Jessie Wong couldn’t find a bag to hold everything that she needed to carry for a day, so six years ago she found herself designing one that would – and the rest is Yu Mei’s history. Designed with functionality and fashion at the forefront, Yu Mei bags are seen on the shoulder of almost every it-girl around town. Maddie Irvine caught up with the luxury leather label’s creative director and founder to talk handbags, the new concept Lounge in Newmarket and what makes Yu Mei so unique.
NEWMARKET. Tell us about why you started Yu Mei and just how the brand has grown over the last 5 years?
JESSIE. I started Yu Mei because I couldn’t find a bag that would hold everything I needed to carry in a day in a walking city. In six years, Yu Mei has gone from myself and my Head of Design & Production, Adrian making each bag ourselves, to having three of our own retail lounges, a team of 16, over 30 stockists in Australasia, and a world class supply chain. I’m so proud of how we’ve grown and developed – and all the people that have had a hand in helping us along the way. We have big ambitions and this is still just the beginning of our journey, though opening our Newmarket Lounge felt like a significant milestone in our story.
N. What makes Yu Mei different to other premium leather goods labels on the market?
J. It sounds absurd, but so many bag brands today don’t consider the utility of their product. The core reason I started the brand is still an issue today – that many handbags on the market are designed based on a blueprint of women’s role in society over 100 years ago. They’re cute and can store your lipstick but aren’t practical for the modern working woman who carries her laptop and her lunchbox too. So, on one hand it’s the utility of our designs, but there’s also the regenerative materials we use and our ambition to innovate further in this space. We use premium South Island farmed deer nappa, a by-product of New Zealand’s venison industry that would otherwise be waste – which is a buttery soft skin that people fall in love with. As a bonus, it has a particularly low ecological footprint and stringent standards around how the animals are farmed. To summarise, it’s the combination of thoughtful design and quality materials coming together in a product that actually works, without compromising on style or integrity.
N. Can you tell us about the first bag you ever designed?
J. The Braidy Bag is still our bestseller and was the first style I designed, six years ago. This was to solve the conundrum of carrying a laptop every day without being limited to a Kathmandu backpack or a bulky tech case. I think the reason New Zealanders love the Braidy bag so much is because it speaks to a do-it-all mentality: you can be a professional working woman and use the same bag for your weekend activities; you can be a busy mum and not sacrifice style for functionality. I firmly believe that looking good and being useful should not be mutually exclusive.
N. Yu Mei is owned and operated in New Zealand, with bags manufactured in China at one of the top leather manufacturers in the world. What were the factors that led to you choosing to shift production offshore?
J. I always had ambition to grow, and we quickly got to the point where we couldn’t keep up with demand, so we spent around three years building the relationship with our manufacturing partner, who we now consider part of our extended Yu Mei whānau. They have taught us new techniques and we have shared so much together; it’s been a very rewarding experience. Since moving production to China, we have endured a few negative and xenophobic comments from people who aren’t educated around the incredible craftsmanship, skill and innovation in the Chinese industry. We work to actively dismantle this thinking and celebrate Chinese culture through my heritage (proudly half-Chinese), and the premium quality of our leather goods.
N. What is the meaning behind the brand name, Yu Mei?
J. Yu Mei is my middle name. It loosely translates to ‘young and beautiful,’ which I think is really sweet.
N. Where do you find inspiration for the names of each of your bags?
J. As a brand so focused on utility, we name each of the bags after the person whose need inspired its design. The Braidy Bag was named after my friend Braidy, who needed a bag that could fit all her belongings for a studious day in the Law library. The Frank Cardholder is named after my dad. It’s like the swiss army knife of wallets – compact and with all the features but none of the fuss, just like Frank himself. Over time, these stories have become a way for our community to identify themselves – are you an organised Rebecca who likes compartments and pockets or are you a Georgie who, prone to misplacing things, needs multiple zips to contain all of your loose items? It gives our bags real personality, while simultaneously appealing to real people – there’s a bit of Rebecca or Georgie in all of us and I think people like that they can relate to the product in that way.
N. Name 5 things that are always in your handbag.
J. It’s going to sound like a shameless plug, but it really is the truth that within my Yu Mei bag are smaller Yu Mei leather goods – my Key Fob, Grace Wallet, Matt Glasses Case, and Emily Makeup Pouch are always with me to keep things safe and easily transferable to other, bigger bags. I have the whole set in this season’s Coconut Shell colourway – a beautiful rich brown. Aside from that, I’m never without my Mason Pearson hairbrush (I live in windy Wellington, so this is an essential) and a lip balm – the best is by La Mer. No frivolous or niche items here – I’m a practical and real person, just getting on with it, I like to invest in quality things that will last.
