Asia’s Most Stylish: Meet Yoyo Cao, the Social Media Superstar
The rise of Instagram has brought about a tidal wave of change in fashion. What started as a social media application that allowed users to share pictures has ushered in a further democratisation, conceding a voice to anyone with a smartphone. In the era of upended hierarchical structures, where the role of a gatekeeper rests with a select few, now stands a league of individuals who have harnessed the platform’s power to their advantage. Yoyo Cao is part of that tribe.
A street style darling, social media influencer and fashion entrepreneur rolled into one, Cao is undoubtedly one of Singapore’s biggest and brightest style stars. Her foray into the fashion industry began in 2010 when she opened Exhibit, a humble multi-label store in Far East Plaza along Orchard Road.
The venture offered a glimpse of her talents: she demonstrated a discerning eye by stocking unique and affordable pieces, as well as a clear knack for styling. She promoted the boutique by posting cleverly styled outfits on Instagram under the handle @yoyokulala. She has currently put Exhibit, which evolved into a full-fledged label with in-house designs in 2014, on hiatus with plans for a rebrand in the future.
If she had existed in fashion’s outer orbit then, Instagram soon put her at the centre of it all. From tie-dye T-shirts to frothy designer dresses, Cao’s uncanny ability to pull off a myriad of styles with aplomb quickly earned her an audience both at home and abroad.
Today, the 32-year-old boasts more than 400,000 followers on Instagram, leading the pack of social media stars in the little red dot. Her carefully curated images is the mood board of every aspiring stylesetter—it shows Cao having breakfast in a swanky Ritz Paris suite one moment, then sitting front row at a Christian Dior fashion show in Marrakech the next.
Cao’s interest in fashion began in Macau, where she was born. “It stemmed largely from watching my mother when I was growing up. I have long admired just how put together she looks all the time,” she tells us. After moving to Singapore in her late teens to study, she began experimenting and searching for her own style and discovered her predilection for pantsuits.
Even though she has perfected her sartorial formula over the years, it hasn’t stopped her from expanding her repertoire. “I’m constantly reinventing my style and my dress code changes according to my mood that day,” she notes. “Lately, I’ve been leaning towards more feminine looks. If there’s one thing that has remained a constant is my knack for mixing and matching. And I love borrowing from the boys!”
When it comes to naming the fashion designers she admires, Cao gravitates towards those with “an extensive design vocabulary” as well those with “a signature style”. The intellectual leanings of Phoebe Philo’s creations when she held stewardship at Céline; Nicolas Ghesquière’s bold remix of the past to concoct a wardrobe for the future at Louis Vuitton; as well as Pierpaolo Piccioli’s emotive interpretation of romance at Valentino have all struck a chord with her.
Among the new crop of designers that she’s keeping tabs on include Cecilie Bahnsen and Peter Do. The former is a Danish designer who is making waves with her voluminous frocks, while the latter is a New York-based designer known for his impeccable tailoring and sleek aesthetic. “They both have different styles but I think they are doing a great job at creating a market for their designs. I don’t think I would ever tire of Do’s contemporary basics and Bahnsen’s sense of playfulness,” she says.
KEEPING IT REAL
Like many before her, Cao’s social media use began as a means to document her life before fame came knocking on her doors. Her meteoric rise couldn’t have been better timed—it dovetailed with Asia’s growing importance as a market for the fashion industry.
If bloggers such as Susie Bubble and Bryanboy paved the way and put Asia on the fashion map with their insightful and witty commentaries, then Cao is part of a second wave of Asian faces. Fellow luminaries include Korean model Irene Kim and social media heavyweight Aimee Song, who have lent their presence to train fashion’s spotlight on the continent.
