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Rachel Lim, Co-founder, Love, Bonito
AS CO-FOUNDER OF homegrown fashion label Love, Bonito, you would think that Rachel Lim doesn't have a problem that most women face – having nothing to wear despite a full wardrobe. "Trust me, I have problems finding the right (clothes) and finding space in my wardrobe," says Ms Lim, with a laugh.
The 32-year-old describes her style as feminine and safe. Naturally, she dresses mostly in Love, Bonito pieces.
Back in 2006, when the fashion e-commerce scene in Singapore was still in its infancy, Ms Lim, together with sisters, Viola and Velda Tan, set up a blogshop called BonitoChico, selling imported clothing to earn extra pocket money. The blogshop took off, and in 2010, it was rebranded as Love, Bonito, focusing on designing pieces for the Asian woman rather than selling imported clothes. Ms Lim heads its design, creative and marketing teams. Ms Viola Tan has taken a break from the day-to-day operations of Love, Bonito while Velda has left the company.
People say retail is tough or even dying. But yet, Love, Bonito has three stores in Singapore, and is also sold in Malaysia, Indonesia, Cambodia and Hong Kong. Why is it so successful?
It is easy to start something, but the one thing that has kept us at the top of our game has been to constantly monitor the pulse of our customers. It is scary how consumer trends change so often, but constantly growing with our customers and being one or two steps ahead of them has really helped us.
Besides, we are a bunch of real women creating for other real women. We completely understand our customers – we get it, we understand the struggles that women go through. We are firm believers that women not only want to look good, they want to feel good too. Hence, the aesthetics of clothing is as important as its function and comfort.
You recently opened the latest Love, Bonito store at Funan. Where do you get the inspiration for its innovative features?
We want to serve customers beyond just selling great products. We are very proud of our modular fitting rooms. Women love to shop in groups with their girlfriends or their mums. So instead of being in different rooms, why not combine rooms together?
Anyone who has shopped during busy hours knows how frustrating it is to wait for a fitting room. We are changing that and want to empower women to make good use of their shopping time.
So we introduced a queue system, which shows the approximate waiting time. Say, if the waiting time is 20 minutes, shoppers should first take a number, then go shopping, instead of the other way around. I believe we are the first in retail to introduce this.
We've received offers from tech companies to have special mirrors that allow shoppers to virtually try on clothes, but we don't believe in introducing technology for the sake of it. The joy of shopping is still in trying on a new outfit, and deciding how it looks and fits. So rather than a virtual mirror, we've introduced an Augmented Reality walkway, where customers can walk down the runway in their new outfits and share their in-store experience on social media.
I'm always curious about our customers. Data can tell you what's selling and what isn't, but it is through speaking with customers that I know truly why an outfit isn't selling. We are also big on focus groups and send out surveys to regular and new customers to see how we can fulfil a need or do better.
You dropped out of university to focus on running BonitoChico. Is it something you would recommend?
Definitely not. I was in my final year at university and I was juggling both school and work. It was hard to focus and I told myself something had to give. BonitoChico was gaining a lot of momentum and I decided to strike while the iron was hot. I told myself that if the business failed, I could go back to study. But if I missed the opportunity to grow the business, I would regret it.
It was a tough decision to make. It was eight months before graduation, and my lecturers tried to talk me out of it as they couldn't understand why I wanted to take the risk.
I also needed to borrow a five-figure sum from my mum to break a bond. I'm forever grateful that she took that leap of faith with me, and she even took on a third job to support the family. One of the reasons why I knew I couldn't fail with Love, Bonito was that I didn't want to let my mum down. I didn't even think of a Plan B, should that not work out. But I wouldn't recommend anyone dropping out of school to start a business. Being an entrepreneur is overhyped these days, and people think it is easy being your own boss. An entrepreneur is not bigger than anyone else. Everyone has a different path to their own success.
Is being entrepreneurial something you are born with or can it be learnt?
I am an entrepreneur by accident, and I didn't go to business school either, but I feel you need to have certain traits to be an entrepreneur. You need to have a very strong gut instinct about your product or service, and be passionate about the market you serve. So even though there is a gap and demand for Love, Bonito to design menswear, this isn't something I would pursue, simply because I don't have the passion for it. You also can't be too conservative, but be willing to take calculated risks. And you need to have a high level of self-awareness to know what you are good at and what you lack, and bring in the right people to make up for your weaknesses.
You were 19 when you started a business. What's the biggest challenge you've faced through the years?
Myself. I am my biggest limit. There is self-doubt and noise, which takes a lot of discipline to shut off. The company looks to me, so it can be stressful, not knowing how much to show. But at the end of the day, I believe that if you psych yourself up, you can overcome any self-doubt. Through fashion, I realised I needed to stop comparing myself with anyone else.
Being in the industry, I did struggle with my looks, but it wasn't until I owned myself, stopped dressing or behaving like someone else that I became more confident. That's why I want to help other women feel confident, not only through clothing, but also through workshops that we conduct on topics such as styling and wellness. They are open even to nonLove, Bonito customers, and it is heartening to hear stories of how women share the same problems and concerns. Success and confidence comes in really owning who you are.