An Interview with founder & Creative Director Jessie Wong


If Yu Mei were a woman who would it be? 
If Yu Mei were a woman, she would be a combination of all the amazing women I know with undertones of Phoebe Philo.

If Yu Mei were an artwork, which would it embody? 
Nadya! So hard. At the moment an Yves Klein blueprint mixed with some Dali in a surreal mindwarp.

If  Yu Mei was hosting a dinner party what would she make me? ;) 
At this time of year, she'd make the Coq au Vin that you and Elie brought to the studio for lunch the other day - so delicious and perfect for the weather. Her potatoes probably wouldn't be as good as yours though. And maybe that truffle pasta from Saturday night. I envy your food life, hard.

What prompted you to begin Yu Mei Bags? 
I’ve always wanted to create my own label – I started sewing when I was 11 and clearly remember when I was about 15 deciding to become a fashion designer. Such a great naivety, which a lot of people love to scorn especially in young people - but at the same time I was very self confident and focused. After high school in Wellington I moved down to Dunedin to study a B.Des in Fashion and was introduced to the wonderful deer nappa that we still use for Yu Mei bags. I made my first bag in an elective with the brief to ‘create a product, cross discipline, that represented you like a business card would’. My first mood board presentation was to create a bag like a good pair of Doc Martins that would weather your journey with you, each new scratch and mark another adventure in your story. It grew organically from there.


You are currently two years into your business. It seems like Yu Mei has been around for much longer. What do you put your success and rapid growth down too thus far? Your living somewhat of a fashion start up business dream! 
I think it’s about creating a beautifully refined product that people will respond well to, focusing on it and put it out there - be able to tell people what you’re doing in a way that will inspire them to get on board with vision.
I applied for an AMP National Scholarship mid way through my final year of my degree, and the week before I graduated I made it to the final round of interviews. Post student life there were zero funds in the bank, so that was a real leg up. I want to say it’s luck but also believe that you have to work relatively hard to get yourself into those positions. Drive, perseverance, focus are probably the three main things I’d put it down to - and in building a team I’ve had to look for people with those qualities. We would have never grown as much as we have without Adrian, my production manager. He’s the dream man and has had great industry experience in managing studios and generally being my cheerleader for life, I owe a lot to him.


Can you tell us a bit about the inspiration beyond your SS17 collection ‘Based on a true story’? 
Based on a True Story is a reflection of our growth as a business. I don’t think you ever went down to our first Wellington studio but there were no windows – the change to the new studio really felt like a growth spurt for us. Not only did the team grow, but it felt like the space itself and all it’s beautiful natural light had the power to expand our mindsets – sort of like how fish grow to the size of their tank.

I always use artist models to reference concepts for collections, a habit from school. This time I was looking at two quite contrasting artists – a sculptor, Don Brown who produces cheeky marble figures and Matisse – the opposite in a sense with his very organic line drawings. The correlation here was that the new styles almost wandered into that new, more sculptural territory whereas previously we’d been very much about the organic drape. Read Caughley Bag vs Braidy Bag. Caughley grows the Yu Mei customer into a more sophisticated, structured space, yet the collection remains a very much Yu Mei aesthetic.

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When I was lucky enough to view this range (SS17) I noted the detailing in the pieces were so refined and the designs were edited so beautifully. How do you continue to grow the leather based range and develop your design aesthetic without losing the Yu Mei voice?
The Yu Mei voice is all about the details, proportion and keeping those consistent. The initial bags were a reaction to what was on offer at the time and the lack of beautiful, refined goods in New Zealand that didn’t have too many embellishments. ‘Simplicity is complexity resolved’ was the foundation on which the details were built. We don’t add anything just for the sake of it, but in a way that restrained edit is harder to achieve.

We’re definitely not perfect, but it’s getting more clear with each season. A few common threads in the collections are the lower center placement of the branding, the three dome studs, the pattern lines, saddle stitching and the deer nappa. You’ll notice that from the Becca to the Braidy, the sides of the bags all resemble the sides of plastic shopping bags you get at supermarkets – which are solely built that way for their utilitarian purpose of being strong enough for your groceries, a detail which is very reflective of the Yu Mei ethos.

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A lot of people are surprised that all of your products are made here in Wellington. Why have you chosen to set up Yu Mei here? 
Home is where the heart is. I grew up here and there is nowhere like Wellington. Everything is central and there is a great creative buzz. Everyone knows everyone so there will always be a helping hand of someone to chat to… and the weather isn’t that great so I actually have to do work some of the time. You know how they say you can’t beat Welly on a good day? That’s why.


Do you think being based in Wellington has an effect on your design/work process? 
Yes definitely, all my collections are informed by what’s happening in my life. At the moment there is such a strong focus on culturing the design and fashion community around us with Open Studios etc that gives me energy, and it’s epic to see everyone getting down for the cause. Design is really a reaction to the space, people and conversations around me, so yes, Wellington constantly has influence over what I do!


Interviewed Nadya France - White
Photography Grace Gemuhluolgua