(Related: How 10 Asian Designers Held Their Own At Fashion Week)
Over the years, Cao has partnered with renowned brands such as Bulgari, Chaumet, Gucci, Roger Vivier and Tiffany & Co on projects that solidified her standing in the fashion circle. For her to be able to collaborate with that calibre of international fashion names only goes to show the cachet of Yoyo Cao as a brand name, one that she has developed through a strong point of view and, most importantly, authenticity.
“You can never go wrong with being yourself. I’m not trying to be anyone else other than myself on Instagram and I think it shows,” Cao observes. Her embodiment of cool—one that’s highly stylised and yet approachable—has also given her an edge over cookie-cutter influencers proliferating the network.
Through the changing trends and algorithms, Cao believes that staying true to your taste and being professional goes a long way in the industry. “This has a lot to do with the brands that I partner with and building a relationship with them. Naturally, if you have a comfortable working relationship with brands, they would be open to discussion and creative input from my end as well. I also make it a point to work with brands that I really believe in. That way, both our brand philosophies are in line.”
Cases in point: her induction into online retail behemoth Net-a-Porter’s The Net Set, a style council that included celebrity trendsetters such as Laura Bailey and Poppy Delevingne, where she lent her expertise by recommending fashion week-worthy finds for a community of like-minded enthusiasts. In 2018, Cao collaborated with edgy Korean eyewear label Gentle Monster to release a pair of sunglasses to mark the opening of its second Singapore store in The Shoppes at Marina Bay Sands. The special sunglass design melded her personal aesthetic and the brand’s ethos of pushing boundaries to great effect.
In 2016, Cao started her own website, yoyokulala.com, which was a logical progression for her brand. Having a website gives her a space to dive deeper into a wide range of topics that interests her, be it discussing the latest beauty trends or musing on the wonders of travel.
Cao thrives in the fast-paced nature of the online realm, adding: “I don’t necessarily think of it as pressure. I think it’s actually a lot of fun keeping up with social media. It keeps me on my toes and challenges me to think of innovative ways of putting out content. It’s really exciting for me.”
For example, during Singapore's circuit breaker period to stem the spread of Covid-19, Cao held a series of Instagram Live sessions dubbed Kulala TV as a means to diversify content across her platforms, stay connected with her extensive network, as well as entertain her followers. The lively series featured tastemakers from various industries, who shared their thoughts on topics such as branding and entrepreneurship.
A NEW PERSPECTIVE
Fashion’s history is marked by periods of change and upheavals. Today, the industry is facing its biggest challenge yet, as calls for reform intensify in the shadows of the coronavirus crisis.
“I think the industry has been forced to address concerns that have long been swept under the rug,” Cao says. “For instance, fashion’s quick pace and fast turnover is something that is being contemplated. In the future, designers will definitely pay more attention to creating pieces that are meant to wear well with time rather than just [focused on] seasonal trends.”
On the industry’s commitment to sustainability, Cao thinks it is a gradual change but the industry has taken steps in the right direction. “The conversation has been a long time coming but as they say, better late than never. Like everyone else, I’ve been paying more attention to the clothes that I purchase. Rather than seasonal pieces, I’ve been investing in pieces that I intend to keep in my wardrobe for a long time.” Style staples such as blazers, shirts and denim pieces continue to top her list.
Beyond being a trendsetting tour de force, Cao also wears other hats—the newest of which is a loving mother to her two-year-old son. It is a role she has slipped into with characteristic elegance. And contrary to what you would expect of her bubbly personality, Cao describes herself as being a bit of an authoritarian figure at home.
“When it comes to parenting, I take a very balanced approach,” she says. “As much as I shower him with love, I think discipline is incredibly important. Raising a well-mannered, kind-natured child is a priority for me.”
If there is something the disruption in international travel has given this frequent flyer, it is the precious time she gets to spend with her son.
“This has been the longest I’ve not travelled, and spending all the time with my son has been very rewarding. Being a mother has taught me to cherish the moments. They really do grow up too fast!” Now, no amount of “likes” can top that.
- Photography Joel Lim
- Styling Jolene Lin