around for a while, is there a plan to move away from $40 dresses to something more high-end?
Rachel: Definitely. We understand that Love, Bonito caters to a certain kind of crowd but we know that with our resources and capacity, we can also cater to a different kind of crowd that is beyond the Love, Bonito core target audience.
Viola: We’ve found our focus, and our direction is really to perfect the Asian fit. Once we can cater to what Asian women want, we can go up or down on the price scale. There are so many possibilities.
So you’ve found the ‘holy grail’, so to speak.
Rachel: Yes we have — oh my god, have you not tried our clothes? We pride ourselves on the perfect Asian fit. We recognise that Asian women have very different body proportions, not just in terms of size but in shape as well. Our clothes really fit the Asian physique. So that’s why customers keep coming back to us, ’cos they don’t have to spend extra money to alter the clothes, or to see a jumpsuit that looks so nice on a model, but which they can’t wear.
Would you ever go designer? As in, do exclusive pieces with your own designer stamp, a la the high-end fashion houses or even our own Ong Shunmugam?
Rachel: I think for now, we will stick with fast fashion, of interpreting trends and translating those to designs that work best for Asian women. That’s one of our main strengths. We want to do that at different price points moving forward. We’ve done designer collaborations, such as with [the “Alexander McQueen of Indonesian”] Tex Saverio. That was strategic, as we wanted to enter the Indonesian market. That collection has done very well, surprisingly [despite the higher price points]. There is spending power when it comes to designer names — we recognise that.
Viola: We are open to working with designers, but it has to make sense for our brand.
Every 21-year-old with a social media account and a passion for fashion wants to be like you — fashion entrepreneurs. But are they 10 years too late?
Rachel: I wouldn’t say it’s too late, but it’s a different world now. You have to stand out more than ever ’cos there’re thousands and thousands of online stores. There’s a kind of fatigue for online stores now. When we started, there was nothing like us, and we could take our time for the first six years. We never spent a single cent on marketing — it was pure word of mouth. Now, if you don’t have money to market your brand, you’re gonna die very quickly.
Viola: Now they don’t have the luxury of time to learn organically, whereas we could slow down and understand our business and customers, and really learn. But at the same time, those who came after us have been able to learn from our mistakes and capitalise.
Rachel: We don’t take our head start for granted. I think we are still around because we truly understand the needs of our customers. That requires a lot of work and effort on our part. Surveys, focus groups, events, styling workshops — we go down and observe and talk to our customers and find out what they’re saying, and what they’re not saying.
You’re also both social media influencers with many followers on Instagram [@ms_rach has 102K followers while @violaerin has 48.7K]. Do you think audiences and brands are starting to get influencer fatigue? Or are you guys, as top-tier influencers with a successful fashion brand behind them as opposed to being just pretty faces, untouchable?
Rachel: Aiyoh, don’t ever say we are such things [top-tier influencers]. I think there definitely is fatigue from the audience as they get more discerning. If you’re saying great things about every brand, and if every other day you post a sponsored post, how can people trust your reviews? As influencers, we are very selective about the brands we work with. I must believe in your product and be able to say good things about it and be authentic. And as a brand in Singapore, Love, Bonito is very blessed to have influencers who truly love the brand and [post for us] on their own accord. We have to pay them a fee for certain things that we want them to do but it’s also a friend's rate.
Your lives look fabulous on social media. Luxury travel, fancy parties and events, fabulous OOTDs and showing off the stuff you get from brands — how many per cent of it is real?
Rachel: What is luxury travel? (Laughs) What parties! Eh, we seldom party! Obviously, Instagram and social media [only show] the highlights, right? The times when we are down and out, we don’t take out our cameras to take pictures of ourselves crying. Yeah, of course there is crying! (Laughs)
Viola: Actually, it’s all us — it’s 100 per cent real. It’s just that no one would take a pic of themselves arguing at work or slugging it out about business decisions, so these pics don’t get shown, but what we show is still real.
How do you plan to take your brand to the next level?
Rachel: Omni-channel is the way to go for retail. It’s the marriage of online and offline, and driving customers online and off, and making it as seamless an experience as possible. We are always looking for physical store spaces for pop-ups. We have a pop-up store at 313@Somerset. Most of our products are there, and it’s doing very well, and we’re trying to extend the pop-up. Right now, we are looking for a flagship store in Singapore. Because of the investment we have made in our products, we are confident that when people come and try our clothes, they will be won over. People ask why we want to open a physical store, but we are a brand that does very well offline, ’cos of the experience we provide. Our product is what we say it is — it’s value for money, the quality is good and it’s a perfect fit for the Asian woman.
Photos: Kelvin Chia
Shot on location at Beast & Butterflies. Special thanks to the staff of M Social Singapore.