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Love, Bonito:
Student blogshop becomes international retail business

Love, Bonito

Homegrown online fashion retailer Love, Bonito brims with all the elements of a classic entrepreneurial tale: following your heart, fighting for your dream, slogging it out, and finally, achieving enviable success.

Founders Viola Tan and Rachel Lim first dabbled in e-commerce, if you can even call it that, in 2006. "E-commerce was virtually non-existent," recalled Ms Lim, who is now 28.

Neither of them was equipped with formal tech skills, and both were barely out of junior college and university when they decided to run an e-boutique as a formal business.

Their entrepreneurial experience started one year before with the sale of pre-loved clothing from their own wardrobes for extra pocket money via a LiveJournal platform. They later imported pieces from Bangkok and Korea.

The money was decent: A good month would ring in $1,000. Otherwise, it would be about $500.

Once the young women decided to take their online apparel gig to the next level with a 'proper' e-commerce set-up in 2010, they hit the ground running.

Response to Love, Bonito's first collection was phenomenal. The voluminous traffic exceeded expectations, crashing the website. Mind you, they had previously prepped the site for a few thousand visitors.

Love, Bonito

A glimpse into Love, Bonito's special collaboration in 2015 with Tex Saverio, the fashion designer behind the opulent wedding dress worn by Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) in the Hunger Games. Photo: Love, Bonito.

Fast forward to 2015. Things have changed somewhat. For one, Love, Bonito has grown to become a formidable women's fashion player in a thriving online environment, and is reportedly worth seven figures, according to industry sources. Also, no longer is Love, Bonito importing apparel from Seoul and Bangkok. Instead, approximately 70 new in-house designs are churned out each month, all comfortably wearable in the Singapore climate.

Last year, Love, Bonito was compelled to expand into Malaysia, based on web analytics that showed up significant interest from the country's citizens. Through the expertise of IE Singapore, the pair was able to easily gain new market access. Mall landlords, venue owners and recruitment agencies - IE introduced relevant partners covering just about every area that the retail company needed help with.

We know who you should meet to make your market ventures work.

Despite the evolution of the business from a small-scale blog shop to a full-blown e-commerce success, one thing hasn't changed: Ms Tan and Ms Lim are constantly on their toes, rolling with the times and ever vigilant of trends and consumer needs.

Ms Tan, the one who takes care of business development, finance and logistics, modestly attributes Love, Bonito's success to first-mover advantage and "being blessed", but a look at the company's progress over nine years uncovers several smart moves.

We highlight five things Love, Bonito has done right:

1) Create a solid brand
In 2010, Love, Bonito took designing in-house as by then, explained Ms Tan, "there were many others doing what we were doing", and differentiation was key.

This has proved to be a winning strategy. Up to 5,000 packages are shipped out to various parts of the world every week.

To keep Love, Bonito fresh in the minds of consumers, both owners are avid adopters of social media, believing it to play a huge part in their company's branding. Ms Lim is not one to mince her words: "This is the digital age - you have to get onto social media. The more you are in denial, the more you will lag behind."

The design, creative and marketing head would know.

Through deft social media outreach, Love, Bonito has more than 125,000 'Likes' on its Facebook page and over 73,000 Instagram followers. Bloggers and well-known local personalities like singer Daphne Khoo, actress and web show host Oon Shu An and Paralympics gold medallist Yip Pin Xiu, count as brand ambassadors and fans.

Added Ms Tan: "Social media is an art. It doesn't matter how many followers you have, discretion, courtesy and a dose of common sense are important."

2) Take a leap of faith
A milestone occurred in 2012 during FIDè Fashion Weeks. The pair attended a Julien Fournie show, and instantly fell in love with his work. Eager to work with him, Ms Tan and Ms Lim connected with the French haute couture designer through the event's chairman, Dr Frank Cintamani.

"The worst that could happen was he'd reject us," said Ms Lim. But he didn't. And the Love, Bonito x Julien Fournie collection was launched in October 2013. The Love, Bonito x Julien Fournie capsule collection brought high fashion to the masses and earned nods from shoppers and the fashion industry alike.

Love, Bonito successfully rides the digital revolution: "This is the digital age.. the more you are in denial, the more you will lag behind."

Emboldened by the success, Love, Bonito followed suit in 2015 with yet another collaboration, this time with renowned couturier Tex Saverio. Even if the name doesn't strike a chord, his creations likely do: Saverio was the mastermind behind the gloriously opulent Wedding Dress worn by Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) in The Hunger Games. Lady Gaga had also picked his work to wear for her Fame fragrance campaign.

With assistance from IE Singapore, Love, Bonito linked up with Indonesia's equivalent to the edgy Alexander McQueen.

3) Listen to data
Close attention to data divulged two key points: Overseas orders were steadily increasing and the greatest number of sign-ups came from Malaysia (10 per cent after Singapore's 85 per cent).

From there, Ms Tan and Ms Lim felt the time was right to go overseas. "It was only natural," said Ms Tan simply.

The obvious foreign market to begin in was Malaysia. Instead of rushing in, the company observed trends and analysed information over one year before taking the plunge.

4) Get help
Opening in Malaysia marked the start of Love, Bonito's venture into foreign markets.

There was one stumbling block: The market was completely alien to the two Singapore entrepreneurs.

IE stepped in to help Love, Bonito speed up the globalisation process.

"IE helped us greatly by providing us contacts on the ground - public relations, marketing, manufacturing and branding companies that smoothened the transition for us when we wanted to go into Malaysia," elaborated Ms Tan.

5) Test the waters
The two friends first dipped their toes into the market with a pop-up store at Publika. While they had hoped for a positive response to their brand, the warm reception from Malaysians nonetheless delighted them.

They then proceeded to open Love, Bonito's flagship store at Mid Valley Mega Mall in June 2015. With the brick-and-mortar shop, the fast fashion e-tailer doubled staff headcount from 20 to 40.

The store is still young, but so far, Ms Tan says that "sales have been encouraging".

At the same time, Love, Bonito is making inroads into Indonesia.

IE Singapore can strengthen your company's eCommerce capabilities through the Global Company Partnership Scheme.

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