Bonnae Gokson emerges from the loft of her friend Doris Magsaysay-Ho’s top-floor apartment in a BGC high-rise, dressed casual-chic in monochromatic black, accessorized with leopard prints—a thin belt, large tote and ballet flats.
This has been her home the past couple of days leading up to the successful Manila launch of her coffee-table book, “Butterflies and All Things Sweet: The Story of Ms. B’s Cakes,” the previous evening.
The Hong Kong socialite, restaurateur and hospitality entrepreneur has been a frequent Manila visitor in the past 20 years, having made very good Filipino friends, including Ho and, her companion this afternoon, restaurateur and baker Ginny Roces de Guzman, who is here to pick her up for lunch. Gokson says she turned in at 3 a.m. and hasn’t eaten a thing since, so did I mind if we chatted on the way to the restaurant.
They weren’t headed to a fancy restaurant, but a Tex-Mex-style chain diner in a Makati mall where Gokson happily picked her favorites. De Guzman attests that her friend is a lot more down-to-earth than people might imagine, given her illustrious background.
Gokson used to work with her sister, Joyce Ma, the founder of the high-end retailers Joyce Group, before she embarked on her own culinary and hospitality ventures: the Hong Kong restaurant bar Sevva, cafés called C’est la B, and Ms B’s Cakery. She credits De Guzman for inspiring her to open a cake shop; the Filipina was the owner of the trailblazing restaurant of the ’80s, Sugarhouse.
She scans her phone album to show me her photos with celebrities Jennifer Lopez, Sting, Karolina Kurkova; the interiors of her cafés and restaurant; a cake she created for Lady Gaga; her portrait by Mark Nicdao; images from “Butterflies,” and outtakes from the “Kulinarya” book shoot with Neal Oshima in HK.
The soft-spoken style icon shares her insights on fashion, leaving the business of fashion, the pursuit of fame in the age of social media, and why she loves coming back to Manila.
What have you observed about the style habits of Asian women today?
Asian women are very modern. Everyone wants to be fashionable. They aspire to a lot of things.
Do you find this to be a good thing?
Sometimes it’s good, sometimes it’s not. When all of a sudden money comes to you much easier… The media comes up with a lot of things that change people’s perception, like, for example, in Hong Kong where I live, a lot are about the more materialistic things. I would prefer that the media show more of the positive things, the happier things. Don’t you feel that when you listen to the news and read the newspapers and it’s all about the negative?
Do you feel that women are still obsessed with owning the latest designer things, the hottest gadgets?
It depends on which city and country.
In HK, especially.
Yes, but there are also those who concentrate on just having a wonderful home life. Younger people tend to be more obsessed with the latest and the hottest of everything, be it an iPhone or anything. But there are people who are calm and not into this whole thing.
Is this something that should be discouraged, especially by someone like you who comes from fashion retail?
I still consider myself very much into the fashion scene, because of people I know who are in the field of luxury brands and designers. It’s good, and sometimes it’s not good.
With social media, everybody wants to be photographed, be Instagrammed…
You mean in a Kardashian way? (Laughs)
I think this will pass. People go through a certain phase. It’s nice to be in a magazine, for them it’s new, but it passes. There will always be a certain crowd like that in every city.
Do you get a lot of people who want to be friends, to be associated with you, who approach you for your connections?
Yes. I know what you mean and I’ve gone through years of that. Sometimes you meet genuine people, but sometimes you also meet some who have motives about your connections and things like that. I keep to myself with a lot of things, that’s why I work very hard and I love what I do, to keep myself away from all these [people].
How has your style evolved through the years?
Through a lot of exposure, travels. Upbringing is very important, so everything adds up. I’ve been very grateful with what I have today.
What sacrifices have you made in the name of fashion? Do you still wear sky-high, backbreaking heels?
(Laughs) I have a lot of shoes, and when you talk about shoes, I wear my highest, tallest shoes just around my closet because I can’t walk in them; sometimes they’re just too ridiculously high. I have them but I don’t really wear them. I’m always in flats. When I have to, I wear heels, but I run around from one place to another, but to work I can’t be in high heels. Only in nighttime when I have to go to a dressy occasion. I always think there should be some party or competition that men should have made [high-heel] shoes in their sizes and try to walk because they need to experience what we experience, so they can design really, really good shoes to help our arches.
