A Daring Gamble

Singapore’s pride Love, Bonito has opened in Hong Kong. As one of their mantras goes, they discovered the city, embraced it, and have been themselves. Can they seduce the Fragrant Harbour’s fashion folks?

 

LB HK 1

Love, Bonito is going brick-and-mortar in a big way.

Last month, they opened a 2,772-square-feet store with a two-storey-high frontage in Hong Kong, not in some sprawling suburban mall, which the city has many, but in a swanky tower, boasting a store-front that faces the main thoroughfare, Queen’s Road Central. It’s less than 500 metres from The Landmark, the city’s thirty-six-year-old home to the world’s biggest luxury brands, as well as the flagship of Joyce, Club 21’s closest competitor, and is almost at the foot of Lan Kwai Fong, Central’s shopping, entertainment and dining hub, and a mere hop away from the Soho-Mid-Levels Escalator.

Located in the newly-built H Queen’s, a somewhat predictable glass-and-steel skyscraper that is marketed as a “vertical art space” in a district with surprisingly few art galleries except those in the nearby Pedder Building, Love, Bonito contrasts with the address’s upmarket and art-leaning positioning. The fashion label has a somewhat equal neighbour to its right, though—the Korean-owned remake of the 114-year-old Major League Baseball (known simply as MLB) sportswear line. But just five floors up is anchor tenant David Zwirner, the New York-based contemporary art gallery that reps Jeff Koons, Yayoi Kasuma, and the Miffy-loving, Beijing artist Liu Ye (刘野). There are seven more large-scale galleries above, which perhaps explains why Financial Times happily called H Queen’s “the gallery space Hong Kong was waiting for”.

But was Hong Kong waiting for Love, Bonito? The once digital-native market player has been available globally for as long as they have been (curiously) popular on our island. It isn’t certain if Hong Kong women are the rabid fans of the label the way Singaporean girls are. Gushing influencers with their exuberant pre-opening posts are not an accurate barometer. On the morning its Queen’s Road Central store welcomed their first customers, there was a queue, but not the unceasing snaking line seen at the opening of its first free-standing shop in 313@Somerset. Shoppers may have simply come for the 100 free HKD388 (approximately S$68) gift cards handed out to early birds, who found the amount more than enough to have at least one item without charge, since prices start from HKD220.

When we passed the store a week after the opening, we heard a twentysomething shopper telling her friend, as both women came out—empty-handed, “依個新加坡牌子唔係好特別啊 (this Singaporean label isn’t very special)”. To which the reply was, “而家依啲款周街都係啦 (these day, such styles are everywhere on the streets)”. A little later, a Singaporean merchandiser working in Hong Kong told us, “It’s very audacious of them to think that Hongkongers, who, more than Singaporeans, are fashion-savvy, would buy into their aesthetics and quality”.

LB HK 2

Since establishing their first permanent store in 313@Orchard in 2017, Love, Bonito has been on an opening frenzy. They are now three-store strong in Singapore. With five doors in Malaysia, seven in Indonesia, and two in Cambodia, Love, Bonito is our most successful and well-expanded clothing label to date. This rapid overseas development has been possible as the brand managed to raise an impressive USD13 million last year, led by Tokyo Stock Exchange-listed Japanese comparison shopping website, Kakaku, as well as support from current investor NSI Ventures, the Singaporean venture capitalist firm with money in the Indonesian ride-sharing (and other businesses) conglomerate, Go-Jek.

While co-founder Rachel Lim has told the media that what they’re doing is “not a price game”, neither is Love, Bonito a design game. You’d think that, in venturing overseas, Love, Bonto could have done our city-state prouder by boosting the make of their garments and project an image that may allow “a little brand from Singapore” to be worthy of a place alongside Hong Kong labels such as Initial, all the house brands under the IT Group, or, if we’re really unconcerned with the “price game”, even many of the unheard of names in the narrow shopping mall, Island Beverly in Causeway Bay. But as one fashion editor told us, “Let’s be clear what is clothing business and what is fashion design”.

To be sure, the HK store has a fairly well-decorated and a definitely eye-catching window (maybe it’s the impressive height). Yet despite the influencer raves, once you past the front door, the familiar visual merchandising, crammed racks of the unexceptional and formulaic, and many unpressed clothes, all in a patina of pink, quickly tell you you’re on familiar girly ground. Perhaps they’re preserving visual and experiential consistency—even in Central, one of the most fashionable and upmarket commercial districts in Hong Kong, a Love, Bonito store should not look different from one in Jurong East.

Love, Bonito HK started its retail operations in the middle of the (on-going, mostly weekend) demonstrations (which saw the first on 16 June with a turnout of a reported “nearly 2 million” protesters) against what initially was the government’s (eventually-withdrawn) extradition bill. That Saturday morning was the sixth weekend of discontent for the city, but Love, Bonito opened its doors to a Central that was as busy—and peaceful—as it is on a typical Saturday before noon. No shopper nor Rachel Lim, who cheerfully posed on the street in front of the store for a photograph later, could have guessed that HK would eventually descend into a mess that culminated in the closure of the Hong Kong International Airport on 12 August. Was it an inauspicious start for the brand?

Perhaps not. To be noted is the fact that Love, Bonito on 80, Queen’s Road Central is, in fact, a four-month “pop-up”. The Hong Kong protests may be protracted, but Love, Bonito’s physical store will not be there that long.

Photos: 黃小銘

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