Dione Song, 34, first joined Love, Bonito as its chief commercial officer in 2017 before being promoted to chief operating offer in 2018.
She later became the CEO in April 2021, which is a first in the company’s 11-year history, as it was previously helmed by its team of co-founders.
When Song assumed the role of a CEO, it was at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, but this isn’t something that she particularly took note of, she revealed in a face-to-face interview with Vulcan Post.
“The whole transition [in becoming the company’s CEO] was really quite a natural progression because I’ve grown with Love, Bonito for the last five and a half years,” she said, adding that COVID-19 in particular, served as somewhat of a “blessing in disguise” for the company.
Making the best out of the pandemic
Although their supply chains were impacted, Song said that this is something that is still happening today in the post-pandemic era, and it is affecting many other businesses beyond the fashion industry.
I view the [COVID-19] situation from a half-cup full perspective.
What we’ve done is to relook [things] and understand that baselines are changing. The freight is going to take a little bit longer, so we are designing a little bit faster and planning our timelines a little bit longer in advance to factor in any potential delays.
– Dione Song, CEO of Love, Bonito
Given that they are a digitally native brand, they already have a very strong e-commerce infrastructure in place, although they also have an omni-channel presence.
This made it easier for them to pivot online when their retail stores were forced to close in Singapore as part of the government’s COVID-19 advisory. Song wistfully added that their store closures in Malaysia stretched on for much longer.
On the bright side, since they already had existing systems in place, they could easily adjust and move inventory from online to offline stores. They also swiftly repositioned their marketing strategy, and directed customers to the right channels.
The pandemic also signalled a change in fashion trends because as more Singaporeans work from home, the demand for corporate wear significantly waned. In response, Love, Bonito introduced new categories such as loungewear to remain relevant.
Lastly, unlike international retailers that depend heavily on their physical stores for customer data and engagement, Love, Bonito works on forging a tight-knit community with its customers.
“For us, customers are our data point. It’s a member that we can identify and reach out to via email to let them know that maybe, our stores are not operating and get them to check us out [on our online platforms instead]. We can also [prompt] them to check out all the different virtual activities or events that are happening [under Love, Bonito],” she explained.
For example, during International Women’s Day, Love, Bonito hosted a weekly panel discussion on Instagram Live, exploring topics surrounding women’s issues.
Entering the activewear market: Buy or build?
Most recently, Love, Bonito acquired a majority stake of homegrown activewear brand butter, which has since been rebranded to cheak.
In the last couple of years, Song observed that the activewear market has seen a huge growth, partly accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It’s so much more relevant for the consumer today and for the consumer tomorrow, for sure.”
But why didn’t they venture into this space earlier?
Song shared that they were strongly focusing on their fundamentals two to three years ago and make sure that they can “do fashion well”. Their priority is to enhance their product to ultimately provide their customers a better experience, and this extends beyond just product quality.
There’s a lot of things to think about — the community, the product, education, all of them. In the past, we had a smaller selection and today, we have more categories, so it’s getting more complex. But then we identified that there’s an opportunity [to enter the activewear space].
For a while, we thought about whether we should go down the buy or build [route]. Should we be building this ourselves, or should we be acquiring?
– Dione Song, CEO of Love, Bonito
Although activewear falls under apparels, Song noted that it requires very different things in terms of sourcing, production and supplier base.
“The things that you think about when it comes to sports, like the different levels of activity, are also very different from fashion,” she explained. This is why acquiring butter would make more sense, rather than trying to manufacture their own activewear line.
Over the last year or so, as they were contemplating and also experimenting with their own product development, that’s when they were organically introduced to butter.
They had observed that a group of Love, Bonito employees, including co-founder Rachel Lim, would change into beautiful, pastel-coloured activewear after work-hours to hit the gym or carry out their fitness activities.
They soon realised that most of them were wearing the same brand of activewear: butter.
Acquisition is like a “marriage”
Not all of us have heard of butter, but I think it’s quite an emerging brand. After studying more of their brand ethos, we realised that they were a natural fit [for Love, Bonito]. Their value proposition is to also cater to the Asian women. From the sizing down to the colours, it’s exactly how we think about our business; we probably would have done activewear [the same] way.
And of course, we tried the product because at the end of the day, the product is queen. It worked really well and we were so impressed. We also had friends in the industry who are fitness enthusiasts and spin instructors, and they all knew about the brand and are already wearing it. So that for us, is another validation.
– Dione Song, CEO of Love, Bonito
She went on to further liken such business acquisitions to a “marriage”. Before they confirmed the acquisition, they needed to first ascertain if there’s a good culture fit, and if their values and principles align with the founders of butter, among other things.
After the long conversations and discussions, they also made it a point to get both their teams to meet to see if there’s a good rapport and relationship between the two.
“It’s very important that [we fulfil these checklists before] getting a brand to join the Love, Bonito family. That’s because at the end of the day, a lot of mergers and acquisitions, they don’t work because there is a cultural mismatch,” said Song.
Another overarching reason as to why they acquired butter is something that’s more rooted in their mission to empower Asian women.
There are three ways in which Love, Bonito is achieving this: internally (their employees), externally (their customers, ambassadors, partners et cetera), and lastly, the ecosystem as a whole.
