Love, Bonito's Rachel Lim On How Southeast Asia Can Lead The World In E-Commerce

By Melissa Twigg

We speak to designer and brand owner Rachel Lim about Western-centric fashion, e-commerce and why the Southeast Asian market is worth paying attention to

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Cover  Rachel Lim, founder of Love, Bonito

Fashion is all about embracing the new. But as an industry, it has been remarkably slow at moving away from the old-fashioned idea that creativity and innovation are largely Western-based. For too long the four fashion capitals—New York, Paris, Milan and London—have dominated the discourse, promoting designers who show their collections in one of these cities, and who market their wares to the largely Caucasian population that lives in them.

The rise of China has changed that. As Chinese fashion lovers are increasingly helping designer brands stay afloat, the centre of gravity has shifted towards Shanghai, and even Hong Kong. However, many in the industry have been slow to cotton onto the vast waiting market that is Southeast Asia.

According to data provided by BMI Research, spending on clothing and footwear this year in eight of the ten biggest Southeast Asian markets totalled more than US$52 billion in 2018 and will surpass US$68 billion in just five years. The rapidly growing middle class population is arguably the biggest factor—the number of adults in Southeast Asia with between US$16 and US$100 to spend a day is expected to reach 400 million by 2020, up from 190 million in 2012. 

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Above  Love, Bonito's Rayna dress

The second consideration is internet access. A Google report revealed that an estimated 130 million people in the region now have smartphones—many of whom have never previously owned a PC, making mobile-ownership their first potential foray into internet shopping. Altogether, 600 million people in Southeast Asia will have some form of internet access by 2025. To put this number into perspective, it’s nearly twice the size of the entire US population.

Southeast Asians are also among the most prolific device users. Filipinos send more texts than any other nation on earth and Jakarta, Indonesia has been named the world’s most active city on Twitter. And as a report by Bain & Company indicates, this is fast translating into online sales, with 24 percent of all clothing and footwear in Southeast Asia already purchased online. 

See also: Noor Mastura: From Living On The Breadline To Singaporean Of The Year

Rachel Lim—whose brand Love, Bonito has become a runaway success in Singapore, Indonesia and Malaysia—has long realised what so many international fashion brands have failed to see.

Her brand began as live-journal page designed to cater to modern Asian woman who she thought were being ignored by designers, magazines and marketing teams. Lim wanted to create clothes that were designed for their needs specifically, in terms of physique, proportions, skin tone, climate, and more, none of which were being addressed by either mass market or designer brands

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Above  Love, Bonito salesroom

“This is true even today in the market and region,” says Lim. “There is a lack of a strong, Asian, women-for-women brand with a distinct voice and personality, creating pieces with care and thoughtfulness. Realising this and trying to fix it became a very personal journey for me in trying to discover who I am and what my style is. Ultimately, when we look good, we feel good; we stand taller and speak a little louder. Fashion is, for us, the vehicle by which we reach out to communities of women and journey with them to become the best versions of themselves.” 

By moving away from both Western-centric marketing and design, Lim quickly found a ready waiting market in her native country of Singapore, as well as further afield in the region.

“With our unique proposition and offering, our goal is to serve Asian women wherever they may be in the world,” says Lim. “As we continue to expand deeper into new or existing Southeast Asia cities and beyond, the way Love, Bonito reaches our customers has been and must continue to be adapted to suit local purchasing preferences.”

In these countries, personalisation is highly important in ensuring that local customers feel served and seen in a way they do not with major international brands. As is the ability to communicate with clients over mobile devices in a way they feel comfortable with.

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Above  Love, Bonito sketch designs

“In Indonesia, chat commerce has proven to be invaluable for us,” says Lim. “Social shopping is primarily visual, and consumers like to engage with the full look. So we style pieces that can be shopped as a set. In Indonesia, shopping habits are now shifting towards digital personal servicing, so our local customer care staff utilise two-way conversations with customers via text, and send through PDFs of looks so customers can decide choices in a way that they are accustomed. That engagement enables us to build trust and loyalty.”

Like all fashion brands, Love, Bonito needs to create a sense of innovation and consistent freshness and engagement around its collections to keep customers interested. They do this by bringing out new lines regularly, staying engaged on social media and arranging in-store events. As a result, they are seeing almost a 50-50 split between online and offline sales.

When we look good, we feel good; we stand taller and speak a little louder. Fashion is, for us, the vehicle by which we reach out to communities of women and journey with them to become the best versions of themselves
Rachel Lim

“At Love, Bonito, we also believe that while customers expect convenience, they crave connection,” says Lim. “A sense of community is what keeps them coming back to the store. Having a physical presence allows us to organise a variety of community events to engage our customers in meaningful, thoughtful ways that further enhances the omnichannel experience. No matter how robust your e-commerce site is, physical stores will always solve the biggest obstacle to shopping online: trying clothes on to find your perfect fit, reducing return rates as a result.”

Southeast Asian consumers are highly affected by digital content—according to Bain, just over a third of people making an online purchase in the region were influenced by social media. And in this sense, Love, Bonito’s easy-to-wear creative collections and its single focus on a specific region and customer will serve it very well in the years to come.

“Our goal is simple,” says Lim. “To serve Asian women wherever they may be in the world, including Asian diasporas typically underserved in Western markets.”

As goals go, it is an important one.

See honourees from the Retail category of the Gen.T List 2019.

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