Yoyo Cao: En Route To The Fashion Clout
Cao's precocious resilience has allowed her to set sights on the fashion world map.
BY Ng Yi Lian | Mar 20, 2017 | Women We Love
Yoyo Cao was born to live and breathe fashion. One of her earliest memories is being dressed in designer togs by her mother as a toddler in Macau, where she was born. “My mum was very young when she had me. She was only 22 years old, still in her fashion phase… In fact, she still is. Both my parents are very stylish and put a lot of thought into their appearance, even though their look is very classic and trend-less,” Cao enthuses. “My dad likes playing tennis and often incorporates athletic elements into his daily outfits, whereas my mum understands silhouettes and fabrics well and buys investment pieces such as Chanel tweed jackets.”
The 29-year-old fashion designer and entrepreneur may not have any formal fashion training (she holds a business degree), but little did she know that her parents’ “training” during her childhood would determine her life ambitions. “They always exposed me to fashion and my mum often brought me shopping because her good friend had a fashion store back then,” Cao recalls, as she curls up on the couch in the Exhibit studio that she shares with Arissa Cheo’s label, Arissa X. Today, she is wearing an Exhibit top and Vetements pants. “When I was slightly older, my mum wanted to buy a pair of jeans for me. I still remember thinking, ‘Wow, that’s a lot to pay for a pair of jeans,’” she says, laughing.
However, growing up wasn’t always fun and glamorous. Cao mostly remembers her childhood days as marked by solitude. “My parents have run a business together since I was little and they worked a lot,” recalls the only child. “Despite their schedules, I never had a nanny growing up. My mum forced me to be independent from a very young age. Even in primary school, I would walk to school—which was 15 minutes away—and back alone. She would only pick me up if I was sick, which rarely happened.”
Silk dress by Prada and satin gown by Lanvin at THEOUTNET.COM.
“It was a way of life so I don’t remember missing my parents. In fact, I enjoyed the freedom of being able to do anything that I wanted after school, like watching TV all day,” Cao recalls, smiling. In her early teenage years, she moved to Singapore without her parents to attend school at the now defunct Telok Kurau Secondary School. She lived with a guardian until she turned 18. She then started living alone and has since become a permanent resident of Singapore. She returns to Macau twice a year to visit her parents.
Perhaps, it was the fierce independence that her mother instilled in Cao from a very young age that contributed to her maturity and resilience today. In the final year of her business course, and barely into her twenties, she formed a partnership with the original owner of Exhibit, then a multi-label store stocking Korean labels in Far East Plaza. “I was a regular customer of Angie’s (Chia) and I’d always admired her aesthetics and personality. We are both forward thinkers who don’t beat around the bush when it comes to our thoughts and ideas,” Cao says of her decision to team up with Chia using her personal savings. “That was also when I started my Instagram account because we wanted to show our customers how to style and wear their Exhibit purchases.”
Throughout our 90-minute interview, Cao is keen to emphasise the authenticity and the organic growth of her businesses. “I don’t think I’m as successful as I would like to be, even though I’m happy with how Exhibit and yoyokulala.com are progressing. I know that I work very hard, and that I shouldn’t always credit luck for their stable development, but everything did sort of just happen for me,” Cao says. “Angie and I had been toying with the idea of creating our own designs for a while. When a friend approached me to style some looks from Exhibit for her accessories show during Singapore Fashion Week, we thought it would be a great opportunity to launch our creations. We produced 30 outfits within two months for the fashion show!” Since then, Chia has relinquished her role as a partner in Exhibit to focus on motherhood.
Wool jumpsuit by DKNY and leather boots by Gucci
“I can be very single-minded when it comes to achieving the goals that I’ve set for myself, but I also like to see where my life paths lead,” Cao muses. “I started my Instagram account because I enjoy photography and wanted to extend my reach to customers. Follower numbers have grown exponentially, but to this day, I still use Instagram in the same way that I did when I first started—because I love taking photographs and showing my customers different ways of wearing Exhibit. People are discerning and know when you are being genuine about something that you love.”
While we are on the topic, I ask Cao pointedly if that means she couldn’t care less if she doesn’t get a front-row seat at the fashion weeks in Milan and Paris, which she attends every season. She laughs and says, “Yes, I honestly don’t care. I’m happy that I even get to attend a show. As a fashion entrepreneur with no design background, being at fashion week is the best form of education for me. And I really devour every aspect of a show, from examining the clothes and observing the set design and music to reading the press releases to find out about the designers’ inspirations.”
Silk shirt, wool jacket, wool blend cuffed pants and leather boots, all by Gucci
Not one to take her blessings for granted, Cao still remembers that her first front-row ticket was for Salvatore Ferragamo during her second season at Milan Fashion Week. Like most young girls who love fashion and glamour, Cao grew up with a clear ambition of making her mark on fashion. “I’ve always known that I’ve wanted a career in fashion. I used to think that only veteran editors get to attend the international fashion weeks. Now that I’m going every season, I still kick myself sometimes wondering if it’s all real,” she says. “That’s why even when I’m exhausted from all the frequent travelling, I’m happy because I know that I’m in a position that millions of other girls in the world wish to be in.”
As a result, Cao is adamant about spreading positivity through her website and Instagram posts. “I think it is true that, when you have this amazing platform and reach, you should feel responsible for enforcing positive thinking and relating that to your followers,” Cao says pensively. “Some followers write to tell me about their personal struggles. Although I like to keep my personal life private on social media, I still want to be able to bring a smile to as many faces as possible.”
It’s this very attitude that led Los Angeles-based celebrity blogger Aimee Song (@songofstyle) to get in touch with Cao out of the blue. A few years ago, Song was due to visit Singapore for the first time and wrote to Cao asking for tips. The two became fast friends and always get together every season during the international fashion weeks.
Silk blend satin and chiffon dress by Roberto Cavalli at THEOUTNET.COM.
“Aimee is such a dear friend and she’s a lot like me. When we get together, it’s just all sharing and laughter and… Oh! She loves eating too, so I bring her to my favourite places in Singapore,” says Cao excitedly. “I really love my local food the most like laksa, nasi lemak and chicken rice… I don’t care for expensive food. I just want it yummy!”
Cao is the ultimate girl’s girl. She is happy just staying home alone the entire weekend watching TV, reading fashion glossies or catching up on sleep. If not, she hangs out with her best friends while they make dinner at home, and Cao is the best guest to have over for meals. “I’ll snatch the dirty cutlery from my friends or their (domestic) helpers so I can wash the dishes, or at least my own, because I’m so uncomfortable with the idea of someone else doing my chores for me!”
Her inclusive characteristic extends to every aspect of her life. Mention other local social media darlings and young fashion brands with similar demographics and Cao doesn’t break a sweat. “People always assume that I’m rivals with other influencers or fashion entrepreneurs,” Cao says with a shrug. “But I’m actually really happy there are other labels around like Exhibit. I always tell Velda (Tan, founder of local clothing line Collate) there should be more brands like ours so we can establish a stronger fashion industry in Singapore. Alone, Exhibit or Collate can’t bring the industry to another level, but we would have more influence as a group. Not unlike social media, if consumers or followers don’t believe in us, there wouldn’t be a niche for the products and the services that we provide.”
Currently, Exhibit is available at a pop-up space in Tangs Orchard, but Cao has her sights set on a concept store within the next five years. She also hopes that her brand will be stocked by international e-tailers such as Net-A-Porter in the future. She has already been featured in the China and US editions of Vogue, and together with her single-mindedness towards achieving her goals, don’t be surprised if she attains all this and more within the next two years.
This article was first published in the print edition of Esquire Singapore, March 2017.