Winning over the online crowd

Childhood friends Aira Medina and Chi Gibbs were originally teachers by trade—they worked at Raya School and Rachell Allen Reviewers USA, respectively—but spent their downtime together as students at The Fashion Institute of the Philippines, where they took classes in pattern-making and sewing. What started as a hobby eventually steered their careers in a new direction when they founded their fashion line Neon Island in 2013.

Their collections are diverse, ranging from swimwear to sweaters, but they draw from a main well of creativity: "We believe travel is part of the job, simply because we derive a lot of our inspiration from our travels," says Medina, who oversees the operations end of the business. "Our advocacy is really to celebrate everything local, thus the name Neon Island." Not only does Neon Island source its materials locally, but many of its designs have that distinctly Filipino touch: Their first bag line featured photography from their travels all across the country, including Bohol, Pampanga, and Boracay. 

Aira Medina and Chi Gibbs of Neon Island Share Their Success Story

The two occasionally run their business from exotic locales, but these “workactions” aren’t the only ace they have up their sleeves. "We always knew how important social media is, so we wanted to see people's feedback before we actually sold our stuff," says Gibbs, who takes charge of Neon Island’s marketing efforts. "When you're in this business, research plays a big role in knowing what your customers like and what works for them, while staying true to your brand at the same time. You have to find a good mix of both." Gibbs and Medina tapped into that foresight early on to build buzz around their then-new brand, posting their designs online until some of their celebrity friends were spotted in Neon Island garb as well. 

In the run up to a 2013 weekend bazaar, where the pair officially began retailing their pieces, Neon Island’s website and social network accounts had already been amassing a growing following for the brand. People flocked to them at the event, eager to purchase an item they had seen online, and their stocks quickly sold out. No doubt, it was a sign that the time had come to embrace entrepreneurship and manage Neon Island full-time. "We proved that social media was very powerful even back then—and to think, that was three years ago!" Gibbs exclaims.

Aira Medina and Chi Gibbs of Neon Island

Neon Island now consigns its products to a network of brick-and-mortar stockists, but the bulk of their business is still very much online. "Since Day One, we really wanted Neon Island to be globally renowned, so we wanted to solidify our online presence and collaborate with other brands,” says Medina. A big part of that online strategy meant a reliable e-commerce platform: A friend had built their initial website for them from scratch, but because many of its functions had to be done manually, it was a challenge aligning their real-time inventory with that of the website’s: There were times when customers would order online not knowing that the item was already out of stock, or experience delays in the processing of their orders.

They made the shift to Shopify last year, and since then, Gibbs says, "It’s been a lot easier than having your own website, especially a DIY-type website like we had.” They were a tech-savvy duo, but they were fashion designers, not web developers: Every time they needed to change something in their old website, like updating their stock or applying discounts on items, they’d have to ask their friend to do the editing for them. "We decided that if we wanted to reach an international following, we had to have a really efficient website. That’s when we stated thinking about Shopify. It’s being used by different international brands already, so we felt like it was the most legitimate site that we could go to," adds Medina.

"We'd like to think that the success that our brand has had is due to social media,” says Gibbs, so they make a point to stay consistent online in terms of the brand’s aesthetics and branding. “It's like a baby we have to feed regularly and take good care of it. We keep content fresh for our customers, because as time goes by, it's only getting more and more important in terms of marketing. I think a lot of other brands are only realizing this now, how important the role of social media is in growing a business."