BAGS OF TAL­ENT Meet the de­signer be­hind Yu Mei

Jessie Wong’s bag busi­ness is Welling­ton based but her suc­cess story is a pre­dom­i­nantly South Is­land tale, says Phoebe Watt

Fashion Quarterly - - Contents -

Study­ing fash­ion at

univer­sity was a no-brainer for Jessie. “I’ve sewn since I was 11.

It was a hobby I never got sick of”

Last year, Jessie Wong made 500 bags with her bare hands. Fol­low­ing a suc­cess­ful round of buy­ers ap­point­ments at New Zealand Fash­ion Week in Au­gust, her leather-wear brand Yu Mei was picked up by nine stock­ists – the coup be­ing Good as Gold, which signed on to carry Yu Mei in its Welling­ton and Auck­land stores. In keep­ing with the fash­ion in­dus­try’s sched­ule, Jessie had planned to de­liver the first drop of her would-be A/W 2016 range ‘Make Noise’ to stock­ists in Fe­bru­ary. In­stead, she says, they all wanted it for Christ­mas, “and I was say­ing yes to ev­ery­thing at the time”. She worked fu­ri­ously for the rest of the year – some­times mak­ing up to 20 bags a day – to en­sure orders would meet the early dead­line. By March, weeks af­ter it was sup­posed to be hit­ting stores, the col­lec­tion had al­most sold out.

It’s no won­der that in the wake of this whirl­wind, Jessie out­grew her Dunedin work­shop. Orig­i­nally from Welling­ton, it’s also no sur­prise that when con­sid­er­ing her re­lo­ca­tion, a stu­dio on Lambton Quay be­came the most log­i­cal op­tion. How­ever, four years ear­lier, when choos­ing be­tween de­sign de­grees at Welling­ton’s Massey Univer­sity and Otago Poly­tech­nic in Dunedin, she was drawn to the lat­ter for a change of scenery.

Study­ing fash­ion at univer­sity was a no-brainer for Jessie. “I’ve sewn since I was 11,” she re­veals. “It was a hobby I never got sick of.” What set her on the path to be­com­ing the univer­sity's res­i­dent “bag lady”, how­ever, was a cross­dis­ci­pline pop-up shop elec­tive that she took in her first year. The brief was to cre­ate a prod­uct that would act like a busi­ness card. “It was sup­posed to de­fine your per­son­al­ity,” Jessie says. So she took her in­ter­est in leather and ap­pre­ci­a­tion for a hard-wear­ing pair of Dr Martens and set about cre­at­ing her first leather bag. The mis­sion state­ment that ac­com­pa­nied the prod­uct told of its be­ing de­signed “to weather your jour­ney with you; each new scratch and mark an­other ad­ven­ture in your story”. Now used across all of Yu Mei’s mar­ket­ing, it’s as much a mis­sion state­ment as it is an em­blem of Jessie's com­mit­ment to func­tional fash­ion.

“Take ‘Make Noise’,” says Jessie, when asked about her prag­matic ap­proach to de­sign. “Be­hind ev­ery bag in that col­lec­tion was a friend of mine who had a spe­cific need.” In­deed, there’s the minia­ture cross-body Luci bag – named af­ter Jessie’s lit­tle sis­ter who “can be a bit of a li­a­bil­ity on a night out”. Then there’s the Maxwell duf­fel and the Hazel back­pack (both named af­ter way­far­ing friends),

and the Braidy bag, which was in­spired by a class­mate who could never find a bag big enough to hold all of her univer­sity es­sen­tials. “It sounds so ob­vi­ous,” says Jessie of her best-seller. “She just needed a bag to put her books and lap­top in.”

