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For Grace Hsin-Yuan Ko, Baobei (宝贝) is more than just a name for her brand — it's an ethos, a lifestyle and a community.
In an ideal world, the 26-year-old founder would like to see the noun incorporated into the English dictionary, to spread the core of its concept around: being someone who is relationship-centred, authentic, playful, original, disciplined, ambitious, and most importantly, "really hot!!!" The latter value, she explains, is about anyone who is striving towards confidence, self-acceptance and belief, rather than its usual definition.
This dedication to love is present throughout Baobei Label, which features hearts as its grounding force. Its most popular product, the LOVE U necklace, is a large heart outline pendant that comes in juicy pink, red and blue, but also appears as an image on a t-shirt alongside the words "I fucking love me so much".
Manifestation, affirmations and spiritual energy have become the norm on TikTok and Instagram, helping Gen Z find solace, comfort and control in their lives. Baobei Label is on board with the radical movement, with Ko sharing that she feels like she's running her whole business on affirmations, at times. "My mum called me a lucky girl for as long as I remember, she says I get everything I want and I will continue to get everything I want. So, from a young age, I would envision great, fun, exciting things happening to me," she tells Refinery29 Australia.
"Within the first few seconds of waking up, I’m already thinking positively [about] what incredible things could happen today, so that even if nothing happens, at least I induce confirmation bias. But something wild always happens!" Ko says it's the "five-second rule" that really helps action dreams into reality, which means taking acting action on an idea within five seconds of it popping into your mind. Whether it's a product idea she sends an enquiry to a designer about, or drafting an email to kickstart a potential collaboration can set the wheels in motion.
Ko says that the ultimate goal of Baobei Label is to "empower every single person in the world to feel free in expression, to feel connected to their inner child and to feel seen and heard in their heritage." This reconciling of the past with the present is deeply personal for Ko, who looked back to her childhood as a Chinese-New Zealander when choosing the name "Baobei".
"It’s the first thing my parents say when they pick up the phone from me," she says. "It means 'baby' or 'something precious' in Mandarin. I wanted a name that reflected my culture and my other language that I speak because so much of my identity is tied to it. It’s the best name I could’ve chosen. Sometimes being a business owner can be lonely and scary and having my label called Baobei feels like home."
Baobei Label started when Ko found deadstock beads from her parents' retail store and started experimenting with making jewellery, before launching in 2019. "My parents' shop is massive and filled with everything from fabrics to hoodies and fake flowers," says Ko. "When I was younger, me and my best friend would run around and play dress-ups — it was our playground."
Her parents are well-respected in the community, having operated their small business for over two decades, but Ko shares that it wasn't always easy for them as migrant workers. "They experienced a lot of racism and violence. Difficult customers would tell my mum to go back to her own country, my dad would come home with rips in his clothes from being beaten up after chasing thieves. We once had the news come to film because it started getting so bad."
Baobei is a way to honour my heritage and the way that it can get ugly, but knowing it’s going to be okay."
Grace Hsin-Yuan Ko
Seeing the way her parents were treated led to confusion and angst for Ko when growing up, and not feeling proud of what her parents did for work at the time. "As I grew older and more comfortable in my skin, heritage and self, I grew to love my culture and had a newfound appreciation for the shop and all that it did for my immigrant family," she reflects.
Because of how close Baobei Label is to Ko's own personal story — about being an Asian woman, about aspiration and love — she now focuses on creating a global network to nurture relationships for anyone who sees themselves as a Baobei. Ko says it's been incredibly rewarding to see her work transcend geographic borders as well. Baobei Label has been working with creatives in Sydney and Melbourne, who Ko describes as being so courageous with how they've embodied the pieces they wear. The best ways she's seen one of the LOVE U necklaces styled is as a charm on people's handbags, dangling off car rearview mirrors, or when a Chinese customer paired the pendant with a jade necklace, too.
While the bright hearts might steal the show, the string that houses them also holds significance. "The original red string was sentimental and cultural for me," explains Ko, of the thread meant to bring protection, fortune and luck. "I’m sentimental with my jewellery, especially the ones my grandparents have given me. They all have red string but I barely fit any of them anymore. I wanted to create something new for myself to wear that had the same sentiment" — and so, the first original LOVE U Pendant was born: pink heart, red string. But the red pendant version also has a special place in her heart: "Me and my best friend both have bright red hair. I love her very much," she says of the inspiration.
It may be cliché to say that love is all around, but through Baobei Label, Ko proves this is the actually case: Love for yourself, love for your family, your friends, like-minded individuals, and even extended to those who do you wrong. The brand challenges us to look inwards and extend that energy back out into the world. "Baobei is a way to honour my heritage and the way that it can get ugly, but knowing it’s going to be okay," says Ko. "It’s now grown into something much more; a way for me to connect to my community, a way to hyper-express myself and a means to play."