Fish, They’ve Done It!

The blog-shop-turned-full-fledged-fashion-label Love, Bonito has opened a flagship retail store. Despite the dreary retail mood and a general skepticism of blogshops, Love, Bonito is one of our island’s most successful and visible brands. Will they just continue to bring to the racks the successful formula that has up till now mainly appealed to the Internet denizen? Or, will they do better?

Love Bonito store front

By Mao Shan Wang

Last weekend, two Singapore brands unveiled their newest outlet: PS Café removed the hoarding to their spanking eatery in Raffles City, while Love, Bonito opened the doors of their flagship in 313@Somerset. Sure, both could not be any different—one is in the business of food and the other clothing, but they have one thing in common: neither offers a sense of being that hinges on the future. Their stores are each physical expression of the bygone and it is in them that I saw the stark difference.

When I stood in front of PS Café, I saw an old-fashioned establishment or homage to the past—retro-cool tempered by 2017’s sense of the sophisticated—aimed at a very specific customer. When I stood before Love, Bonito, I saw retro-cool too, but here, there was something else. While the visual merchandising, fixtures, and products seem to reinstate the aesthetics of a past era, the space is conceived to capture the desires of generation now. A photo wall that welcomes selfie-taking and a phone-charging cabinet heighten unapologetically how it caters to the masses, through and through.

Love Bonito queueThe queue outside Love, Bonito in 313@Somerset

And the masses turned up. At the opening of Love, Bonito’s 4,603 sq ft flagship store in 313@Somerset, the queue to have first grab of their merchandise was well anticipated. A poster was erected near the escalator of their second-floor store, designating where the “official queue” was to be. Queuing was allowed at half past ten, thirty minutes before the store was due to receive their first shoppers, but shortly after ten, when the mall opened, a messy, mixed line had already formed along black-rope-linked stanchions, placed to encourage orderliness in the crowd. It was hard to say what these young women (some so clearly only at puberty’s door that they had to be accompanied by their mother) had truly come here for: the irresistible clothes or the opening giveaway of a “goodie bag” worth S$120 with purchases of S$120.

I did not know what to expect. For sure, I did not anticipate a queue, let alone crowd control. What I saw was more impressive—if a brand’s popularity is judged by length of queue at launch day—than the line outside H&M, less than 1km away, formed two days earlier for the launch of the Erdem X H&M collaboration. Two girls, no more than twenty, were studying the posters erected at the start of the line. I heard one of them ask, “Huh, have to queue, ah?” I asked her how she came to know about this, and she happily said that it was through Facebook. And added, looking pleased, “We waited for this store to open a long time, liao.” I wondered if they too had queued for Erdem X H&M. “Er, who?” was the quick reply. I tried again, “Not erhu. Erdem.” “Don’t know.”

Love, Bonito interior 1Love, Bonito’s interior with mannequins amid floor, as well as suspended racks

For those outside the black ropes, without the affinity for Love, Bonito’s mass-market exuberance, this line may be as appealing as the one outside a public ladies’ toilet. The restroom is, however, a necessity; a clothing store is not. Among the fashion cognoscenti, Love, Bonito is a curiosity that you ask about, not buy into. Despite their admired track, rising from blogshop to e-shop to brick-and-mortar store, they have not been able to entice those whose idea of fashion—or what is fashionable—is not trapped in an unending online shopping belt.

Inside the convivial store, which really wasn’t crowded enough to require a queue outside (a line at the entrance always gives the impression that the shop is hugely popular—a tact possibly learnt from Louis Vuitton), I noticed—no, I spied—a young woman emerging from the fitting room with three pieces of clothing and smiling gleefully at her waiting male companion. “Can we go now?” he asked, shaken from the torpor. “No, I want to buy some more,” came the reply. This must have horrified the fellow because he pointed disapprovingly to another queue—outside the fitting rooms (including three make-shift ones among the rack of clothes). She was unperturbed and walked off, leaving the hapless guy standing under a neon sign that read, irony intact, “Discover. Embrace. Be You.”

