Love, Bonito CEO on why she doesn’t like titles & how thoughtfulness drives the business

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Despite being the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of a multi-million dollar fashion business rooted in four countries in Southeast Asia, Dione Song isn’t a fan of her title.

This isn’t to say that she is at all uncomfortable about her role at Love, Bonito — her passion and knowledge about the fashion brand and the industry are evident.

However, in the roughly 45 minutes that we have together, Song — dressed casually and fashionably so in a tube top, jeans and kimono-like outerwear — appears to hesitate whenever I mention her CEO title.

She politely demurs when I ask if certain business decisions were her idea as the new CEO, and at the end of the interview, I finally pop the question about her reluctance over the three-letter word.

Laughing in slight disbelief, perhaps over my rather personal query, Song reveals that she finds such titles “very formal”.

“Titles are just titles,” she says. “I don’t like talking titles.”

The 33-year-old is quick to point out that although she is essentially the head of the 250-strong company, the innovative ideas that are churned out are never solely her own, but a team effort.

“End of the day, we are a team, ideas are all coming together, we brainstorm each other’s ideas, we remix it, make each others ideas better.

No one owns an idea.”

This theme of teamwork and inclusivity, as I come to learn, is ultimately what drives the Love, Bonito business and brand forward.

Photo by Zenn Tan

Everything starts with 关系 (personal connection)

Love, Bonito started off as Bonito Chico, a tiny blogshop founder Rachel Lim created with two sisters, Viola and Velda Tan in 2005 selling secondhand clothes.

As the business grew, Lim decided to take a leap of faith and drop out of university to focus on the shop full-time, borrowing her mother’s life savings to pursue the risky endeavour.

Thankfully, all went well, and Love, Bonito has grown to be what it is now, with five large outlets offering trendy womenswear around Singapore.

Song then met Lim for the first time at a women’s networking event, and the two hit it off over subsequent tête-à-têtes, brainstorming over gin and tonic.

Their relationship grew organically, Song says, and soon it only made sense for Song to come onboard Love, Bonito.

What drew Song to Love, Bonito was its sheer potential — it was one of the few direct-to-consumer brands in Southeast Asia coming out of Singapore, and she saw “something very pure” and authentic in its vision of serving the community and delivering “thoughtful products” to women.

Go-getter Song also shares candidly that as a young millennial at the time, Love, Bonito was a company where she believed she had the autonomy to make change and “pull together a team that’s like minded to just get to do stuff, very quickly”.

Of course, Song’s decision to join Love, Bonito was all the more spurred by her positive relationship with Lim.

“I found it quite refreshing seeing a founder who really, truly is very passionate about the community.

Everything starts with 关系 (personal connection) right, and you need to vibe as people. Principles for me have to be super aligned, we need to be excited by each other’s visions. […]

And ya lah, fundamentally, you need to like the person. If you’re joining any organisation, working very close to the founder, of course right, and then develop that trust. So I think it was good that we got to know each other over a couple of months to really understand each other and develop a good trust.”

Song and the fashion brand crossed paths at an opportune moment.

Back in 2016, Lim was searching for a CEO to helm the company in its quest to scale up the business, according to Marketing Interactive.

She shared that the team was “very particular” about the qualities they were looking for, and even felt like giving up after numerous unsuccessful candidate meetings and interviews.

With Song, it seemed that Lim finally met the person she was looking for.

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A post shared by dione (@dionexsong)

In July 2017, Song joined the top ranks of Love, Bonito as its Chief Commercial Officer, and over the next four years, rose, in what was her words, a gradual and natural process, to become the company’s first ever CEO in April 2021.

While as CEO, Song deals with business strategy and general management, she still works closely with Lim who is focused on brand marketing, design, and day-to-day running of the business.

A flat hierarchy

Being Love, Bonito’s first CEO since the company’s inception, Song has the unique opportunity to establish her own leadership style.

