Big dreams and equally big ambitions — that’s what Dione Song has for Love, Bonito. “Why aren’t there many international brands coming out of South-east Asia? We could build something substantial and meaningful that could really play on the global stage. Let’s show the world we can do it.”
Song, 35, sparked attention in the local women’s fashion scene when she became Love, Bonito’s first C-suite hire. The year was 2017. At the time, the popular fashion brand was already well-known and loved.
The package was a feel-good narrative about three undergraduates making it big with a blogshop, and eventually building it into a successful online entity offering apparel staples at affordable prices. Since then, Song has moved from chief commercial officer to chief operating officer to chief executive officer.
Growing as a leader
When she took up co-founder Rachel Lim’s offer to join the company, Song had already carved out a reputation as a formidable figure in the regional direct-to-consumer space from her time at Zalora and Sephora. Her stints at the two platforms didn’t just sharpen her e-commerce smarts but also equipped her with skills that formed her leadership foundation at Love, Bonito. She tells me that she “learnt from other leaders — the good and the bad”.
Over time, Song morphed into her own. “I’m proud of myself. I have confidence now.” Simple as the proclamations may be, they are ripe with significance. After all, Song has never considered herself possessing leadership calibre. “I didn’t have the magical aura of a natural speaker,” she once revealed in a LinkedIn post.
These days, she describes herself as resilient — emotional maturity and mettle are attributes she uses on herself, having gone through “hard times” throughout her career.
Love, Bonito was recently pilloried online for delayed orders from its mid-year sale. More than 200 customers had voiced their unhappiness on Love, Bonito’s main Instagram account, prompting an apology that “recognised that the post-checkout experience was dissatisfactory”. For a brand that prides itself on cultivating loyal customers and building a strong community of supporters, the explosion of acute displeasure must surely have dented all its good work.
Apparently, an unprecedented 400 per cent surge in orders led to Love, Bonito’s failed e-commerce machinery. But to fans eager for their purchases, frustration overrode empathy for a brand they were backing with their wallets.
Some may say it sounds like a happy problem rather than a quandary, but for Song, the incident proved to be invaluable learning. She recalls pulling various teams together, unifying them in efforts to reel in the damage, and, more crucial, to prevent it from happening again.
Another corporate nightmare that’s seared in her mind is Love, Bonito’s 2019 data breach episode, where more than 5,500 Love, Bonito customers were told that their personal data was stolen.
The breach was discovered internally at a time when Song was spending precious moments with her cancer-ridden dad in palliative care. Upon receiving the news, Song faced a hard decision: to be with her father or draw on her inner strength and offer guidance to her staff.
“Love, Bonito was much younger (then). The teams were also so much smaller. I made the difficult decision to rush back to the office, sat with the teams and walked them through the crisis.”
Unfortunately, during those hours Song was not at his bedside, her dad passed. Her voice does not waver when relating the painful memory but her heartbreak is palpable.
“Looking back, the entire experience has most definitely shaped much of who I am today. How do you keep yourself emotionally grounded and with a calm demeanour through personal hardship and as a leader? That was a double crisis that taught me tenacity and grit. I believe that now, we can overcome every challenge by staying composed, having a clear plan and demonstrating a bias for action,” she reckons.
Watch out, world
Unshakability will prove beneficial to Song in the coming months. Recently in June, Love, Bonito launched its first pop-up in Manhattan’s Soho district, which will run to the end of the year, with the go-ahead for a few more in 2024. The event encapsulates Love, Bonito’s big investment in the US, which Song calls “our big-bet market”.
She is brimming with aspirations to establish an omnichannel approach to serve America’s Asian community, with the promise of diverse marketing and outreach strategies. Exploration and experimentation, she tells me, are key to Love, Bonito’s goal of eventually setting up a shop in the country within the next few years.
In the six years that Song has devoted to Love, Bonito, she has shepherded the transformation of a largely online operation into a hybrid retailer with 17 stores. Organic growth on its online platform looked to be healthy, at a 60 per cent year-on-year increase in 2022 , while group revenue saw a boost of 41 per cent. Profitability, however, is not quite there yet although she assures, “We’re in the mid-term horizon; definitely moving in that direction.”
Song has big plans. And nothing’s getting in the way. “We want to get from good to great, and achieve a global standard.”
This article was originally published in The Peak.