The popular blogger tries her hand at retailing. Looks like there is no decline in the demand for more clothes of garden variety designs
Influencer Elaine Heng, 27, is a proud owner of a fashion brand. It’s called Ilo the Label—yes, as in Ilo Ilo, title of the award-winning film and, if spelled as one word, a seaport of central Philippines. But the brand prefers the Finnish meaning—joy. Or, according to them, “sunshine”. It isn’t clear why it is necessary for her brand to be identified as “the Label”. We can only surmise that it is a trendy naming convention, such as at Collate the Label and Ying the Label. Ms Heng, who now posts on Instagram under the name Elaine Rui Min (瑞敏), and considers herself an “entrepreneur” occupationally, launched her fashion label online in mid-March, eight days before the Multi-Ministry Task Force announced stricter measures to combat the spread of COVID-19 that would lead to the Circuit Breaker measures about two weeks later.
Despite the charges of professional shortcomings and the iffy video defence she posted on IG Stories in 2018, Ms Heng has not suffered any blow, nor has she been impeded from furthering her career as an influencer. She has been able to happily align herself with retail names such as the Japanese eyewear brand Owndays, lingerie label La Senza, and beauty brands Olay and Sum37. She continues to act as merchandise promoter on Instagram, which radiantly exhibits her (now-married) life with enviable felicity. Marketability dictates that she is dressed her best, in clothes that her audience can relate to: pretty. Elaine Heng, who graduated at NUS in communication and media studies, is the girl-next-door you envy, knowing you can never dress to look like her. When Malaysian singer Ah Niu sang in 1998, 对面的女孩看过来 (Girl Opposite, Look Over Here), he probably had someone like her in mind.
Ms Heng is aware that her girlish style has bankable following and, hence, business potential. Two years in the making, as the brand declared on IG, Ilo the Label appears to be conceived to mirror her wardrobe or what she tends to wear to earn her income on IG. If a girl, among the countless, desires to start a fashion brand, especially online, this would be it. No design value required, nor point of view. Just straight-on pretty, vanilla pretty. Ms Heng calls it “my joy”, which is consistent with the brand platitude that quotes Australian poet Gemma Troy, “Whatever that makes you feel the sun from inside out, chase that.”
Influencer Melissa Jane Ferosha in Ilo the Label. Photo: Instagram
To be sure, Ms Heng is not a fashionista in the mold of Yoyo Cao, Willabelle Ong, and Andrea Chong. But, she is considered a “fashion blogger” It is, in fact, her ordinariness that those who seek the same find captivating, not a bold, statement-making style that would score her a best-dressed nomination at any of the annual society balls. From her beginning as a blogger, she has not shed her pronounced girlishness, her xiaoyuan zhihua (校园之花 or schoolyard beauty) posturing, her marketable cheerfulness. The prettiness is projected to be palatable and is tempered with a healthy dose of sexiness. She moves between the two comfortably and are just as willing to pose in a sundress as negligee. She has co-ed appeal; she is both women’s envy and men’s fantasy, effective as a go-to for what to wear for a date on Saturday night and what to see when, for the guys, that evening turns lonely.
As a fashion entrepreneur, Ms Heng typifies many who dream of their own fashion label. Or, (re-)creating whatever they already buy and wear. They are not in the business to fill the proverbial gap in the market; they are merely adding to the surfeit of similitude. Bloggers-turn-fashion-designers of her ilk are nothing new. The clothes are casual, cheery, and common. How does Ilo the Label then stand out? It doesn’t. Perhaps, that’s not the aim. As with many other labels these days, the five-month-old brand is “beyond just creating pretty clothes,” according to their own description, even if they don’t step out of the comfort, over-shared zone. They “hope to create a community that sparks fun, laughter and joy, thereby lifting the spirits of anyone that is part of it.”
Ms Heng’s clothes consciously project this joie de vivre, just as her IG posts present her as a particularly ebullient person. Ilo the Label does this by featuring hand-painted house prints, featuring dainty flowers that could be as comfortable on tea towels or bed sheets, or bath mats. One Orchard Store would come a-calling. According to her designers, “Our founder, Elaine, is all about prints and the first thing she told our team when we first gathered was ‘Ilo is going to be a brand of happy prints.’” The exultation of spirit through blooms is typically Gemma Troy: “I’m the type of person that falls in love with flowers…” And Elaine Heng too. In an IG post back in 2017, she wrote of an unremarkable WheresCinderella floral dress, “Somehow, I always find myself drawn to wearing florals because they make me happy.”
The startling sameness of Ilo the Label
This selling of positivity rather than design is also the modus operandi of brands that she promotes, such as All Would Envy, Lovet, WheresCinderella, and possibly her absolute fave, Thestagewalk—all labels for women who want to look pretty in the manner that is not intimidating—roses among roses, rather than to stand out dauntlessly—thorns among roses. It is hard to differentiate between these brands since all embrace the conventional than the unconventional, the straightforward rather than the complex, the winsome rather than wondrous. It is through Ms Heng’s fashion choices that one could learn of the many like-minded brand owners who have shared aesthetical preferences, and are happily part of a group of relatively quiet online businesses that trade in pretty dresses Ms Heng and her followers view with eye-watering delight.
You need not click on Ilo the Label’s generic-looking website to imagine there would be maxi-sundresses, spaghetti-strapped shifts, rompers, off-shoulder tops and more maxi-dresses, spaghetti-strapped shifts, rompers, off-shoulder tops. Most are made of 100% “quality polyester”, the brand emphasises, like those who underscore “luxury denim”. The prints—ditsy florals digitally rendered on those polyesters—comprise mostly small blooms with positive vibes, such as honeysuckle that “inspire love and passion”, all painted in a style that an art teacher might say lovely, but a gallerist would not. The sum are clothes that could easily be found on Lazada or Shopee, or in any mall across our island.
And therein lies the limitation of the brand. Ilo the label veers to the side of bland and sits on the centre of commonplace, inspiring the reaction, “another one of those”. They are as differentiable as the countless clothiers that started to pop up in malls prior to the pandemic: The Closet Lover, Fayth, Playdress, Yacht 21, et al. Many of them, like Ilo the Label, tout creating their own prints, which, for most brands, is an easy way to generate pieces that stand apart even if the silhouettes are similar, if not the same. This is an approach even stall owners of Bangkok’s Chatuchak weekend market adopt. It isn’t certain if Elaine Heng has learnt her métier as a fashion professional. However, given her present standing as a successful blogger and sunny stalwart, she can sell anything. Sunshine, too.
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Photos: Ilo the Label