Grace Ko, Where’d You Get That Glossy Pendant?

By Madeleine Crutchley
Grace Ko, founder and designer of Baobei. Photo / Rob Burrows

The designer, artist and entrepreneur shares the ethos behind Baobei — her deeply affirming, bimbo-core label.

Regular thrift shop crawlers and young New Zealand fashion fans are likely to recognise the big, bold and glossy ‘Love U’ pendant from Baobei.

The necklace, whether it’s adorned in pink, red or blue, is an accessory that draws attention. It’s oversized, nostalgic and audacious. And, the pendant, along with other cutesy and affirming pieces from Baobei, is designed to communicate a distinct and timely message among the people who wear it.

Founder and designer Grace Ko sees a specific meaning imbued in the pendant. “Sometimes, I feel like it’s an inside joke when you’re wearing the pendant for people. It’s like, ‘Yay, I’m going to present myself as a little silly hot girl today.’ But that silly hot girl be thinking. It’s almost the symbol of that.”

Baobei, with its signature hot pinks, scatterings of bows and healthy stock of baby tees printed (or bedazzled) with self-affirming phrases, perfects a design aesthetic poignant in the Barbie-ish wave that has washed over pop culture in the last few years. Grace also describes the marketing as “superficial and very bimbo-core”.

The 'Love U' pendant in red from Baobei.
The 'Love U' pendant in red from Baobei.

The brand welcomes and celebrates ideals relevant to the campy, feminine-presenting, deeply political and misogyny-rejecting culture that prevails in ‘bimbo feminism’ communities. This train of thought sees hyper-femininity, so-called superficial aesthetics and clothing deemed ‘slutty’ reimagined, in a rejection of patriarchal expectations and structures. This approach allows proponents to reject a certain image of success and create an opportunity for self-definition, self-love and self-possession (as well as a sense of community between those who do the same).

Baobei is planted firmly in this cultural moment, engaging with a kind of meme-ish ‘if-you-know-you-know’ messaging that celebrates a critical perspective of gender, performance and patriarchal shaming through dress. One of the slogans splashed across Grace’s pieces reads ‘ambitious, disciplined, really hot’.

For the designer, this opportunity for self-definition is important. “I would always struggle with feeling misunderstood. [Working between robotics and creative fields], I just loved always teetering across those two extremes, because I wanted to express my duality and versatility and spectrum as a person.”

She also highlights a delight in the silliness of the image. “I think it’s almost comedic for me now, to have those two sides of me, and have people solely think that I’m bimbo-vibes and that I have a brand that sells bimbo and pink and sparkly things. Being able to bring in that cultural aspect, and having everyone embody that, is really fun.”

Affirming accessories and baby tees are the core of the Baobei brand.
Affirming accessories and baby tees are the core of the Baobei brand.

And like all things seriously camp, there is an immovably important under-pinning for Grace. “At the end of the day, I only feel so comfortable being seen as superficial or associated with the bimbo aspect of the brand, because it has such deep roots in something more sentimental.”

Grace shares the story of how Baobei begun in 2019 on the brand website, defining the name to mean something treasured and loved (as well as babe or ‘boo thang’).

“My parents have been running the same retail store in Wellington, New Zealand, for over 20 years. It’s not glamorous and they’re often victims of racism and violence on the shop floor — because of this, I was never proud of what my parents did for work, because neither were they. As I have learned to appreciate and fall in love with my culture and upbringing, I wanted to reinvent my story (and theirs) by using deadstock beads from their shop and creating beautiful jewellery.”

Grace recalls having a strong interest in fashion at high school, but finding some disappointment in the pieces she made (largely due to having to pull from old magazines available in her classes). “I always did textiles at school... to be honest I always hated everything I made and that was a bummer because I was like ‘hmm I’m not the fashion girlie I think I am’.”

Playful, pink and bimbo-core aesthetics are backed by Grace's ethos.
Playful, pink and bimbo-core aesthetics are backed by Grace's ethos.

As Baobei’s popularity grew across New Zealand, Grace looked to expand the sense of community. Working with Cathy Fan, the owner of Fankery, the designer and business owner ran two events dedicated to Asian women in business. The goal was to create a supportive, knowledge-sharing space for other budding or established entrepreneurs to connect, workshop ideas, and most important, find a sense of community.

Grace was delighted with the sense of community at the event. “You know when you have a smile on your face and it’s so natural and you can’t wipe it off and you’re just so happy... Above all, I’m very grateful — people have taken time out of their night to come and connect with each other, and I’ve had the privilege of collaborating to create that... It feels so immaculate to crave a community, not find it, and then be like ‘I’ll create [it].”

But it was also overwhelming. “I felt like crying after my first event... but almost from self-belief, as if I was sitting down with my inner child and being like, there was a point in time when you were so insecure about being Asian and now you’ve created an event along with beautiful collaborators.”

Now, Grace is in London, working on expanding Baobei and Sets, another business she co-owns with Wellington-born DJ Emily Janus which sells earplugs in slick silver packaging. It’s a whole other challenge that will require all of that bold affirmation.

“It’s weird moving to London because it feels like everything has been wiped clean and I have to start again.”

What’s a typical day in London like for you right now?

A typical day is so weird and crazy. I’ll get up, try not to check my phone for an hour because that’s a good habit to have... prime your brain for the attitude through the rest of the day. That’s really hard because my NZ family and friends are on the socials! I usually take a little walk in the morning and call them.

Then, I’ll come back, smash out some Baobei stuff like emails, TikTok, Instagram and influencer things. And then, Emily, who is one half of Sets gets up, and we normally start from 10am and go until 10 or 11pm at night. We’ll visit stockists, do some business planning, or sit there and smash out work. When that ends, I’ll usually pick up Baobei stuff and do impromptu photoshoots.

Other NZ creatives that inspire you?

It’s hard not to say every single person involved [in the events] has inspired me. They pushed the event forward to a whole new place I didn’t even envision. Obviously, Cathy from Fankery has been right beside me — Cathy’s work ethic is insane. And then, Sandy from Bare Beauty Studios, Bonnie from Zangria, Enna and May from Thea Matcha, Frances of Loclaire, Alicia from Esse Label, Deanna from Moustache Cookies and Nat and Steph [from Evil Twins Coffee].

What’s an item of clothing that you’ve bought recently, or want to buy?

I bought some Miu Miu heels. I hopped on Vinted, which is a massive thing in the UK, and I bought a pair of Miu Miu heels and I feel complete — it feels quintessential to my overseas adventure.

What’s a book you’re reading, or one you’ve enjoyed recently?

I’m re-listening to Dying To Be Me, which is the first book my therapist has told me to read. And it’s about dying to be yourself. She dies and comes back to life, so she talks about the worth of your life and your purpose. I also bought Crying in H Mart yesterday and I haven’t even opened it. And I’m so excited... it’s probably one of my first books written by an East Asian author.

Do you have a favourite TV show or film at the moment?

I feel like the things I say are so off-brand. I want to be like, ‘Barbie!’ But I just watched The Dropout, which is about the Theranos drama. It’s so wild. So crazy. And obviously Joy Ride. That just came out in London, so I went to see it again, after seeing it in New Zealand).

What have you been listening to lately?

2010 EDM has been sorely missed. Like, ‘High’ by Peking Duk, ‘Cinema’ by Benny Benassi. Just 2010 pop songs that have a clubby feel. I miss them. They don’t really make music like that anymore. Back in the day, you’d have a clubby interlude to a Rihanna song. So random, but damn it was good. I’m reminiscing.

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