Love, Bonito interior 3The blazing neon of Love, Bonito’s empowering mantra

Less than ten steps away—behind that pillar, in fact—two girls were vigorously swiping on a tablet PC held aloft on a steel stand just below what looked like a message board, but was in fact an artfully arranged mood board. They were looking intently at the Love, Bonito website. With all the clothes here to see and touch and buy, it was odd that these two preferred the cold and hard and flat surface of the touch screen. Bitten by curiosity, I asked them why they were scanning the online site when they could see everything on the selling floor, as well as feel, and try them on.

“We’re looking for something we wanted, but could not find here.” Do you like this brand a lot? “Among all the blogshops, they’re the best.” Why? “The others sell the same things. Their clothes look like they come from the same factory. Here, their things are more unique.”

It’s interesting that despite “moving up”, as announced in a plastered window of their previous incarnation—a pop-up store (also in 313@Sommerset), Love, Bonito is still referred to by customers as a “blogshop.” This illustrates that what there were in the past had been so successful that fans still regard them by their initial online form, hosted on blog site LiveJournal, even when they have upgraded to a proper dot-com URL. While the blogshop as an online retail set-up has come to denote women—individuals or a group—setting up an e-commerce venture characterised by the casualness of the business and the inexperience of their operators, the initial unsystematic approach has not dented Love, Bonito’s growth potential.

Love Bonito pop-up shop windowA Love, Bonito poster announcing their move, as well as urging shoppers to “hang” with them

Before most women know them by the sign-off Love, Bonito, the brand traded as BonitoChico, or Spanish for ‘pretty boy’. Since Spanish is one of the least familiar European languages here, many, like I, did not make the connection and, instead, thought it had something to do with bonito flakes (or kastsuobushi, the pinkish shavings of dried and fermented bonito fish typically served on top of the savoury Japanese pancake okonomiyaki). Still, the name did not latch on to its F&B association, and was catchy enough to draw the attention of young women attracted by BonitoChico’s inexpensive, homogeneous, and approachable fashion.

That was in 2006. Sisters Viola and Velda Tan, and fellow church-goer Rachel Lim started—at first—a disposal point of the contents of their personal wardrobes to “make pocket money”, as they would tell the media, by putting what they wanted to sell on the SGSellTrade page of LiveJournal, a born-in-America blogging application and online community that is owned by a Russian media company since 2007. Fans of Love, Bonito may have no desire to read this oft-told story, but to some, it’s so inspirational that perhaps it deserves a re-telling. In the year of its founding, BonitoChico was not the only blogshop enticing young women to spend their savings and pocket money on clothes. There was the intriguingly named Love and Bravery, formed a year earlier (and has, since 2011, operated their own brick-and-mortar stores). But the Bonito girls, as they were sometimes called, did more than build a fledgling brand; they created a following. This still amazes, considering that before 2010, social media was curiosity, not compulsion.

Pull quote 1

After a month of brisk business, BonitoChico debuted with their own page on LiveJournal. I have to admit that I have not seen BonitoChico’s LiveJournal page, but I understand it communicated a simple girlishness that many of its fans found relatable. It was a potent mix of “sugar, spice, and everything nice”, to quote Powerpuff Girls’ maker Professor Utonium, and it was a non-threatening and non-judgmental platform that lured young women for whom a physical store could be considerable effort and a tad intimidating.

The initial, unexpected success of BonitoChico soon embolden the three partners to start bringing in clothes from Bangkok and Hong Kong—cash and carry at wholesale centres and markets—to augment their merchandise. These were clothes that fit with the everyday nature of their customers’ lives, not anything that could cross to the realm of special occasions—“cheap and good”, as so many Netizens happily and willingly proclaimed. The sales looked upwards, and the trio decided to try their hand at producing their own merchandise.