While the idea of nam­ing a bag af­ter a per­son isn’t new (the Her­mès Birkin was so-named be­cause Jane Birkin couldn’t find a week­end bag she liked), in many cases a fa­mous name is hitched to a bag in order to con­vince a cus­tomer that their own­er­ship of said bag will el­e­vate them to the sta­tus of its name­sake. The rel­a­tive anonymity of Yu Mei’s Braidy and Luci, on the other hand, im­plies that th­ese bags have been de­signed for or­di­nary peo­ple with or­di­nary needs, and that, says Jessie, is where the ap­peal lies. “Ev­ery­one knows a Braidy, ev­ery­one knows a Luci. They’re per­sonas we can all re­late to.”

Yu Mei bags might be de­signed with univer­sal needs in mind, but the man­u­fac­tur­ing is de­cid­edly lo­cal. Jessie learned ev­ery­thing she knows about bag­mak­ing from Bill Drake of Drake Leather in Dunedin. “He’s the leather guru of the South Is­land,” says Jessie, ex­plain­ing that she was ini­tially “pretty scared of him”, but now thinks of him as fam­ily. “He never charged me for any­thing,” she says. “He just made me do it my­self. I’d take my de­signs there, sit in his space and use his tools and learn from him – how to put in an eye­let, how to make a belt.”

Jessie sources leather from New Zealand Light Leathers in Ti­maru – 200km from Dunedin, it’s a world-class tan­nery with a client base that in­cludes Louis Vuit­ton, Gucci and Prada. It’s also a busi­ness that’s been in­te­gral to Yu Mei’s suc­cess, sup­port­ing Jessie through­out her de­gree and nam­ing her the re­cip­i­ent of the New Zealand Light Leathers Fash­ion De­sign award at Welling­ton Fash­ion Week in 2014. The prize – 10 hides, plus cash – kept Jessie go­ing un­til later that year when she won a $10,000 AMP Na­tional Schol­ar­ship. The big­gest game-changer in the Yu Mei story to date, the schol­ar­ship not only gave Jessie the means to get her busi­ness off the ground, but it con­nected her with men­tor Jus­tine Troy, co-founder of 42 Be­low, from whom she once learned a valu­able les­son in email eti­quette. “I sent her an email about drinks spon­sor­ship for a launch event and in her re­sponse she said all this nice stuff. But at the end she added ‘one more thing, less words’. That was it. Less words, full stop. It’s some­thing univer­sity doesn’t teach you.”

An in­valu­able op­por­tu­nity that Jessie’s de­gree did pro­vide was an ex­change to Shang­hai – Dunedin’s sis­ter city. Jessie is half Chi­nese (Yu Mei means ‘young and beau­ti­ful’ in Chi­nese, and is Jessie’s mid­dle name), so she had vis­ited China be­fore. She says it was eye­open­ing, though, be­ing there with peo­ple who were ex­pe­ri­enc­ing it for the first time. The trip also alerted her to the Chi­nese mar­ket’s “fad­ing ob­ses­sion” with lux­ury, her­itage brands. “It’s very much an older gen­er­a­tion thing to want an in­stantly recog­nis­able de­signer bag,” she says, ex­plain­ing that younger peo­ple are more likely to look for a unique bag by an emerg­ing de­signer at a lower price point. “In that sense it’s a re­ally good time to think about en­ter­ing the Asian mar­ket.”

De­spite ob­serv­ing the mar­ket shift in China, I ask Jessie if there’s still a sta­tus bag on her wish list. “I’d feel like I was cheat­ing on Yu Mei a lit­tle bit,” she says. “But a Ce­line bag... you can’t go past it.”

“The younger gen­er­a­tion is more

likely to look for a unique bag by an emerg­ing

de­signer at a lower price point”

De­signer and Yu Mei founder, Jessie Wong. The best-sell­ing Braidy bag from the ‘Make Noise’ col­lec­tion will fea­ture again in the fol­low-up col­lec­tion ‘Frac­tions’, which is due out in May.

Pieces from Yu Mei’s new col­lec­tion ‘Frac­tions, AW16 Part 2’. Above: Jessie Wong in her Welling­ton work­shop. Left: Yu Mei bags are made from pre­mium deer nappa, sourced from the tan­nery favoured by Louis Vuit­ton.

A bag from the ‘Frac­tions’ col­lec­tion.

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