COVER STORY

Scout - - INSIDE SCOUT - Visit their of­fi­cial web­site Neon­is­land­cloth­ing.com, and fol­low them on Instagram @neon­is­land­cloth­ing. BTW, Judd Figuer­res made su­per cute videos for this story, so make sure to check it out on Scout­mag.ph!

Chi Gibbs and Aira Me­d­ina test the wa­ters of on­line busi­ness with purely lo­cal in­stru­ments as their only oars

Chi: I don’t know. It’s the kind of thing you only no­tice now that you’re older. Back then, we didn’t feel like we were artsy. But when we think about it now, we loved do­ing stuff like that. We re­ally en­joyed it. [ Turns to Aira.] Re­mem­ber in art class?

Scout: For Neon Is­land, Chi hand-draws, and then Aira ren­ders it?

Chi: Yes, that’s mostly what hap­pens. I’d mostly say that Ri is more in charge of the busi­ness side than I am. Her fam­ily owns a lot of busi­nesses, so I think she has more knowl­edge [in that as­pect]. We both draw, but I’m more on ad­ver­tis­ing. All of our col­lec­tions are by us. We de­cide on ev­ery­thing to­gether. We sketch to­gether. all the more in the world of busi­ness. And, as ex­em­pli­fied by Mary Kate and Ash­ley Olsen of The Row, Jack McCol­lough and Lazaro Her­nan­dez of Proenza Schouler, and Hum­berto Leon and Carol Lim of Open­ing Cer­e­mony, fash­ion is no doubt a bond­ing busi­ness. Best friends Chi Gibbs, 25, and Aira Me­d­ina, 24, who met in Sec­tion A in OB Montes­sori in the early 2000s, didn’t see it com­ing, but they were to build an is­land—Neon Is­land, that is—which was to be­come one of the coun­try’s more no­table on­line busi­nesses of purely lo­cal ori­gin.

Its suc­cess, both claim, is mostly at­trib­uted to so­cial me­dia. In Fe­bru­ary 2013, Chi, the el­dest daugh­ter of Janno Gibbs and Bing Loyzaga, went to her dad’s dress­ing room on the set of his noon­time show with Aira, Neon Is­land clothes in hand, and gave a sweater each to celebs Heart Evan­ge­lista and Solenn Heussaff. The two posted pho­tos and gar­nered the brand huge buzz. That was the first time they made a mar­ket­ing move for Neon Is­land—and the last time they gave prod­ucts to

artis­tas (“It’s too hard sell, which is so not us, but we will al­ways be thank­ful for the op­por­tu­nity,” says Aira)—and fol­lowed through with strong so­cial me­dia pres­ence: su­per like­able pho­tos, a crisply cu­rated Instagram grid, and cute stop-mo­tion videos. Or­ganic fol­low­ers flocked, and not long af­ter, one branch set up af­ter an­other, though sales still mostly come from e-com­merce.

Now this syn­op­sis of the Neon Is­land story sounds quite ef­fort­less, but the two-woman team ad­mits it is a long, still-on­go­ing process, but things are look­ing good, and they are more than determined to turn Neon Is­land into an in­ter­na­tional launch­pad for Filipino tal­ent. Are we good enough to earn a spot in the global on­line mar­ket?

Scout: Where do you get in­spi­ra­tion?

Chi: Mostly I guess from trav­els. I guess it’s re­ally the en­vi­ron­ment that in­spires us.

Aira: We like to go the beach, but we’re not surfers or any­thing. When we de­sign, we start with the print. What in­spires our print is that we al­ways want to keep a trop­i­cal type. You can wear a swim­suit all-year round. That’s some­thing we want to iden­tify with.

Chi: That’s also our trib­ute to the Philip­pines. That’s why our name is Neon Is­land. We want to be as­so­ci­ated with the Philip­pines. We want to cap­i­tal­ize on the beauty of the Philip­pines, and its de­tails. That was our ad­vo­cacy from the start.

Aira: We have a friend who takes un­der­wa­ter pic­tures. He’s a hard­core diver and he posts gor­geous pic­tures on Face­book. So we asked, “Would you let us use your un­der­wa­ter pho­tos?” But most of the pic­tures [that launched in that first col­lec­tion] were taken by Chi and I. We’d go on road trips to­gether, or alone, or with the fam­ily, and do what nor­mal best friends do: send each other pic­tures. Chi: Now that I think about it, it was all such a blur.

Aira: I guess it’s be­cause we’re best friends, so it hap­pened or­gan­i­cally. In a re­cent in­ter­view, they asked us how we cap­i­tal­ize on be­ing best friends in the busi­ness. I’d rather say that there’s no other per­son be­cause we never ar­gue about the de­signs. We share the same taste.

