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Meet Clare Ngai, the founder of 2000s-inspired jewelry brand BONBONWHIMS

Welcome to Generation AP, a weekly spotlight on emerging actors, writers and creatives who are on the verge of taking over.

They’ve probably caught your eye all over Instagram’s coolest influencers: chunky, neon resin rings adorned with colorful jewels or initials or funky soda top-designed earrings. Behind these Y2K-inspired pieces is BONBONWHIMS, an AAPI-owned and women-run jewelry brand founded by Clare Ngai in the summer of 2020. 

Thanks to celebrities like Kylie Jenner and Olivia Rodrigo, BONBONWHIMS has amassed a cult following for their pieces, which are made from items ranging from resin to acrylic to enamel to freshwater pearls. 

Read more: How The Cobrasnake became one of the first digital archives of the Y2K party scene

While BONBONWHIMS has been growing, it’s remained 100% self-invested and committed to giving back. “Donating and then giving back to the AAPI community is really big for us. One of the charities that we consistently donate to is the ALDF, which is the Asian American Legal Defense Fund. It’s an education fund that I think is really important, so we do that a lot,” Ngai explains over the phone.

In our latest Gen AP interview, the BONBONWHIMS founder talks about the whimsical brand’s famed chunky rings, the celebrities that helped it grow and expanding their offerings.  

How did BONBONWHIMS begin?

I started two years ago during the pandemic, and it was always just a hobby of mine to make jewelry. At the time, I was just using it as a vehicle to fundraise for Black Lives Matter, and it organically took off and more and more people organically found the brand. So I was able to use it as a platform to continue raising money, continually for AAPI charities. It was very organic. I didn’t think it was gonna be a business.

How did the Y2K aesthetic contribute to the ethos of your brand?

It is almost ingrained in my upbringing. Just growing up in Hong Kong, I think that I’ve always loved kawaii and kitschy things. So much of my generation, even across the world, were very influenced by all the Y2K trends that were happening in America. It’s very nostalgic for me. Part of my personality has always felt very natural to just incorporate all the elements into the brand.

Can you talk about the staples or the hallmarks of BONBONWHIMS and the pieces that are most popular for consumers?

Definitely all the resin baubles are the most popular for us. All the initial rings, and the really colorful enamel pieces such as the Pop Drop earrings and the Ling Bling Rings, these are all staples and really popular with us. Anything I think that has a customizable touch is really big for us.

[Photo by BONBONWHIMS][/caption]Were there any media or music videos that inspired the look of your jewelry?

I am such a Sex and the City fan, and Carrie’s wardrobe is very chaotic and fun. She just wears whatever she wants. That really inspired me in terms of designing. I think of what those characters might wear. Just being really individualistic and wearing colors and not being afraid to just express who they are.

Since launching the brand, who have you collaborated with?

Our first big collaboration was actually with SVEDKA, last year. It’s very tropical, so we designed some jewelry that was very summer and color-inspired. We’ve done some movie-related collaborations. We did something for Not Okay, a Hulu movie and then most recently the Netflix collaboration with The School for Good and Evil. So we’ve done some collaborations ranging from beverages to TV shows and movies. So it was really exciting.

That’s so awesome. The Not Okay collaboration was so on point.

Thank you. I really loved working on that. It’s very ironic, and it’s a dark comedy. I think it’s a satire, talking about influencer culture and obviously Y2K trends. So it’s a really fun one. It’s a very big contrast with the Netflix one, but I think they’re both great.

[Photo by BONBONWHIMS][/caption]I know a lot of celebrities have worn your pieces and that’s also how the brand blew up. Who has been really influential in putting a spotlight on the brand?

Our first big celeb was Kylie Jenner, which is wild just considering her influence. She wore the pop drop earring which has become one of our most iconic skews, thanks to her as well. After that, I would say the most influential people who have worn our pieces are Ariana Grande and Olivia Rodrigo. Ariana wore a bunch of our resin chunky rings. Olivia Rodrigo wore the brutal ring that’s named after her song in the music video. And then SZA wore the custom initial rings we made for her.

How do you plan to expand your offerings?

We had a great moment with all the resin and acrylic baubles in the last year or so, and Y2K is always going to be a big part of the brand DNA, but I think we’re going to just elevate the brand a little bit and make it still colorful — still whimsical — but maybe [using] more precious metals or enamel and freshwater pearls to make it more timeless. That is how we are pivoting the brand a little bit while still being true to the Y2K brand ethos. We are actually going to expand a little bit outside of jewelry. We are playing with hair accessories [and are] actually creating some prototypes right now.


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