A lot of the famous shoe designers are men.
Yes. They can step up and walk for a little bit [in them] but they don’t know the hard floors and standing in them for the longest time.
What does being a style icon mean to you? Does that put pressure on you?
It does not. Would you believe, now I’m being called the “queen of confections”? I’ve never, ever dreamed about that. I’ve worked in fashion, and I’m very, very flexible, I don’t have one look. You want me to be funky, I can be funky, and I can be very elegant another day. I know when it’s too much, I see the fine line on when to stop. I’ve managed my eyes…
What got you into setting up a cake shop?
Years ago when my sister started Joyce, and under the Joyce Group we had hundreds of brands, beautiful stores, lifestyle stores, I started Joyce Café. When I came to Manila, I was so in love with Sugarhouse’s fudge cake, and my friend here [former Sugarhouse owner Ginny Roces-De Guzman] was the one who made all those fudge cakes. When I started my restaurant-bar Sevva, we made this fudge cake and a lot of new recipes…
I meant to ask about your name. You’ve changed the spelling.
I’ve changed it this recent year. I went through a Kabbalah formation…
What else are you passionate about?
I’m passionate about life in general. To keep me going, I love music, arts, anything creative. I love to learn. I love photography.
How do you put balance in your life?
I’ve always been spiritual. I only go to doctors who are naturopaths. I’ve been leading a holistic life for years. That’s a part of me that people don’t know.
Ginny: She’s always been into meditation.
Bonnae: I still do that in the morning.
How do you think you’re influencing others?
Ginny: You can ask me that. We’re very unlikely friends. She’s glamour girl, I’m a baker mom with five children. We met through Sugarhouse. Even people are surprised. We met through cakes. I try to pick up from her fashion sense, she always gives me beauty tips.
Bonnae: They see me as a glamour girl but in my life, with my friends we have good times together and low times together. That’s what friendship is all about. You can’t always do these glamour things. I’ve had the most glamorous highs not just in HK but worldwide, but everyday life is not like that.
Ginny: When I used to go to HK, I’d tell her, I saw your photos in the sidewalk, you’re the cover of something. Then I saw your face, they’re using it to wrap fish. (Laughs) I got used to seeing her face all over…
Bonnae: I don’t think of myself as, Oh wow! I don’t change my personality. Some people when they get rich overnight or something, they change. I’ve always been pretty steady. And it shows through my friends. I’ve kept the same friends.
I’ve been coming to this country for 20 years. I’ve very good friends here. Doris Ho is a dear friend. (Ho, with friends Linda McAfee, Ricco and Tina Ocampo, and Anton San Diego, hosted Gokson’s book launch.) I support the Philippines a lot. I used to have a radio program, “In The Mood with Ms B,” and I was the first to bring in all your top artists in my show. I introduced Filipino music in there. I’ve also started working with Ginny on a book they’re doing called “Kulinarya.” I styled one shot.
How different is fashion from food and hospitality?
I chose two of the hardest businesses. I have a friend who is known as America’s hospitality king, and he told me when he heard that I’d go into the hospitality business, “Bonnae, do you know that you’ll have one foot in the grave?”
I love to take challenges and I took my challenge. The biggest is people, training staff. Young people don’t like to be serving anymore. They don’t wanna learn English. It’s very difficult if the team is fighting. Even in fashion, it’s super political. There’s a lot of jealousy.
A lot of people might think that because you were born to privilege, everything was handed down to you.
I have friends who don’t really need to work, who enjoy a great life, I don’t know how much enjoyment though but they lead a fabulous life, private jets and things like that. And I’ve chosen my path, and maybe this is my path to, I don’t know, give back.
For example, why I’m in this sweets business is because I’ve seen how happy it makes people. Even that speck of a second that you’ve made people happy is very, very good. We do it with heart, my team.
What do you like most about Manila?
Oh, my goodness, the smiles, the generosity, hospitality, the music. I like to explore and I’ve been out of Manila but not in recent years because I don’t have the time. Luxury is time, it’s not just a handbag.