"Fashion is as much about looking good as it is about feeling empowered and confident"
When Rachel Lim and Viola Tan first set up their blogshop on LiveJournal to sell pre-loved clothes to earn pocket money, they had no idea that it would set them on the path of entrepreneurship. At the time, the concept of a blogshop was foreign to most people, and online shopping for clothes was virtually unheard of.
But the online boutique proved popular and soon amassed a significant following, so much so that they soon ran out of pre-loved clothes to sell. Realising that what was initially a pet project was turning into a very promising commercial prospect, the founding team used the profits to import clothes from neighbouring countries to sell. Low operating overheads meant that they could keep costs to a minimum, although that also meant that the maintenance and updating of the site, as well as the logistics of packing and the delivering the clothes, had to be done by themselves. Demand was so high that the duo found themselves struggling to juggle school and work, and so they roped in family members to help with the business.
Seven years ago, the business reached an inflection point where the team decided it was time for a change. Instead of importing clothes, they would design and manufacture their own, resulting in the birth of Love, Bonito as we know it today. “We may not have background in fashion design but we delved into it anyway,” recalls Lim. “What we do possess is a strong understanding of what customers want, so that helps us go against all odds.”
Contrary to popular belief, the company’s name has nothing to do with the delicious Japanese ingredient — ‘Bonito’ in this case is the Spanish word for beautiful.
Lim oversees the company’s branding, marketing, business direction, design, customer relations/engagement, while Tan takes charge of investor relations, operations, finance, as well as business development.
The duo points out that Love, Bonito is more than just a boutique and fast-fashion brand. “Over the years, the business has grown and touched the lives of our customers,” relates 30-year-old Lim. “We constantly hear from women about how our clothes have given them the confidence they need in social and work environments.”
“We believe in [instilling] confidence through style, and we want to be able to help the everyday woman,” says Tan, who turns 33 this year. To that end, Love, Bonito has come up with initiatives such as styling workshops to engage customers and help them assess their body types. The duo shares that every year, they would hold events such as symposiums where inspirational women speakers are invited to share their stories, struggles, failures and successes.
“There was once when a customer wrote to ask if she could meet us,” recalls Tan. “It turned out that she had to undergo brain surgery, which meant she had to shave her head, and the treatment caused her to look sick and gaunt, but every day of the recovery journey she said she was glad she could wear clothes from Love, Bonito because it made her more confident and beautiful.” Stories like this are not uncommon from the company’s customers — many more have written in to express their gratitude, saying that the dresses they wore on first dates and job interviews often earned them compliments and made them feel and look exceptional.
More tangibly, Love, Bonito aims to make a difference in the fast-fashion scene by creating dresses that are designed specifically with the Asian woman’s physique in mind. Plenty of effort and resources invested in R&D has allowed the team to create the perfect fit for Asian women. “People who wear our dresses tell us that they feel the difference,” says Lim. “They may not always be able to put their finger on exactly why they feel that way but we know because we have put in a lot to create the perfect fit; it really brings out the best in a woman’s body.”
To add intrigue, variety and flair to its collections, the brand has also partnered designers and couturiers such as Indonesia’s Tex Saverio and France’s Julien Fournié, resulting in collections that promptly sold out.
Love, Bonito has since expanded to Malaysia and Indonesia, and Lim and Tan are now setting their sights on the Philippines and Cambodia. “We’re still trying to understand the markets in Malaysia and Indonesia, so there’s constant communication with our teams based in the two countries,” says Lim. “We respect cultural differences, so the selection and range of our dresses there tend to be a little more conservative.”
“Building a brand is a very long and arduous journey, and I think we have come quite a long way,” Tan adds. “We are not solely focused on the sale of our products but also on the goals and values that see us to this day, and that translates into helping and inspiring more women to be confident. There is so much more room to grow and so much more potential — as long as our branding is strong, I am certain we will do well in the countries that we wish to enter into.”
The duo ascribes the success of the business to the team’s strong and deep understanding of customers’ needs, and the ability to innovate to stay on the cutting edge of fast fashion. “When we stop innovating, it means we are dying out,” Lim says.
The company’s CSR initiatives are also targeted at women’s charities and organisations helping young women or those afflicted with breast cancer. “One year, we had a fashion show to raise awareness and funds for the Breast Cancer Foundation, where all the models for the show were breast cancer survivors,” Lim shares.
In all that Love, Bonito endeavours, both Lim and Tan make it a point to always remember why they do what they do: “It comes down to touching the lives of women. A lot of discipline is required to not be tempted or distracted by what competitors are doing. We won’t want to lose ourselves in the pursuit of newer customers; we want to stay true to our brand and our identity, even if means taking the long and winding road.”