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Fashion

Macau-born social media influencer-turned-designer Yoyo Cao at Singapore Fashion Week

With almost 300,000 followers on Instagram, Cao has not only built up a strong fan base online but has also won over fans in the fashion world launching her own label Exhibit in 2014

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 31 October, 2017, 1:03pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 31 October, 2017, 1:45pm

Described as the woman “putting Southeast Asian style on the map” by no less than Vogue, Yoyo Cao is not only one of Singapore’s top social media influencers, but a rising fashion designer.

Chatting backstage before her new collection show at October’s Singapore Fashion Week, Cao says despite possessing no formal background in design, having her own fashion label has always been a “dream”. Now that dream has become reality.

Continuing my tradition of wearing capes in Milan Photo by @garconjon via @britishvogue

A post shared by YOYO CAO (@yoyokulala) on Sep 27, 2017 at 4:32am PDT

Cao got her start in the business by launching multibrand boutique Exhibit in 2010, specialising in chic womenswear from up-and-coming Asian labels. She promoted the shop via social media, where she quickly built a large fan base on Instagram. Today, her @yoyokulala account has almost 300,000 followers. While many influencers would leverage numbers of that sort to secure copious sponsorships, Cao says her focus now is on pushing the Exhibit label. “I still do partnerships with brands as well but I’m very, very selective. I only select brands that are in line with my DNA,” she says.

She says her social media platforms and website yoykulala.com are less of a revenue stream and more of a “platform for people to communicate [on]. It’s like a community.” “I’ve got a huge following of people who want to know more about the fashion world, beauty and lifestyle,” she says.

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According to Cao, when she does choose to promote or feature something “most of the items are very organic.” “I share whatever I like. Of course, there is some collaboration with brands, but those are the brands that I buy myself. I believe in those brands. I believe in those pieces. I’m just using the platform to show peoplewe can mix and match, high and low, and go with the brands that we like,” she says.

There’s been controversy recently regarding influencers failing to clearly label sponsored posts, with the United States Federal Communications Commission issuing warnings to several prominent social media tastemakers. “You have to be transparent to your audience,” Cao says. “The audience nowadays is very, very clever. They can tell ‘oh, this is a collaboration. This is not’.” Rather than simply taking every offer that comes their way, Cao says influencers must remember “the most important thing is to be yourself. Being organic can be your own unique styling point.”

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Unique styling has been Cao’s trademark since the birth of the Exhibit fashion label in 2014. “I had this great opportunity where one of my friends asked me to style 15 outfits for a show at Singapore Fashion Week for her first collection,” she says, explaining the brand’s genesis. “I thought, OK, I’ve always dreamt of doing my own label, so why don’t I take this opportunity to launch my brand together with hers at the same time? I was super fresh and inexperienced. I don’t come from a fashion design background, so it was a big step.”

Nevertheless, Cao’s creations – designed to meet the needs of young, fashion-conscious Southeast Asian women like herself – instantly found favour with consumers in the region. “With the power of social media, whenever you post something, more people get to know your brand, so we get customers from all around the world. But I would say for now, Exhibit’s customers are mainly from Southeast Asia and China,” she says.

Cao caters not only to the tastes and silhouettes favoured by modern young women in Asia, but to the unpredictable climate in this part of the world. “I’m constantly trying new materials, trying new patterns,” says the designer, who is renowned for her expert use of layering and East-meets-West aesthetic.

The latter, she hones through frequent trips to Europe. “I go to fashion week every season,” Cao says. “Those are the lifetime lessons for me – every season I learn so much from the best designers in the world.” She didn’t have to travel a great distance to get inspired for her latest collection, however. “This season, the Exhibit girl is a modern warrior princess. Imagine yourself on an island, in a castle near the sea, like a backdrop from Game of Thrones,” she says. Despite this inspiration, Cao says the collection is one of her ‘girliest’ ever. And why not? As Daenerys Targaryen has shown us time and again, a warrior princess can be both feminine and fierce.