“For instance, we support underprivileged girls in their education. Beyond that, for the startup ecosystem, how we give back is to also partner up with the right entrepreneurs who are trying to solve a need in the Asian women space. This is a way for us to add more value to the ecosystem — we want to champion and support strong, talented female entrepreneurs,” said Song passionately.
The founders of butter fits the bill perfectly, and Song finds that they bring something new to the table — they cater to different body types, and they also have a slightly different audience profile, targeting more Gen Zs.
Besides reaching a wider audience with the acquisition of butter, Love, Bonito also complements them in terms of distribution strategy, and hopes to support them in areas that have more economies of scale.
In line with their idea of supporting talented female entrepreneurs in this space, Love, Bonito also recently acquired a minority investment in local startup Moom Health.
This is their way of edging themselves into the health and wellness vertical, which ties in with their vision of evolving to be a holistic female ecosystem.
“We want to cater to women thoughtfully, within and beyond fashion. We want to do so through a house of brands approach, and pipe them into our loyalty programme, LBCommunity+, in which users can collect points and redeem them for products,” said Song.
“Another aspect [that we can help in] is distribution. For example, before you checkout, you can opt to add the off-the-shelf health supplements to your cart. It’s about offering a full journey — women can come in to our stores and buy fashion, buy activewear, and then get some supplements to go.”
“We really want to go into the US in a big way”
In recent years, Love, Bonito have introduced new categories beyond apparel, such as loungewear, kids, intimates, footwear, and of course, most recently, activewear.
Song admits that when it comes to fashion, there’s still quite a bit of room to be expanding into and simply said that they will continue to progressively introduce relevant categories for their customers.
A big part of this is listening to what their community wants, which they always try to find out through surveys, social media communication, and focus groups.
She added that there’s also a lot more room to grow on the geographical expansion front. Today, Love, Bonito has 16 stores spread across 10 different markets, and it recently launched flagship stores in Indonesia and Hong Kong.
Its core markets like Singapore and Malaysia have seen steady growth so far, and its international markets — albeit newer — have grown “quite exponentially”, growing 100 per cent year-on-year.
“Generally, different markets see slightly different performance for different reasons. Internationally, we are much younger, but we see a lot of potential in our new markets, [especially since] the retail scene is actually quite thriving now.”
Beyond Asian markets, Love, Bonito is also making a big bet on the US market, which has a huge Asian diaspora population and Asian expats.
We first noticed this in Australia, and saw the same kind of growth also in the US, which is much bigger. And they have a lot fewer brands that cater to [the Asian women].
So we really want to go into the US in a big way, but right now, it’s online-only. We literally just hired our team a couple of months back, and we are actively working on online marketing and community activation events.
– Dione Song, CEO of Love, Bonito
Song said that they are definitely looking at launching a physical store in the US, starting with one in the East Coast first.
“All our key markets will see potential for omni-channel. What we typically do is always a pop-up [store] first, and then a permanent extension,” she added.
Closer to home, Love, Bonito is launching its sixth store in Singapore soon at Waterway Point, and another one in the east side.
When probed if there are any new markets they are eyeing, Song said that they already “have enough on [their] plate” and would like to strengthen their footprint in the existing markets instead.
In a separate interview with Reuters last month, she also expressed that plans for an initial public offering is “definitely in the midterm horizon” and they are currently “moving towards that direction”.
Building a holistic Asian female ecosystem
The fashion industry in Asia is quite saturated and competitive, so Love, Bonito’s strategy is largely focused on digging deeper into a unique value proposition.
The company is constantly trying to demonstrate themselves as an “Asian-centricity and female-centricity” brand. This is a gap that they are trying to fill in the fashion sector, in which international players do not address the needs of the Asian community — be it the right seasonality, or the right proportions for a piece of apparel.
Citing an example of a regular pair of flared pants, Song argued that it cannot simply be tailored to fit a more petite Asian woman because it will flow and sit differently.
On the other hand, female-centricity refers to being “thoughtful” to the female shoppers, both online and offline.
According to Song, women’s fashion has historically been a disempowering space. In an effort to ‘look good’, women often have to sacrifice comfort, such as putting on tight corsets or high heels.
In contrast, Love, Bonito wants to champion “form and function” in their fashion. In particular, something that’s stretchable so you don’t have to unbutton your pants after a heavy meal or easily run after your kids in it, and something that can seamlessly transition from day to night.
This thoughtfulness is also applied throughout its retail stores. For instance, its family-friendly outlet at VivoCity offers kid-friendly features and a pram-friendly space.
Additionally, one of the many customer-centric features that Love, Bonito has rolled out is LB Stylist, which is essentially a recommendation of products based on a customer’s unique profile and preferences.
With this element of personalisation already in place, Love, Bonito hopes to take it to the next step and Song shared that a fashion subscription service is something that they are keen on exploring in the future as more customers increasingly demand convenience.
Ultimately, we want to evolve the Asian female ecosystem — be the destination for the Asian women, in and beyond fashion, hence all the moves that we are making now.
– Dione Song, CEO of Love, Bonito
Featured Image Credit: Love, Bonito