Making the leap from blogshop to fashion store

From teens running a blogshop, Viola Tan and Rachel Lim are now designing affordable and trendy clothes for Singapore girls

Love, Bonito's creative team, who were out shooting for the brand's summer campaign in 2013, with Viola Tan (extreme left) and Rachel Lim (centre, with cap).
Love, Bonito's creative team, who were out shooting for the brand's summer campaign in 2013, with Viola Tan (extreme left) and Rachel Lim (centre, with cap). PHOTO: VIOLA TAN, RACHEL LIM
Love, Bonito co-founders Rachel Lim (left) and Viola Tan (right). ST PHOTO: TIFFANY GOH

Fashionistas, be prepared for an online stampede in a few weeks. Hundreds of women will be poised and ready to do battle online. Those who hit the "Add To Cart" button fast enough will be able to grab a limited-edition 20-piece collection of ready-to-wear clothes, including fit & flare skirts and shift dresses.

Indonesian fashion designer Tex Saverio, whose flamboyant creations have been worn by singer Lady Gaga and reality TV starlet Kim Kardashian, is one- half of the creative brains behind this collection.

The other half is Love, Bonito, a home-grown online retailer run by Ms Rachel Lim, 28, and Ms Viola Tan, 31. Just like Sweden has H&M and America has Forever 21, Love, Bonito is the local version of fast fashion, catering to 20somethings who want trendy wear without having to break the bank.

Even with Saverio's name on the collection, every piece is under $200. Dresses, shoes and bags in Love, Bonito's catalogue range between $28 and $89.

Co-owner and founder Lim, who heads the design, creative and marketing teams, draws the line between their offerings and cheap online stores. "We want to give customers value for money, so we pay close attention to everything, right down to the finishing."

The former trainee teacher with no formal training but oodles of passion for fashion design heads the design team, which turns out wearable outfits. They look at fit and form themselves, rather than leave it to the manufacturer. "We try on all the clothes we design, and bend, stretch and try reaching for stuff to make sure it's a good fit. We pick materials that are comfortable for the heat in Singapore."

Every four days, the team puts out eight to 12 new designs, which include sexy bodycon dresses, jumpsuits, bags and shoes - all tagged with the motto "Empowering Confidence Through Style".

Ms Tan, also a former teacher who now heads its business development, finance and logistics team, adds: "We don't skimp on fabric or workmanship. Our sell-out launches are a testament to our customers' satisfaction level and faith in us."

It is a mantra that seems to have resonated with young women who fill up their virtual shopping cart with 3,000 to 5,000 packages every week, which are sent around the world. The company operates out of a 5,500 sq ft space in an industrial building in Kallang Pudding Road, spread out over two floors that include offices, a packaging room and a studio to shoot new looks. It will soon open brick-and- mortar boutiques in Malaysia and Indonesia.

Ms Lim and Ms Tan have come a long way from teenagers hawking second-hand clothes online from their bedrooms. Back then, there were three of them.

In the early days of the online marketplace in 2006, Ms Tan and her younger sister Velda teamed up with their churchmate Ms Lim to sell their unwanted clothes on SGSellTrade. They posed in their own clothes and put up pictures online. They moved to their own LiveJournal page a month later, setting up BonitoChico, the predecessor to Love, Bonito.

Ms Tan says they learnt how to manage a small business from scratch, which included working the iBanking systems and keeping track of mailing orders.

Selling clothes online was a way for them to earn extra pocket money. Their parents were affected by the 1997 Asian financial crisis and the three girls felt the need to supplement the household income.

Ms Lim's father ran a ship-broking business which took a "big hit" during the recession and later became a taxi driver, while her mother worked two jobs at one point - secretary in the day and bak kwa seller at night to support their three children.

Ms Tan's father stopped working as an insurance agent and turned to driving a taxi, while her mother worked as a bank officer.

Ms Tan, the eldest of three daughters, says: "I got only $15 a week to spend in junior college. I couldn't even go to McDonald's for a meal. We were not desolate, but we had to be more thrifty. If we wanted material things, we had to get it ourselves."