N. Can you describe your personal style? How has this influenced your designs?
J. My love of blazers has been well-documented, so it’s little surprise to anyone who knows me that I’m always in a blazer and a wide legged pant. My approach to dressing very much mirrors my approach to design – it’s minimal, functional and there’s always an emphasis on quality pieces that will last. Our collections are seasonless and designed to last a lifetime, so I’m all about investing in well-made pieces you will cherish forever. Aside from my uniform-like dress code, I do love to experiment with accessories and have amassed a fabulous collection of shoes. I think if you invest in good shoes and a good bag, you will always look polished.
N. Yu Mei’s newest boutique in Newmarket is a vision which goes beyond most traditional retail stores, with gallery space, two lounges and room for events and meetings. Could you tell us more about your new store and why you chose to create such a space?
J. What we found with our other two Lounges is that they became meeting places for our community, so we wanted the new Newmarket space to be responsive to this. It doesn’t follow the traditional retail concept – instead the brief was ‘residential’ because I wanted it to feel warm, for each person who enters to feel like they’re being welcomed into my home. It’s about building genuine connections and sharing ideas, so we created a space that was conducive to that. Each of our stores also speaks to our alignment with the visual arts, which is a key part of our community building, and highlighting emerging talent, especially female artists. We recently acquired a sculpture by Yona Lee that’s on display in the gallery in our Newmarket Lounge.
N. Speaking of retail spaces – how important do you consider that bricks and mortar retail is in New Zealand, considering the evolution of ecommerce?
J. There will always be a place for both, particularly for Yu Mei as our products are so tactile. I’m excited about the future of ecommerce, but I also feel like the connection and rapport, as well as the level of service you receive in store cannot yet be matched by the online experience. There’s a richness of storytelling – provenance, place and purpose – that our Lounges convey in more nuanced ways than we could achieve online. Another thing we found is that for our community, buying a bag is often a ceremonial occasion – a job promotion, graduation or another life milestone reached. And it’s always nice to host people, to have a bottle of champagne ready to celebrate and share in the memories.
N. Can you tell us more about Club Yu Mei?
J. Club Yu Mei has come about rather naturally. As Yu Mei has grown, a community of like-minded people has built itself organically around the brand, so Club Yu Mei is just the formalisation of this. We found that people like to keep up with us, so we built the Club to share these stories and ideas, as well as host events, launch brand collaborations and have a bit of fun.
N. Yu Mei is committed to responsible consumption and cultivating sustainable habits, one way in which this is achieved is through the Buyback Initiative. Could you explain more about this?
J. I feel a personal responsibility for every product Yu Mei puts out into the world, so having a circularity programme was always an important consideration. Our Buyback Initiative works to reduce waste and keep each bag in circulation for longer. You can return your used bag for a credit towards your next purchase and we’ll refurbish and repair the bag, before selling it on in our annual Archive Event to live out its fabulous second life. In addition to being a naturally renewable material, leather is also very long lasting. The value of leather goods doesn’t diminish – another wonderful feature of having a seasonless product like accessories – and we wanted to teach our community about this value, because we have respect for the life of the deer before it became a Yu Mei bag.
N. Yu Mei’s AW21 collection The Art of Packing is the brand’s first complete range of small leather goods. Could you tell us how the collection works together and if you will extend on this particular range in upcoming collections?
J. Our intuitive designs are based on the needs of people close to me, or informed by my own experiences and I began thinking about how men’s clothes have a plethora of pockets, which are so useful, but at the same time can be limiting. So this idea of modular pockets came to mind for our bags. Instead of being fixed to the bag or garment like a traditional pocket, I designed them as a set of leather goods you can combine in ways to suit your lifestyle. The small and medium-sized leather goods fit within our larger holdall styles and are all designed with specific dimensions to be slimline, but fit for the purpose of housing your laptop or makeup or loyalty cards etc, without bulk. I love the philosophy of optimisation, because when you’re organised you feel prepared and ready to get on with the job – life has enough obstacles and finding your keys needn’t be one of them. As we collect more lived experiences, and inevitably as our lives change, we will find our needs in a bag (or the things within it) change, so there are definitely product extensions in the works for future seasons. If you have a need, please get in touch with us – it could be your name on the product!
QUICK FIRE QUESTIONS
N. Do you have a quote that you live by? If so, what is it?
J. “Never a problem, only solutions” which has served me so well in the past 18 months of plans being upended by the pandemic, having to be agile and adaptable, and always keeping an open mind.
N. What advice would you give to young aspiring designers that you wish you had known when you were starting out?
J. Be relentless, and no one knows what they’re doing until they’re doing it.
N. It’s 10am on a Saturday morning, what would we find you doing?
J. I’m most likely working in the garden with my partner, Jack, or bugging him to work on the garden. We have a limited window for planting before Spring so our landscaping project is in full swing.
N. Which three artists would we find on repeat on your Spotify currently?
J. Harper Finn, and anything on a Sebastian Hunt playlist.
N. What is next for Yu Mei?
J. Developing our regenerative supply chain, Australia and extending our product range to be more gender neutral.