Chi: Like two peas in a pod.

Scout: But what makes you two dif­fer­ent?

Aira: Some­one al­ways has to be nice, and some­one al­ways has to be the bitchy one. Chi: We take turns. [ Laughs]

Aira: We dis­cuss de­signs to­gether, but I’m al­ways think­ing about the brand iden­tity—what would look good for the brand? Is it Neon Is­land? Is it the mar­ket we’re look­ing for? For Chi, on the other hand: Will it sell? Be­cause that’s the whole point. We have to bal­ance it out. I get her point. She gets mine. We com­pro­mise.

Chi: I’m more re­al­is­tic. She’s more ide­al­is­tic.

Scout: Have you guys al­ways been into arts and crafts?

Aira: Even be­fore Neon Is­land. In high school we bonded over drawing, designing, arts and crafts. Even though we didn’t have much of an av­enue dur­ing high school be­cause we were nerds, we found time and we found ways. We got ex­cited about those things. Vol­un­teer­ing stuff. Mak­ing posters…

“It’s so im­por­tant to put out new con­tent ev­ery day. It’s like a baby you have to feed— feed—or or else it won’t grow.”

Scout: What made you guys de­cide to go full­time with Neon Is­land? I know you guys started it when you had teach­ing jobs.

Chi: I first ap­plied for a lo­cal re­tail brand. I just tried it out, sent out my sketches, and then got a call. I jumped into it and tried to get ex­pe­ri­ence. While I was do­ing that, we were tak­ing de­sign classes.

Aira: We took cour­ses dur­ing week­ends be­cause that was the only time Chi was free. But we both had jobs when we started Neon Is­land. And then along the way we re­al­ized we couldn’t com­mit to Neon Is­land and still work. So we both de­cided to let go of our jobs. If we wanted Neon Is­land to re­ally grow, we had to be giv­ing our full at­ten­tion to the brand. We started Neon Is­land with our own sav­ings. We didn’t ask money from our par­ents.

Chi: One of our de­sign teach­ers told us if you have a backup plan, you’re never re­ally go­ing to reach your full po­ten­tial. And we took that to heart.

Scout: Most peo­ple would take on the China route when it comes to sourc­ing be­cause it’s eas­ier and much more eco­nom­i­cal, but you opted to go lo­cal.

Chi: We def­i­nitely felt the pres­sure to join bazaars. Ini­tially we launched Neon Is­land in a bazaar. We first be­gan sell­ing at the Su­per Sale Bazaar—the ones held in Rock­well and World Trade Cen­ter.

Aira: When we started, we thought, “How can we com­pete with the other bazaar brands?”

Chi: We can’t re­ally lower our prices be­cause we in­vest in the qual­ity of pro­duc­tion. We make sure that ev­ery­thing is done and sup­plied from here in the Philip­pines, be­cause that way, we help the lo­cal in­dus­try, too. We re­ally pick which bazaars we join be­cause we want to build the Neon Is­land brand. We’re de­vel­op­ing an iden­tity, so we’re re­ally care­ful of the steps we take.

Scout: And one of your next steps is the up­com­ing part­ner­ship with Gawad Kalinga for man­power?

Aira: That’s what we’re fix­ing. It’s a long process. We’re not jump­ing into it yet. We’re just mak­ing a col­lec­tion with them.

Chi: We want to build from there. Gawad Kalinga is bridg­ing the gap be­tween en­trepreneurs and the com­mu­nity. That’s what we’re re­ally thank­ful for. I can’t imag­ine do­ing this on our own—look­ing for com­mu­ni­ties. It’s hard to trust peo­ple to do some­thing for your busi­ness. They’ve al­ready been train­ing this group of women from Taguig that we visit reg­u­larly for qual­ity checks. It’s look­ing good, so far. Aira: It’s still a two-man team, Chi and me. Chi: Ev­ery­thing is out­sourced. Our main role is to de­sign. We’re ex­cited to get in­terns though, and we’re putting up an of­fice. Scout: You are one of the very few, to­tally lo­cal brands go­ing on­line—which means you have the po­ten­tial to go abroad. Chi: That’s re­ally one of our goals. Aira: Chi and I, on a trip, talked about where we want to take Neon Is­land this year and the next few years. At that time we al­ready had small spa­ces at Tri­Noma and Rock­well. Then we were think­ing: Should we begin ex­pand­ing? Chi: We’re al­ready set­ting up more branches. Aira: And pop-up stores. We thought, “Hey, we re­ally want it to go in­ter­na­tional.” And the only way to go is to so­lid­ify our on­line pres­ence. Right now, we’re just happy that we’re ap­pro­pri­ately ex­e­cut­ing our vi­sion for Neon Is­land.

