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.