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Yu Mei designer Jessie Wong couldn’t find the perfect bag, so she created it herself 

PHOTOS BY YU MEI

WORDS BY AASTHA AGRAWAL

Find your OTB (one true bag).

Leaving the house to get some groceries? To meet a friend? Going on a date? I’m someone who always needs to carry around a bunch of essentials, from hand cream and lipstick to my portable charger and notebook. Having the basics by my side makes me feel self-sufficient and in case of any emergencies, I’ve got all I need right by my side. 

Handbag enthusiasts, however, will know how difficult it is to find that one true bag – a beautiful but sleek, durable piece that can hold the essentials without you having to rummage through or empty out the entirety of its contents. 


Keep up to date with ethical designers over at our Fashion section. 


New Zealand designer Jessie Wong is familiar with this struggle to find your one true bag, and out of necessity, she decided to make hers herself. Devoted to creating pared-back luxuries, Yu Mei bags were born from the ethos that simplicity is complexity resolved.

Yu Mei bags are built for purpose – Jessie wants the wearer to carry them with ease. Established in 2015, the Yu Mei brand is now a fashion-set favourite, known for its sustainable design principles, elegant design and multi-functional accessory staples.

Now showcasing for the first time in Australia at Chadstone’s New Zealand designer pop-up, Discover New, Wellington native Jessie sat down to give me some insight into her design processes, the Yu Mei product development process and the subtle ways in which her bags pay homage to her heritage.

Hi Jessie, to start off, I’d love it if you could introduce yourself and your brand, Yu Mei, to FJ readers.

Yeah, sure thing, my name is Jessie Wong and I am the founder and director of Yu Mei, which is a luxury leather goods label based in New Zealand. I studied fashion in New Zealand and I guess that’s how Yu Mei started. I’ve always had a real interest in craft and design and I couldn’t find a bag that would fit everything I needed in a day. As a modern, working woman I feel like it was a pretty common problem, so I ended up making one. I [also] found that there were other people in my wider community that had the same needs as I did…  so I was inspired by all of the people in my life who had this need that wasn’t being met. I called it the Braidy Bag.

 

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Since being established in 2015, Yu Mei has come so far and in a fairly short amount of time. Can you tell me what that journey has been like?

It all happened fairly quickly. I was 21 when I started, I was straight out of my degree and had this amazing connection with a tannery in the South Island called New Zealand Light LeathersI found this incredible material called deer nappa which is this really buttery-soft skin… it’s comparable to French lambskin but also has the strength of a cow hyde. New Zealand is the only place that farms it in the world. They’re incredible animals and they need a lot of space so ecologically….  they’re a lot better for our environment because you can’t overfarm them. 

New Zealand is known for its food and beverages and Deer Nappa is a really beautiful regenerative by-product of the venison industry. If we weren’t using it, it would go to waste, so it’s the perfect material. I think that was sort of the first key thing about Yu Mei that allowed it to grow as quickly as it has. There’s been a lot of learning and the business is completely self-owned. The team here is really to credit for its growth. We’ve spent a lot of time growing our team and we learned the whole process from the ground up… we’ve got a lot of love and support here.

Can you give us some insight into what inspires you? How does Chinese artistry come into play with your designs?

So I’m a third-generation Chinese-New Zealander and I guess there’s a lot of symbolism in my products. It’s not really something you’d necessarily notice, but a lot of the pieces relate to my heritage, such as the hardware, which is used in lots of threes and even design lines…  everything is balanced. What inspires me the most is wanting to create a really deliciously luxurious bag, a very practical and modest solution to carry every day. 

Who are some other New Zealand designers or brands that you like or think deserve more recognition?

Aw, everyone! I mean I always think that collaboration is just the best thing and it serves to make a body of work stronger. I am really excited about Knotty Rug, they make the most incredible silk rugs. I’m quite into interiors at the moment, just having finished our new market lounge, and we have a couple of those in there so [we’re] feeling very fortunate. Oh, there are just so many great brands, I mean Karen Walker and Juliette Hogan are obvious ones in our industry, but there are also incredible beauty brands like Ashley and Co. We all kind of know each other, so Discover New is a fun project for us to be a part of.

 

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What do you want those coming across Yu Mei for the first time to take away with them?

I think we would just really want Australian customers to know that we are a brand that is by real people, for real people. It’s a product that has integrity and its supply chain is made from regenerative sources. It’s here to provide a carrying solution that is functional, but also speaks to the aesthetic values that reflect my personality and the personalities of the people around me. We would just want to welcome anybody who’s interested into the Yu Mei community, which is called Club Yu Mei.

What’s next for Yu Mei? What are your future goals?

Our current range is all about the ‘art of packing’, which stemmed from one of our larger bags being named after a mentor of mine who travels a lot, Claudia Batten, and we’re pretty excited to be building on that. In terms of Australia, we’re looking forward to spending a bit of time getting to know the market and the people. The goal is to support our presence in David Jones and maybe one day there will be a Yu Mei lounge coming to Australia! 

Click here to find out more about Yu Mei and head here to check out Yu Mei at Discover New. 

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