Scout: So far, how have on­line users re­sponded to Neon Is­land?

Aira: They’re very ex­pres­sive if they like some­thing, which is very help­ful. Peo­ple email their opin­ions. We re­ally do ap­pre­ci­ate it. I guess be­tween the two of us, it pres­sures Chi more. Chi: Be­cause I han­dle op­er­a­tions. Aira: Com­pro­mis­ing for the sake of num­bers is very im­por­tant also. If the busi­ness doesn’t sell, what’s it for? We have to think about our cus­tomers.

Chi: For ex­am­ple, we wanted a beaded dress for a bo­hemian se­ries. But think of the pro­duc­tion cost. Is it some­thing mar­ketable to peo­ple of this cer­tain age with this buy­ing power?

Aira: Aside from that, there’s pres­sure be­cause we want dif­fer­ent types of girls of dif­fer­ent ages to buy our stuff. The rea­son why we wanted Neon Is­land the way it is was we wanted regular girls like us to be able to buy it. There are some good Filipino brands that are re­ally ex­pen­sive. As much as I love them, I can’t af­ford it. We want Neon Is­land to be re­lat­able to the mod­ern, in­de­pen­dent Filip­ina.

Chi: We launched an on­line cam­paign called “You Are Here,” with a premise say­ing we are keep­ing ev­ery­one in mind. We live in the Philip­pines where a lot of peo­ple can’t af­ford de­cent clothes. As much as pos­si­ble, we want ev­ery­one to be able to buy our stuff. This was our goal from the very be­gin­ning.

Aira: We be­lieve we are designing for girls like Chi and me. We’re not brand con­scious. We see some­thing beau­ti­ful and we buy it. We love Bangkok stuff. But we want to take pride in wear­ing some­thing made in the Philip­pines. A brand that is cool, af­ford­able, and Filipino.

Scout: How did you get the hang of so­cial me­dia mar­ket­ing, one of the strengths of Neon Is­land?

Aira: A big part of our suc­cess is so­cial me­dia. Most of our sales come from on­line. But our par­ents helped out dur­ing the first three months.

Chi: One thing we had noth­ing to do with but were blessed with was free mar­ket­ing. When [I asked my dad to in­tro­duce me to celebri­ties], he said, “I’m go­ing to tell them that you’re go­ing to talk to them, but don’t ex­pect any­thing.” That’s how he is. You can’t force th­ese peo­ple to do any­thing, but they gave good feed­back.

Aira: They also loved the fact that ev­ery­thing was done in the Philip­pines

Chi: It’s some­thing we em­pha­sized. “It’s all lo­cally made. It’s just us two. We would re­ally love to give you this.” That’s it. We didn’t ask them to post any­thing at all. Aira: But we in­cluded our busi­ness card. [ Gig­gles] Chi: Ini­tially we were just go­ing to talk to Heart be­cause she and my dad share the same dress­ing room. She saw our sweater, which had a cat on it. She’s a cat-lover, so we gave her that. And she was like “Oh, my God! It’s the cutest thing ever! Can I in­tro­duce you to Solenn?” So we met Solenn, then Bianca King. We were able to give each of them a sweater. Solenn delves in fash­ion and is a painter and ap­pre­ci­ates that the de­signs were hand drawn.

Scout: Chi, why didn’t you pur­sue show busi­ness?

Chi: I did a cou­ple of movies as a kid. In high school, I did a TV show for ABS-CBN. It was a sit­com. I was cu­ri­ous and wanted to try it out. And I do have love for the arts. In col­lege, I was in theater. I grew up around mu­sic, movies, and act­ing, so I’m in­clined to it, but it’s not for me. At least I tried it out, and am not left won­der­ing what

it feels like. I en­joyed it while it lasted. Maybe it would have been the eas­ier thing to do, given that my par­ents al­ready paved a way to that ca­reer. But I don’t know, it’s not for me. Scout: How do you plan to strengthen your fu­ture so­cial me­dia mar­ket­ing? Chi: We had con­tests, but per­son­ally, I’m an­noyed when I see so many. I don’t want to annoy peo­ple.

Aira: We just tried that out. We’re so­lid­i­fy­ing our so­cial me­dia pres­ence. We both agreed to tak­ing nicer pic­tures, and in­vest­ing in le­git light­ing. We just need to fix our of­fice, where we’ll put up a stu­dio. Scout: But you mostly use your iPhone for pho­tos, right?

