CEO Series

Built On Just $500, This S'pore Brand Has Now Grown Into A Multi-Million Fashion Powerhouse

Love, Bonito has become a household name over the years, proving that it’s not some obscure local fashion brand.

Founded by three friends – Rachel Lim, Viola Tan and Velda Tan (the latter two are sisters) – the brand started off as a blogshop called Bonito Chico in 2005.

E-commerce was still at a very nascent stage a decade ago, and they are one of the pioneers to start the blogshop trend in Singapore.

And they have since come a long way from teenagers hawking second-hand clothes online from their bedrooms.

Back then, selling clothes online was a way for them to earn extra pocket money, especially since their parents were affected by the 1997 Asian financial crisis.

But this sideline business soon turned into a full-time venture; and Lim even left Nanyang Technology University when she was 19 to focus on building the brand.

Starting With Just $500

Left to right: Rachel Lim, Velda Tan, and Viola Tan, during their blogshop days / Image Credit: scene.sg

The three of them pooled in their savings and pumped in $500 to start up the business.

Their business quickly gained traction, enjoying an annual growth of 25 to 30 per cent since its inception.

In fact, their first collection was so popular that the website actually crashed due to high traffic and continued to stay down for about 6 to 8 hours.

They had prepped the site for a few thousand visitors, but the voluminous traffic exceeded their expectations.

Following the downtime scare, Tan said she didn’t dare to think of launching another collection because they had to deal with very angry customers.

“But we learnt from that experience, and were well-prepared for the next launch,” said Tan.

Profits were redeployed into growing the business, with earnings from the first sales used to buy clothes in bulk from Bangkok and Hong Kong.

They continued earning a decent sum – a good month would ring in $1,000, otherwise it would be about $500.

Rebranding To Love, Bonito

Viola Tan and Rachel Lim, co-founders of Love, Bonito / Image Credit: Lifestyle Asia

In 2010, they stopped bargain hunting for apparels in Asian markets and ventured into designing their own original pieces instead.

This move was aligned with their decision to rebrand to Love, Bonito and move away from that “blogshop stigma”.

There were many blogshops emerging at that time, and they were all offering similar clothes but at lower prices.

Without any background in fashion design, they had to conduct research and study fashion trends so as to figure out what women want.

We realised big global brands didn’t understand the Asian woman’s physique, which resulted in clothes that didn’t fit as well on local women.

“So we wanted to prioritise our focus on building a brand to create an accessible fashion for the regular Asian woman,” said Lim.

The fit and form of their clothes is very important to them, and they made sure to pick materials that are comfortable for the heat in Singapore.

When Velda left the firm in 2013, Lim handled branding and product design, while Tan oversaw business development and financing.

Going Online To Offline

Having built a strong foundation in Singapore, the enterprising duo decided to expand the company overseas, first in Malaysia and Indonesia in 2015, then in Cambodia in 2016.

Overseas orders were steadily increasing and the greatest number of sign-ups came from Malaysia (10 per cent after Singapore’s 85 per cent) so it was a natural progression for them to go regional.

And in October this year, Love, Bonito finally opened its first flagship store in Singapore.

Exterior of the flagship store / Image Credit: Prestige

Located at 313@Somerset, the boutique takes over the 4,603 square-feet space on the second floor previously occupied by American fast-fashion giant Forever 21.

Seeing the death knell for brick-and-mortar store, this shift from online to offline seems to come off as a bit of a surprise, since they are already flourishing in the e-commerce space.

“A lot of people say that retail is dead. But for us, boring, traditional and mediocre retail is (what’s) dead. What we really want to bring across with the flagship store is the whole Love, Bonito experience,” she said.

She believes that the retail landscape has completely changed today and consumers are looking for a different experience – one that goes well beyond a simple transaction.

Commenting more on why they made the leap to open a physical store, Lim said that the successes of their pop-ups have really pushed them in this direction.

“Having opened a series of very successful pop-ups over 6 years in Singapore and around the region, like Indonesia, Malaysia and Cambodia, we realised that the Love, Bonito community needed more than just a traditional retail experience.”

Their 12 pop-up stores, located locally and regionally, were pivotal for brand experience, building customer loyalty and sales conversion.

The pop-up stores also was an avenue for them to foster a physical impression with their customers, letting them touch and feel the material of the designs.

Our pop-ups led to an influx of new online customers who had visited us first at our pop-up stores. We then realised physical stores were crucial in sales conversion for the Love, Bonito customer.

“Sometimes, customers find pieces online and come to the store to try on the clothes, and vice versa. We are very fortunate we managed to marry both elements of e-commerce and brick-and-mortar retail together.”

Pink Room, the focal point of the store / Image Credit: Prestige

Her vision for the new store is to serve as a platform for the brand to enhance their customers’ touch point and provide a space for them to mingle and learn.

Unlike the usual retail store, Love, Bonito’s new physical space is geared at customer engagement.

Sales staff will be trained to help shoppers with styling, and the space will also be used to hold workshops and talks for customers to learn how to dress for their body type, for instance.

And banking on their observation that women enjoy their time together while trying on clothes, they created modular fitting rooms that transform into spacious yet intimate corners.

“A group of girlfriends may opt to try on pieces in privacy, yet share the experience with one another. We even considered the type of lighting used in the fitting rooms – we have a mix of warm and cool lighting that helps our customers look their best.”

“Every month, we will also have new fashion look books and mood boards showcasing current trends in-store to provide style inspirations for our clients as they shop.”

Finally, the flagship Love, Bonito store will also carry monthly drops of exclusive capsule collections.

Secret To Success 

Rachel Lim, face of Love, Bonito / Image Credit: Love, Bonito

Over the years, Love, Bonito has grown to be a hugely popular local fashion brand.

The fact that they’ve been around for over a decade shows that they’ve been doing something right, which is why they’re still ‘in the game’.

Love, Bonito now sends out 5,000 to 7,000 parcels weekly, a significant increase from the 300 to 500 parcels they used to send when they first started.

And last year, the company’s revenue hit approximately $10 million. This year, it expects revenue growth of at least 50 per cent.

This success all boils down to having a good understanding of what the Love, Bonito woman desires and requires, said Lim.

By listening to and addressing what our customers need, it has helped us stay relevant in the ever-changing fashion landscape.

The local fashion industry is very niche, and competition from other blogshops and international retailers is very stiff.

So the challenge in today’s saturated market is to stay focused on who they are fundamentally as a brand, and continually differentiate themselves.

Even in the face of competition, they have to keep in mind to stay true to the brand’s purpose.

“We always pay attention to what our customers want. Our products can always be replicated, but it’s the relationship and connection with the customers that cannot be replicated by competitors.”

“As a brand made for real women by real women, we truly understand what our customers want. This understanding then translates into perfecting our strategies and tailoring our approach to what our customers truly want.”

Sharing more about Love, Bonito business plans, Lim said that it definitely has expansion plans to cater to women outside of Asia, as there is a huge percentage of Asians in Australia and New Zealand, as well as further afield like the United States.

“We are also exploring other product line expansions to include more lifestyle products and accessories.”

Featured Image Credit: Ladyboss Asia 

Subscribe to Vulcan Post Newsletter

Stay updated with our weekly curated news and updates.