She confesses that, in the few months since she took on the job, she is still trying to find her own rhythm and balance, and figuring out “how should I be stepping out more as a leader”.

Her desire to forge her own style is evident. When I ask how she’s running the company differently from its founder,  she politely requests to reframe the question.

Instead of focusing on the differences between Lim and her, Song prefers to talk about her own personal management style, which she says is centered on “people and culture”.

Love, Bonito’s brand values, displayed in its office. Photo by Ashley Tan

Love, Bonito even has a People and Culture department, one of the first teams the company set up when it started expanding, which aims to identify the company’s values and how to bring it forth to employees.

“At the end of the day, business is driven by people. It’s on us to hire the right people, develop the right environment for them so they can flourish, and then ensure that as teams as well as leaders, we are communicating the right things so everyone has enough context so they can be working towards the goal.”

Photo by Ashley Tan

Gearing all employees in the company towards the same direction is perhaps Love, Bonito’s way of eschewing a hierarchical structure in the company.

Relationships between senior managers and junior staff at the fashion brand are relatively casual and laid-back.

Song adds that the pecking order is generally flat, a contrast from larger, more traditional companies where hierarchy is sacred.

“Why do hierarchies need to matter in the first place, right, or why do they even exist?” she questions. It’s the same newfangled attitude, I realise, to which she views titles like “CEO”.

Song believes that as long as every single employee in Love, Bonito understands the company’s mission and goals, they can work autonomously.

Transparency is thus what gets the cogs of a flatter organisation like Love, Bonito crunching. Information, long-term plans and even mistakes made are shared with the whole company in fortnightly Town Hall meetings.

“It’s not a secret, [where] somewhere in one room only a few, like three or four people, talk about it.

And I think that’s important, because by giving context, and every single employee knows what to do, what they should be optimising towards, or maybe they have new ideas, new initiatives, they can… be more proactive and suggest it, because they have the broader context of how the team is actually thinking about things.”

After all, as the old adage goes, teamwork makes the dream work.

How do we make our stores different?

This inclusivity, or thoughtfulness, as Song puts it, even extends to Love, Bonito’s front-of-house.

November 2017 marked the opening of Love, Bonito’s first physical store at 313@Somerset.

No matter how much Song might not want to take credit, Lim previously revealed that she has been “instrumental in elevating Love, Bonito from start-up to scale-up, and from a regional business to a global brand.”

This venture to brick-and-mortar might seem counter-intuitive, especially during a time of booming e-commerce. However, it was a move that the brand had already been testing for years through pop-up stores.

Despite the fast and easy experience online stores offer, Song shares that physical stores always provide an improved experience for the shopper, especially in the fashion industry.

When it comes to clothes, it’s not simply about finding the sizes and being able to try on the products, Song says, but also about feeling the fabric and how the product stretches and fits.

And if you’ve ever ventured into any of Love, Bonito’s sprawling stores, you’ll find that it’s unlike any other.

Says Song:

“We asked ourselves, hey, I think if we ever go into offline, and have a store, we don’t want it to look like any other fashion store just with racks and fitting rooms. That’s not the point of brick-and-mortar right. If we want to do it, it needs to be an awesome experience that’s super thoughtful.”

Giving the Love, Bonito shopper an experience in-store was a driving factor — “It needs to really wow you”.

And wow us it sure did. Love, Bonito’s stores are immaculately designed with bright pops of colour.

Photo from Wynk Collaborative

The brand’s stores boast spacious aisles, waiting areas, and curated spots where shoppers can snap OOTDs (outfits of the day) for their social media feeds.

Photo from Wynk Collaborative

Photo from Wynk Collaborative

There are even tablets placed around the store for shoppers to browse the online catalogue.

Photo from Wynk Collaborative

As a regular patron of Love, Bonito, I’ve also noticed several thoughtful elements in its outlets.

For instance, a large amount of space is dedicated to the fitting room area and that there are typically at least 10 cubicles, ensuring that the wait to try on clothes is never too long.

