Game Changers

Clothed in confidence: Love, Bonito's Rachel Lim wants to help women embrace their true potential

A gutsy Rachel Lim may have turned Love, Bonito into a successful business, but she says the fashion brand's deeper mission is to help women embrace their true potential

Ms Rachel Lim quit her university studies to devote herself to Love, Bonito, which now has 21 stores in Singapore – including its latest one at Funan (above) – and the region.
Ms Rachel Lim quit her university studies to devote herself to Love, Bonito, which now has 21 stores in Singapore – including its latest one at Funan (above) – and the region. ST PHOTO: ALPHONSUS CHERN

Ms Rachel Lim started selling her pre-loved clothes online in her teens partly because of her circumstances.

The 1997 Asian financial crisis had upended her shipbroker father's fortunes, making him bankrupt and forcing him to become a taxi driver. Her mother had to work as a secretary by day and sell bak kwa by night.

The family home was also sold. Ms Lim, her parents and two siblings had to move into a room at her paternal grandmother's flat.

Starting a blogshop Bonito, Chico with her chums Velda and Viola Tan was her way of making some pocket money.

"There were no overheads; people were just starting to explore online shopping," says Ms Lim, 32.

To their delight, their little venture proved to be a hit. From pre-loved clothing, they started selling clothes they would buy in Bangkok and Hong Kong.

"But there was always something about what we were selling that I was not happy with: the design, the details, the colours, the fit," she says.

They decided they would create clothes for Asian women, whom they felt had different body shapes and needs. Their instincts proved correct and the business gained even more traction.

Eight months before graduating from the Nanyang Technological University, Ms Lim - who was then on a Ministry of Education teaching scholarship - decided to quit her studies and grow the business, which was later renamed Love, Bonito.

Move forward 13 years. The business did not just grow; it has thrived and is no longer just an e-commerce platform. There are now 21 Love, Bonito stores not just in Singapore, but also Malaysia, Indonesia, Cambodia and Hong Kong.

Beyond being just a business, it is also a vehicle which brings women together through talks, forums and sharing sessions.

While Viola remains a shareholder and board member, Ms Lim - who continues to be deeply involved in the company's day-to-day operations - describes her journey as "scary, but a good kind of scary".

"It was a lot of learning from scratch. I had never worked under anyone or, for that matter, over anyone. Hiring the right people, taking care of them, leading the team and growing the right talent were all new to me. I learnt on the job with books as a friend and teacher."

She looks forward to breaking new ground.

"We've always said that fashion is just a vehicle for us to reach out to women today - we may have begun in the industry of fashion but we're ultimately in the business of women. Who knows what the future will hold?"

You had a teaching scholarship and were on track to become an English teacher. Why did you quit university to start Love, Bonito, especially since your family circumstances were difficult?

Something had to give. I realised - in juggling both school and work - I failed to excel in either.

My decision to commit to the business was both strategic and instinctive. We wanted to strike when the iron was hot, since we had that first mover, pioneer advantage in the online shopping space.

We felt deeply that the business had the potential for exponential growth. I was also quietly confident that this could, and would, work - if I gave it my 200 per cent.

There must have been a lot of reactions from friends and family. What was the nastiest and the most encouraging?

"You're going to regret not having a degree to fall back on; you can't go far in life" - I can't recall how many times well-meaning friends and family made this comment. Although it was painful to hear, I believe it came from a place of good intentions.

But over the years, I've learnt to block out the naysayers and focus on running my own race and staying my path.

The most encouraging response, an action which spoke louder than a thousand words, was my mother giving up her life savings to take a chance on me.

She had her doubts, but still shakily, selflessly gave me her entire life savings to break my bond. I think that served as the push factor, knowing that I couldn't let her down and there was no room to fail.

There are unsung heroes in most success stories. Who is yours?

I can't say enough about my mother, because she's truly my hero in every arena of life. I've seen her go through mountains and valleys. Hers is not a blind optimism, but a quiet resilience in the face of different trials: going through debt, raising three children and relationship troubles.

Through it all, she has remained positive and unshakeable in her core sense of joy and strength. She has taught me that there is no contradiction in being perfectly strong and authentically vulnerable.

In the course of your journey, have you ever felt inadequate or like a fraud?

Feeling inadequate is a very human struggle. I've learnt, and am still learning, to find that balance in understanding and knowing what my talents and gifts are. What can I bring to the table? How can I work on excelling and surround myself with people who can complement my strengths and weaknesses?

I now understand that all of us are meant to contribute differently, so I focus on honing what I've been born with. Improving my own gifts helps me become more confident of who I am, and who I am not.

I don't feel like a fraud because I know that where I am today and how far Love, Bonito has come is not because of me - it's the result of a partnership and collaboration of effort, the hard and heart work of many.

Apparently, encounters with your customers kept you going when things got rough? Which was the most unforgettable?

Over the last 10 years, I've faced multiple failures, mistakes and moments when I wanted to throw in the towel. At one point, I was so jaded with the business, I was desperate to find a deeper purpose to Love, Bonito.

Customers would often thank us, but I never quite understood what they were thankful for. A turning point came on Aug 1, 2014, when a customer wrote in asking if she could meet me. I invited her to the office, not expecting very much.

But what she had to share was a story of rediscovering her confidence after going through brain surgery and skull reconstruction. The procedure forced her to lose not just her weight and hair, but also her sense of self.

When she was recovering and had to meet people, she would put on a piece of Love, Bonito clothing because it made her feel better about herself and gave her courage to face the world.

She came to thank us for changing her life, but I think she changed mine instead. I realised Love, Bonito had a greater purpose. We are not just selling clothes, but clothing women in confidence and helping them to discover and embrace their truest potential.

Besides the clothes and accessories, Love, Bonito is quite well-known for being a platform for women. Is this deliberate?

For us, dressing well is just a means to an end; fashion is a vehicle we tap into to reach communities of women.

Our greater vision is to be the most thoughtful brand made for the modern Asian woman and to create a safe space for women to discover, embrace and be the best version of themselves.

That's why Love, Bonito also runs multiple community events, from International Women's Day panels to motherhood talks that touch on difficult topics like postpartum depression. Our latest Funan store also has a dedicated community space for running bi-weekly workshops on different topics.

As a woman and entrepreneur, what are your three most important guiding principles?

Know yourself inside out: We're not meant to excel in everything. Lao Tzu once said: "Knowing others is intelligence; knowing yourself is true wisdom. Mastering others is strength; mastering yourself is true power."

Second, don't compromise on your values. Don't be tempted to cut corners or make small allowances for that which goes against what you know is right.

Finally, excellence is a habit: Small, good decisions, when done daily, have immense compound effect over time.

What, in your opinion, makes a person a game changer?

A game changer, for me, is someone who's bold and not afraid to challenge the status quo, a courageous spirit who dares to stand up for what he or she believes in.

This is the second of a three-part series on trailblazing local heroes brought to you by G-SHOCK

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on September 29, 2019, with the headline 'Clothed in confidence'. Subscribe