If I was in it for the money, I'd work a 9-to-5: Fashion maven Rachel Lim on taking the road less travelled

Becoming is a series where we showcase individuals who have had to overcome adversity to become the person they are today.

On the surface, Love, Bonito founder Rachel Lim's life is the stuff of fairytales and Hallmark movies.

Her dramatic success story has been covered more than a few times in the media — after her family was hit hard by the Asian financial crisis, she famously dropped out of her final year of university to start a fashion business, paying off her bond to the government with her mother's life savings.

Today, the 33-year-old runs a multi-million dollar fashion business, with five boutiques in Singapore and more in Malaysia, Indonesia and Cambodia.

She's even rubbed shoulders with Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and Barack Obama — I mean, if that's not a sign that you've made it, I don't know what is.

But behind the pretty picture of fame and fortune is a woman who built her business from the ground up with no lack of blood, sweat and tears and "almost 24-hour" work days, I soon glean from my interview with her.

Delayed starting a family for her career

When we meet, Rachel is very pregnant (she's since given birth to her first child Oliver) and still hustling.

She rushes into our studio, slightly late due to a meeting, and very much apologetic.

She then powers through the interview with intense efficiency, only pausing occasionally to ruminate on certain questions and touch up her makeup.

And then it's off to her next appointment.

It's not a lifestyle for everyone, she readily admits: "When you actually run your own business and start something, it really consumes you beyond just the working hours and the working days."

If you've heard of China's 996 work culture, Rachel trumps that by working seven days a week and worrying about her business "almost 24 hours a day".

In fact, not knowing how having kids might affect her work was one of the reasons she delayed starting a family until now, she tells us.

Pressures of the job

Despite her seemingly superhuman drive, she's no stranger to feeling jaded and burnt out, she reveals, recounting a particularly difficult patch a few years back.

"I came into office, just doing what I needed to do, knowing that I was responsible for my staff in terms of them putting food on the table and supporting their families."

It got to the point when she started questioning the purpose of Love, Bonito, she says.

"I took some time out to really dig deep, to question and to really discover the impact that the brand has in this world."

She continues: "Why am I really doing this? If it's really for the money, I will go out there and work. I think I'll get a more stable income, I'll have more decent working hours, like nine to five."

From a blogshop to a regional fashion chain

Things were simpler when she first started her business some sixteen years ago.

Before it burgeoned into the regional chain it is today, Love, Bonito was BonitoChico, a blog where Rachel, as well as co-founders Viola Tan and Velda Tan, sold pre-loved clothes for some extra pocket money.

Back then, times were still hard for Rachel and her family.

They had moved into a one-room flat after her father went through bankruptcy and even getting a haircut was a luxury.

Even before the financial crisis, she had worked several part-time jobs just so she wouldn't be too dependent on her parents. But she soon realised that her blogshop was a different ball game.

It was a success, and they quickly ran out of pre-loved items to sell.

"We knew that we needed to bring in more supply for the demand. So during school term breaks and holidays, we would go overseas to import clothes to sell," she recounts.

As the business grew, Rachel, who was studying to be a teacher, decided to take a leap of faith.

"In my final year of university, with no fashion and no business background, I decided to drop out of school to start the business with my co-founders."

It was a huge risk. At the time, online stores were still uncommon. Her mother, who loaned her a five-figure sum to pay off her government bond, even doubted if the business was legal, she tells us.

When asked if she regrets not waiting till after graduation, she shakes her head emphatically.

"I knew I had to strike when the iron was hot. Timing is everything."

'We don't just design clothes'

Some ten years after BonitoChico was rebranded as Love, Bonito, the brand has taken on a new life — it now includes loungewear, intimates, children's clothes and even a limited selection of menswear.

Rachel's found an all-new raison d'etre, beyond making and selling clothes for extra pocket money.

Love, Bonito is a brand that exists to empower women, she says. And her customers' testimonials are her fuel.

"They will always say things like, 'Thank you for making me feel confident on my first date, my first interview, my first presentation.'

"This is why we spend hours perfecting a piece of clothing on real women with a real figure and real needs."

Rather than fitting Love, Bonito's clothing on mannequins, painstaking efforts are taken to tailor the pieces for actual women and everyday scenarios they might find themselves in, like rushing to get dressed, or running for the bus. 

Her main message she wants customers to take away? Don't compare yourself to others.

"There is something different for everyone. And beyond the physical pieces of clothing that suit you, all of us have a different path in life to succeed.

"Success in life is not about earning your first million or things like that. I think to me, success in life is really understanding who you are and why you are created on this Earth."

Watch the video to hear more about how Rachel overcame financial difficulties to build a successful business empire and how she found her purpose in life despite self-doubt and burnout.