Aira: Most times, it’s just re­ally the iPhone. I use an old Nikon SLR. It’s faith­ful, loyal, true. [ Laughs] But we both want com­pact SLRs.

Chi: Right now smartphones are re­li­able for tak­ing nice pho­tos if you have good light­ing.

Aira: We like re­ally good pic­tures on Instagram. Peo­ple ap­pre­ci­ate good aes­thetics.

Chi: And con­sis­tency. Be­ing true to the brand in all our posts.

Aira: But we have a lot to think about: sup­pli­ers, de­sign prints... When you’re so busy some­times you’re just tempted to post and be all, “Pwede na yan!”

Chi: Some­times, I can’t sleep at night be­cause of posts. I think whether I should delete some, [or just leave it there].

Aira: We re­ally started to get at­ten­tion through so­cial me­dia. Peo­ple ask us, “Are your fol­low­ers or­ganic?” We se­ri­ously don’t know how we got all th­ese fol­low­ers. We just started post­ing things we like. Last year, we thought of putting the hash­tag #ootd, but later on agreed it looked tacky. Chi: We were new on Instagram!

Aira: I’ve been on Instagram for only a year. I don’t have a Twit­ter… I’m not techie at all. I’d go to my sis­ter and ask for help on Tum­blr and stuff like that.

Chi: I try to plan our posts out for the week—at least one post a day. It’s so im­por­tant to put out new con­tent ev­ery day. It’s like a baby you have to feed— you have to feed it or else it won’t grow. And there’s com­pe­ti­tion too.

Aira: You can’t miss a step. And it re­ally af­fects shop­ping habits. We’re look­ing at our line and we try to fig­ure out what’s mov­ing more slowly than oth­ers. Then we boost it. Then it works! It re­ally works. Scout: But don’t you feel like you just want to un­plug from ev­ery­thing some­times? Aira: Of course there’s al­ways a time that I feel pres­sured be­cause we al­ways have to be vis­i­ble on­line. But at the end of the day, it’s not for me. It’s for Neon Is­land.

Chi: We have to get a grip on so­cial me­dia though, be­cause it’s so ad­dic­tive. It’s like a black­hole you get sucked into. I can stay on Instagram for hours. We have a de­cent fol­low­ing on our per­sonal ac­counts as well, so we feel pres­sured to rep­re­sent the brand. Your Instagram ac­count is your per­sonal port­fo­lio. I al­ways tell Aira that it’s okay to feel pres­sured with Instagram, be­cause if our buy­ers go to our ac­counts and see we’re in­con­sis­tent, the brand won’t be be­liev­able. We want to live the brand, we want to be the brand.

Aira: I think it’s very im­por­tant be­cause so­cial me­dia robs you of the chance to en­joy the right mo­ment and just ex­pe­ri­ence things. I try not to take pic­tures as much as pos­si­ble. Why are we on so­cial me­dia any­way? The an­swer is Neon Is­land. This is our life. [ Sigh] Scout: How do you fil­ter neg­a­tive feed­back? Chi: Me and Aira, we’re pretty pos­i­tive peo­ple. We laugh about it. It’s about not tak­ing ev­ery­thing too se­ri­ously. You’re not gonna die if some­one says some­thing bad. If you have an ugly pic­ture on­line, then you have an ugly pic­ture on­line. Just post an­other nice one. We’re easy­go­ing and chill. Scout: Is that how you would de­scribe Neon Is­land too? Aira: When peo­ple ask about per­sonal style, both of us love ba­sics, as much as we love our prints. We in­ject [quirky ac­cents] to our ba­sics. Chi: Easy­go­ing, fun. Does not take things too se­ri­ously.

Aira: Be­ing able to in­ject color and print, you have to be a lit­tle fun about that. You can’t be su­per cou­ture or struc­tured. You can’t be too se­ri­ous when com­ing up with an ap­ple top, or a freak­ing kiwi top.

Chi: A lit­tle sass. Cheeky. Easy. Perky. Scout: How would you de­scribe each other? Chi: Aira is like a ray of sun­shine, which is why we work well to­gether. We’re not neg­a­tive. We try never to be neg­a­tive. Like, “It’s go­ing to be okay. It’s go­ing to turn out for the bet­ter.” In one word: cheer­leader.

Aira: She’s just beau­ti­ful in­side and out. When I say beau­ti­ful, it en­tails even ap­pre­ci­at­ing the de­tails of things. When you look at some­thing beau­ti­ful, it’s very inspiring. Ideas just flow. Like a nice paint­ing or a flower, you look at it, and it blos­soms. It in­spires you.

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