The part-time business venture drew a following and spurred their entrepreneurial spirit. In their first year of business, they usually made about $500 a month, but could get $1,000 in a good month.

Ms Tan says: "The three of us have vastly different styles, so our customers had so much choice and kept asking for more. So we used the money from the first sales to buy clothes from Bangkok and Hong Kong."

Working on what she calls a "manageable schedule" amid school and work, Ms Lim recalls staying up late to pack clothes to be mailed out. They would send out 20 to 70 packages in a week. She was studying at Meridian Junior College then, while Ms Tan was doing a degree in English Literature at Nanyang Technological University.

But something had to give, even as interest in their blogshop grew. Ms Lim says: "My studies did suffer a little, but I never thought I was good academically. This was something fun to do. I liked talking to customers and making sure they got the orders."

They also enlisted the help of friends and family members to send out orders. Even if their parents were a little unsure of what the business was about, they chipped in. Ms Tan says: "Our houses were like warehouses. The clothes were all over the house. Our parents nagged us but they gave us our blessings as we were quite persistent about it. We were financially independent."

In 2009, BonitoChico was voted Best Blog Shop at the Asia Pacific Blog Awards. The following year, the threesome decided to leave their blogshop days behind and relaunch as Love, Bonito.

Going into the business full-time meant leaving the career path of becoming teachers. Ms Lim had to break her bond while Ms Tan, who had just completed her four-year teaching bond with the Ministry of Education, says: "It was scary because we were giving up something secure to do something so volatile."

But with a four-year headstart, Love, Bonito was miles ahead of the competition.

Instead of bulk-buying clothes from Bangkok or Hong Kong, they designed their own. Ms Lim says: "It was about rebranding, to move away from that blogshop stigma. There were hundreds of blogshops, importing the same designs from the same places."

Despite having no fashion design training, Ms Lim works with mood boards and "sketching the best as they could". A middleman in China translated their designs to a factory there. There are now three others who work with her in the design team.

The brand took off spectacularly. When they launched their first collection, the website crashed due to high traffic, even though they had prepared the server to handle a few thousand customers.

Ms Tan says: "We didn't dare think of doing another collection because we had to deal with very angry customers. But we learnt from that experience and were well prepared for the next launch."

The company, which has about 35 staff, has 121,000 "Likes" on its Facebook page and 67,000 Instagram followers. It won the SME Asia Award 2013/2014 from The Asian Business Journal and The Trade and Industry Association. Its annual warehouse sale, started in 2010 when Love, Bonito was launched, draws hordes of women.

When Love, Bonito launched its first collaborative line with French couture designer Julien Fournie in 2013, it scored points for bringing high fashion to the masses. Seven pieces from the limited-edition collection of about 15 looks were sold out.

And despite Ms Velda Tan leaving in 2013 to pursue her own interests - she remains a stakeholder in the business - Love, Bonito has grown.

It opens its first brick-and-mortar store this month in Mid Valley Megamall in Kuala Lumpur and will open a store in Indonesia soon. The catalogue this year will include a maternity and sportswear line.

Ms Tan and Ms Lim shy away from being called fashion moguls. Ms Tan says: "I won't say we're a giant in the fashion industry. Fashion is always changing and we've so much to grow still."

But they still get a kick out of spotting women wearing their designs on the streets. Ms Lim says: "When we see them, we catch their eye and nod at them. They always look good."

Viola on Rachel: She's a go-getter

Love, Bonito's Viola Tan calls her co-founder Rachel Lim the "life of every party" who knows what she wants.

"You can't be around her and not feel enthusiastic about what is to come," says Ms Tan, who has known her since they were children at the same church in Kembangan.

She also calls her childhood friend a "go-getter" who is steadfast. "Rachel is loyal and extremely firm when it comes to her beliefs. She's a constant in my life and will always be."

As the two of them are being interviewed together, it is clear that as business partners, they are a perfect fit. While Ms Lim is outspoken and forward, Ms Tan ponders her answers, often nodding in agreement with her partner.

The latter, who handles Love, Bonito's business development, finances and logistics, says: "Rachel and I complement each other. We're constantly talking about the present and future of the business, so we both know the game plan.