Photo from Funan SG / FB

Not only that, the fitting rooms are equipped with queue systems, allowing shoppers to browse other products while waiting for their turn.

Every decision for every detail of the physical store was made with the customer in mind. For example, Song notes that shoppers are often accompanied by their partner or families, who might be bored while waiting.

As such, the shopper might be pressured to cut short their time in the store. Having a comfortable waiting area for the shopper’s companion solves this problem.

The designs and layouts of Love, Bonito’s stores also vary depending on the mall it is located in.

For example, Funan Mall is futuristic and targeted at younger shoppers, which explains the OOTD spots and Augmented Reality Walkway.

Meanwhile, Love, Bonito at VivoCity, a more family-friendly mall, was designed to be more spacious to cater to shopping mothers towing prams.

Love, Bonito’s VivoCity outlet. Photo from Wynk Collaborative

While more money and time — Love, Bonito’s visual design team actually goes down to the store during its conceptualisation to experience it from a shopper’s point of view — is undoubtedly invested into their stores, Song says it’s worth it for the “good return on investment”.

“I think customers like it, there’s good experience and then… what we hope to see is that because of that they come back for more. Because of that, their shopping journey is actually more fun right, they can find products better as well. And then they’ll spend more time with us and actually purchasing [products].”

All boils down to thoughtfulness

Of course, there’s more to Love, Bonito’s recipe for success than well-designed stores.

With online presences in countries like U.S. and Japan, the brand has certainly been doing something right with its products.

The key ingredient, Song says, and what makes Love, Bonito stand out from its competitors, is its thoughtfulness towards its female audience, especially Asian women. The word is repeated numerous times throughout the interview.

Love, Bonito prides itself on clothes that aren’t just trendy, but fill a gap in the market. The brand focuses on functionality — after all, “fashion shouldn’t just be about looking good, it should be about comfort and utility,” Song adds.

The company does this by thoroughly understanding and listening to its consumers, which involves taking every piece of feedback seriously.

Customers, for example, have asked for more padded tops or dresses with pockets, which the brand has taken into account for future products.

This is also one reason behind the brand’s brick-and-mortar venture — the stores provide a space for staff to interact with the community and ask for feedback.

“Data and analytics can tell you, hey, this product is not moving, but in the stores, you understand the ‘why’. They’re not buying this [product], oh because that zipper is uncomfortable… Or I thought maybe the pants length wasn’t that flattering.

They’ll tell you the ‘why’, instead of, in the end, oh those pants didn’t sell.”

Before launching a new line of clothes, the company also conducts focus groups where random customers are invited to the office to try out the new products and provide feedback.

Song opines:

“That’s why people come back, because they realise, hey, a brand is listening to me.”

Photo by Zenn Tan

With Covid-19 sounding the death knell for several retail brands, one might think that perhaps, Love, Bonito’s endeavour to expand its physical presence might have been to its detriment.

However, Song adds that while the pandemic has definitely impacted business, it has also been a catalyst for good changes.

Now, Love, Bonito has altered its line of products to include more casuals, basics, homewear and loungewear, as opposed to office wear, to cater to the increased number of consumers who are working from home.

She adds that it is crucial for the brand to evolve with its customers in order to remain relevant.

“I think it’s important that the brand is just constantly iterating, whether it’s Covid-19 or something else, I think we all need to be agile and nimble.”

And perhaps Love, Bonito is able to have such foresight by being so in tune with not just its customers and the community, but with its employees.

As Song has reiterated several times, it all boils down to thoughtfulness. After all, people can make or break a company.

“It’s really about people, [and] how do we think about culture.

That’s the difference between a company and an organisation that’s doing well, that can flourish as well, versus one that cannot.”

Lessons on Leadership is a new Mothership series about the inspiring stories of Singapore’s business leaders and entrepreneurs, as well as the lessons and values we can learn from their lived experiences.

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Top photo by Zenn Tan