The results were not the stuff to encourage the response, impressive. There were considerable online complaints of delivery issues, how the received clothes did not look the same as the versions hawked online, how they were poorly made, and how some came apart just after a few washes. But for reasons that were part Internet mystery and part social media savvy, BonitoChico continued to do well—so well, in fact, that just after three short years, it won ‘Best Blogshop’ in the Nuffnang (“World’s Leading Blog Advertising Community”, according to their website) Asia-Pacific Awards in 2009. By its fourth birthday in 2010, the brand’s celebratory bash/fashion show, hosted by DJ Daniel Ong, at the now defunct Clark Quay club, Zirca, drew a mind-boggling number of over 1000 attendees, with those stuck in the queue texting friends to vent their frustration. The clothes may not have been impressive, but the anniversary party clearly was.

Julien Fournié for Love Bonito 2013Love, Bonito by Julien Fournié at Fidé Fashion Week in 2013

The Zirca venue, as opposed to, say, Zouk, spoke of BonitoChico’s popular positioning and the brand’s understanding of what appealed to their customers. These twentysomethings were enraptured by the twentsomething creators of their favourite brand, and, consequently, a pro-business community spirit was forged—quite unheard of in the growth of a local fashion name. Between Bonitochico and its customers, it wasn’t just a transaction, it was a fellowship.

That year, perhaps encouraged by their palpable success, the Tan sisters and Ms Lim decided to re-brand BonitoChico with a name change and, in doing so, possibly unshackled themselves from what they had identified to the press as “blogshop stigma”. Love, Bonito and its very own e-commerce-enabled website were thus created. Although they were now selling their own clothing line, some industry folks were skeptical of what the girls could really do, since it was not known that any of them could design. This, for some skeptics, was borne out during the launch of Love, Bonito’s first collaboration—with the French couturier Julien Fournié.

Mr Fournié’s haute couture collection closed the now-no-longer-staged Fidé Fashion Week in 2013. On a video screen above the runway, a teaser short-film was shown, featuring the Love, Bonito founders in what could be presumed to be Mr Fournié’s Paris atelier. When the girls got down to work, it did not appear that they were there to collaborate on a collection. Rather, it looked like there were there to socialise. They were seen looking and pointing at the pictures (simultaneously showing off their wrist and finger jewellery) of Julien Fournié look book and occasionally touching the fabric swatches. They did not even appear to be part of the colour selection and pairing process. Someone in the audience pointed to the naming of the collection: Julien Fournié for Love, Bonito, and concluded that it was clear who had to do the work. The collection instantly established arguably Singapore’s most successful blogshop as a full-fledged clothing label.

Love Bonito in Sogo SurabayaLove, Bonito corner in Sogo Department Store, Surabaya, Indonesia

When the Bonito girls came out with Mr Fournié to take the customary bow at the end of the show, there were only two of them. Younger sibling Velda of the Tan sisters was conspicuously missing. It was said earlier than Velda Tan had decided to leave the still-growing brand that she co-founded to “do something different”, as she would later also say to the media. Her conspicuous no-show was confirmation of her departure. It was not certain what prompted her to leave (it has been repeatedly stated till now by the remaining two that the younger Velda Tan is still a shareholder) even when the inevitable talk in the industry attributed the parting to sibling rivalry and goals that, by then, were no longer aligned. A year after her departure from Love, Bonito, Ms Tan left for London and enrolled in Central Saint Martins for courses in business management, visual merchandising, and pattern making. In 2015, she started Collate the Label, and won herself a corner in Tangs, her first stockist.

If there was any fear that a co-founder’s new fashion line would be in direct competition with their then nine-year-old label, Viola Tan and Rachel Lim did not let on. After the collaboration with Julien Fournié, there was a second, intriguingly with Indonesian designer Tex Saverio, launched during Singapore Fashion Week in 2015. By then, Love, Bonito had opened stores in Malaysia, followed by those in Indonesia. Until their flagship in Singapore opened, Love, Bonito went offline here too, venturing into physical retail spaces for the past 6 years. These were pop-ups in temporarily empty units in malls such as Orchard Gateway. Although Love, Bonito markets itself as a brand that takes customer experience seriously, it did not impress some shoppers, who found their pop-ups with conventional displays to be “just another clothing shop”. This suggested that while a pop-up—by definition, a temporary arrangement and not usually lavishly appointed—may not be a foretaste of things to come, it could, as with a blogshop, follow them like a stigma.