"Also, the both of us can't talk at once, so I'm more comfortable having Rachel speak up."

Perhaps, with Ms Tan's sister, Velda, leaving the business, the two have had to close ranks.

Velda, 28, left two years ago, but launched Collate The Label, a womenswear line at the recent Singapore Fashion Week - the same time that Love, Bonito launched its Tex Saverio collaboration.

The elder sister says simply: "Change is hard but without it, there won't be growth. We began as a blogshop with Velda and she'll always be part of the brand's heritage."

The sisters do not see each other as often as before as they no longer work together, and Velda is married. They have a younger sister Vanya, who is an air stewardess.

Ever the perfectly poised fashionista, Ms Viola Tan is quick to dispel rumours of sibling rivalry, saying that her sister texted her before the catwalk show for Collate The Label to say she was nervous. Both Ms Tan and Ms Lim went to see the show too.

Says Ms Tan with a smile: "We're very supportive of each other. Nothing's changed. She's my sister and I love her."

The Nanyang Girls' High School and Raffles Junior College alumna has worked her way to the top. Aside from Love, Bonito, she has been an ambassador for Japanese skincare company SK-II for the past five years and gets invitations to work with other companies.

The bachelorette owns a condominium unit in the East and drives a Mercedes C180 Coupe - a long way from sharing a room with her sisters at the family's two-room condominium in Choa Chu Kang.

She has 38,900 followers on Instagram, where she shares everything from pictures of her dog to her daily eats and holiday snaps.

She says: "Social media is an art. Whether you have 10 followers or a million followers, the rules are still the same. Discretion, courtesy and a good dose of common sense."

Rachel on Viola: She's a thinker

As the only daughter in a family of five, Ms Rachel Lim considers business partner Viola Tan her sister.

Growing up with two brothers - the older one works as a missionary in Thailand, while the younger is waiting to go to law school in the United Kingdom - she was more of a tomboy then.

Ms Lim, who grew up in a three-room condominium apartment in Simei, says: "It was never quiet at home. My family is boisterous and outgoing."

Meeting the Tan sisters at church gave her a sisterhood of sorts. She says: "It was love at first sight for us and we hung out together in a group."

Their friendship helped run Love, Bonito smoothly and even as they grew into their own, she says they are not competitve about anything.

"I grew up with Viola. She's like a sister to me, always taking care of me and wanting the best for me. I've always turned to her for advice whenever I have personal or work problems."

Ms Lim, who is more outspoken, appreciates Ms Tan's "big heart" when it comes to running the business. She says: "Viola doesn't dwell on petty issues or bear grudges. Anyone who has met her cannot help but agree that she's gracious both in demeanour and the way she deals with others."

Ms Tan's quieter disposition may lead some to think that she is "unapproachable or fierce". Ms Lim says: "People might misunderstand because they don't know her, so I tell her to open up and force her to speak up."

They bring their yin and yang personalities to the job with their different working styles. Ms Lim says: "Viola's a thinker and I'm on the go. I need things to be done immediately but, with her, there's much more balance."

Indeed, that spontaneous streak has done Ms Lim, a former trainee teacher, much good. Starting the business meant breaking a Ministry of Education bond - a five-figure sum she had to ask her parents to pay first.

She says: "My parents thought I was crazy and didn't talk to me for a few days when I told them I was leaving school. But I was very sure I wanted to do this, even with the risk involved.

"I'm still young, so there's time for me to go back to school. But if I miss this opportunity to grow my business, I would regret it forever."

Single and in a relationship, she owns a condominium apartment in the East and drives her own car.

Her Instagram account has 75,000 followers, some of whom compliment her "elegant" style when she snaps pictures of herself in yoga poses, hobnobbing with celebrities or in her Love, Bonito outfits.

Even though she no longer runs a blogshop with small orders, she personally replies to fans who write her an e-mail or comment on her Instagram.

The exercise buff, who works out at home five times a week, tries to find release from the online world. She says: "I try to spend time unplugged, to read and reflect. I think it's really important not to be consumed by the smartphone. Balance is key."

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