Clare Ngai on the Unusual Story Behind Her Mega-Viral Y2K-Inspired Jewelry Brand, BONBONWHIMS
We've been enchanted with BONBONWHIMS jewelry ever since we first laid eyes on their stunningly playful pieces.
The brand is the brainchild of Clare Ngai, originally from Hong Kong, who started making custom, Y2K-inspired jewelry to raise money for BIPOC communities during the pandemic. When it absolutely took off, she decided to follow her jewelry-making passion full-time, and BONBONWHIMS was born. With its bold and vibrant colors, chunky shapes and whimsical, maximalist designs, her pieces stand out in a wide sea of jewelry options—which is why fans of the brand include Megan Thee Stallion, Kylie Jenner, Demi Lovato, Gigi Hadid and many more (including us!). We had the pleasure of hopping on a Zoom call with Clare to learn all about both her and BONBONWHIMS, and you can discover her story with us below.
Name: Clare Ngai
IG handles: @clarengai and @thebonbonwhimsclub
Hometown: Hong Kong, China
(Photo credit: Maegan Gindi)
1. You wouldn't guess it based on her brand, but Clare wasn't always the girly girl she is today.
"Growing up, I was actually kind of a tomboy, believe it or not. But then one day, my mom took me to a department store in Hong Kong and showed me to the beauty counters and introduced me to Anna Sui. I was in love. Her beauty collection had the coolest packaging and the coolest aesthetic I'd ever seen. When I looked her up, I discovered she was actually a fashion designer first, and had developed out to have makeup and this whole universe.
I became really obsessed with her aesthetic. It's whimsical, colorful and very carefree. That inspired me to ditch the tomboy phase and start exploring styling and trying on different types of looks. My brand is very maximalist, inspired by my first love with another brand that is equally whimsical."
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2. Clare wasn't setting out to make a viral brand when she created BONBONWHIMS.
"I've always loved making jewelry, and arts and crafts. I was actually a talent agent for six years before starting my business during COVID—but it wasn't meant to be a business. I didn't think it was going to be a full-blown thing. I just used it as a vehicle to raise money for Black Lives Matter at the peak of the pandemic, and then it carried on into anti-Asian hate campaigns and different movements that were happening at the time.
Because of that, I was able to cultivate this really kind and supportive community on the internet that believes in inclusivity and diversity and likes to support small businesses. Then more and more people started noticing it and really liking the type of jewelry I made. Fast-forward to Kylie Jenner wearing our earrings, and that really just put us on the map. It's been sort of unstoppable ever since."
3. She's mindful about calling BONBONWHIMS a "sustainable" business, through being environmentally conscious is embedded in everything the brand does.
"I try to be careful about like calling any fashion brand sustainable, just because, no matter how hard we try, we are creating waste in the process, whether that's with packaging or materials. But I do want to be conscious about how much I produce. As a small business, the sustainability aspect is ingrained in the brand DNA because we produce small-batch amounts. We do a lot of pre-orders, and we don't produce every month or come up with new styles all the time. Some of our best-selling SKUs are actually made with upcycled materials. I source a lot of vintage materials, like deadstock.
The hair clips we launched this year are actually 100% biodegradable and recyclable, made from acetate, not plastic. I try to practice sustainability in the realm that I can control, but I'm still careful about calling my brand a sustainable one."
4. Her everyday "uniform" is typically a black, long-sleeved T-shirt and sweatpants.
"It's rare, but because it's really hot and nice today, I actually put on a maxi sundress. I definitely dress for comfort. When I go to the office every day, nine times out of 10, you will catch me in a long T-shirt and sweatpants and my UGG boots in the winter, or sneakers in the summer. It's a bit boring, but that's my uniform."
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5. She's a big Harry Potter fan, and the best piece of advice she ever heard came from a Fantastic Beasts movie.
"In Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, Newt Scamander says, 'Worrying means you suffer twice.' Basically, if something's going to be a headache, try not to think about it too much and just be present, because worrying just makes you go through it again and again. I definitely overthink a lot, and it's stressful running a business as well. Whenever I'm stressed out, I try to stay in the moment and not worry too much about the future or what could be, and just focus on what is happening currently."
6. Her favorite pieces in the BONBONWHIMS collection at the moment are the Birthstone Lucky Rings.
"The rings come in 12 colors. It's a chunky heart, which is very BONBONWHIMS, with a thick band. It feels like a whimsical play on Y2K gumball machine jewelry, but instead of being plasticky, ours are gold-plated and nicely made."
7. Her favorite accessory trend continues to be all things Y2K.
"The Y2K trend is still going really strong, and I think the subculture is all about embracing individuality. It's okay if you're a little bit chaotic. You look at Bella Hadid, and granted, she's a supermodel, but I feel like she just wears whatever the heck she wants. She doesn't have a stylist, and I think a lot of people look to that and other style mavens and get inspired. They feel that they can just wear whatever, and they don't need to all look one way. In terms of accessorizing, it's the same thing. You can wear a stack of jewelry and rings and match them with your hair clips, and it's really chaotic and maximal, but it's also really fun and very freeing. There was a period of time where everything was very minimal—clean beauty, dainty gold jewelry—
and now, we're on the opposite of that, which I personally love."
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8. The one thing she's most proud of right now is actually that she's taking two full weeks off for her wedding (which is this week!).
"It sounds like a no-brainer, but I think I am definitely a workaholic. The Capricorn comes in strong, so even taking a day off makes me feel guilty a lot of the time, because I know no one's going to care about my business as much as I do. But I haven't seen my family in Hong Kong in four years, so taking this time for myself and for them, and this big reunion moment, is super important. I'm putting my family and myself first for a second, and I'm very proud of that."
9. One thing that's very important to Clare is that she's a very generous person at heart.
"I think of myself as a very generous and an open person. I take my identity as an Asian American young woman very seriously, and I'd like to become a mentor figure to other young girls, especially women of color. I want people to know that if they ever want advice from someone that they look up to or they have questions about entrepreneurship as a woman running a business in a big city, they can always come to me, and I will be very happy to give them my two cents."
For more stories on the ladies behind our favorite innovative fashion brands, click HERE to learn all about SuitShop co-founder, Jeanne Foley.