Love, Bonito Pop-Up@313.jpg

Last year, at the comeback Singapore Fashion Award, Love, Bonito enjoyed the biggest win of the night. It was not surprising that they would. In the decade of their existence, few brands have enjoyed so much buzz. Viola Tan and Rachel Lim, flushed with thrill, went on stage to collect awards for ‘Top Most Popular Brand of the Year’ (the other two recipients were Beyond the Vine and jewellery label By Invitation Only), ‘The Best Collaboration of the Year’ (with Tex Saverio), and ‘Best Marketing’.

The last award, however, puzzled some fashion marketers. One marketing head was quick to say at the presentation that “quantity rather than quality wins”. On Love, Bonito’s visual communication alone, that charge was perhaps not overly harsh. The brand produces many images and while they may work on a non-static landing page of a website, mostly viewed on a smartphone, they tend to attract the wrong attention especially when even the most minuscule oversight was magnified in a huge ad, in an MRT station.

One of their earliest light boxes appeared at the Somerset MRT station. It had one of three models in a stripe-y dress, with a length of the spaghetti straps—configured as halterneck—accidentally twisted when worn. While it escaped the stylist’s, the CD’s, the photographer’s, and the digital retoucher’s eyes, it did not escape mine. At the opening of the flagship store last week, a poster erected as backdrop for a window display showed a side slit (of a dress) that was unpressed, with a thread let loose from the hem, like a not-neatened bikini line. That, too, did not escape my eyes.

MRT Lightbox ad.jpgOne of the more recent lightbox ad in Somerset MRT station

The Love, Bonito marketing images looked like they were picked from among the countless IG posts of adoring fans. But, perhaps it is true when a fashion buyer later remarked to me, knocking some shame into my disbelief, “but that’s how women wear their clothes. Anyway, who cares?” That, I suspect, could well be how Love, Bonito approaches their marketing, with a sense of detachment that rather speaks of the Whatever! attitude of their horde of followers.

Back at the new store, where it was still drawing shoppers with the same flow as ants returning to serve the queen, I took a close look at the clothes, most, surprisingly, not ironed. A sleeveless dress drew my attention. It, too, caught the attention of a vision in pink—more sugar than spice. She yanked it off the rack. On the hanger, it hung like a not-quite-dry towel. The woman changed her mind and returned the dress to its crowded home. I now noticed the warped armhole and at the spot where it met the side seam, I detected a tiny bump of fabric—a pile that, for a certain price point, was probably inconsequential. In the beginning, Bonitochico churned out clothes that did not disguise their insufficient time on the drafting table and their rushed manufacture. More than a decade later, as Love, Bonito, the making of their clothes does not seem to have enjoyed the benefit of less haste.

Love Bonito selfie wallThe selfie wall inside Love, Bonito’s flagship store

But, “Quality Matters”, goes a Love, Bonito ad copy. A catchy maxim, but tricky target. Love, Bonito’s clothes, like their advertising images, even when they give the impression of excellence, are not meticulously produced. Rachel Lim told The Straits Times in 2015 that they “want to give customers value for money, so we pay close attention to everything, right down to the finishing.” Her business partner Viola Tan added, “We don’t skimp on fabric or workmanship.” Perhaps, Ms Lim and Ms Tan have a different definition of quality, considering that “value for money” and “don’t skimp on fabric or workmanship” are generally on different ends of the quality scale. I do concede, however, that quality, as with elegance, do not have the same meaning, or ring, as it once did.

I sometimes wonder if I have, in my distrust and disbelief, misread Love, Bonito. The reality is that there is a whole new way of making clothes and selling them that has nothing to do with the rigours of good design. A whole generation of women has grown up on a diet of H&M, Forever 21, and the like, and to them, the hodgepodge—uneven hem et al—in these stores is fashion. They’re weaned on looks, rather than details—whether the devil is in them or not. And Love, Bonito knows they don’t have to do better than that to entice. But rather than join the purveyors of fast fashion, as the Bonito girls has declared that their brand is doing, why not beat them? That then, I would say, and wholeheartedly, is when true love will follow.

Photos: Cooper Koh and Galerie Gombak

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